The Tree of Life (2011)
Frequently Asked Questions
The story follows the life of Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) and his difficulty combining the philosophy of his loving mother (Jessica Chastain), as a life of love and grace (her view of God), with the philosophy of his stern father (Brad Pitt), as a world where nature pleases itself. When Jack sees a tree being planted in front of a building, he reminisces about his life as a teenager (Hunter McCracken) during the 1950s. Interspersed between images of Jack's life are scenes of the creation of life on earth.
The Tree of Life is based on a screenplay written by American film-maker Terrence Malick, who also directed the movie.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?...when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of god shouted for joy? Job 38:4,7In the biblical Book of Job, Job is a successful farmer who has suddenly descended into ruin because of the devil's interference. Job questions why? God says that there are so many things Job does not know about how this world was formed or how nature works, since Job wasn't there at the beginning. The gist is that, as mere humans, we cannot know a Creator's plan for the world.
"Brother...mother...it was they who led me to your door." It's Jack O'Brien speaking. He is referring to the fact that his mother's beliefs and the death of his brother has led him to questioning God, e.g., Who are we to you? Did you know (that my brother would die)? How do we fit in? Are you watching me?
The image is Thomas Wilfred's Lumia work titled "Opus 161", an art piece created from light with the help of a Clavilux (color organ). Wilfred purposely performed the Clavilux in silence, and Terrence Malick preserves the intended silence within the Lumia scenes. The wavering light resembles a flame and may be symbolically linked with the emergence of divine light - Holy Spirit - as an act of creation, the translation to the macro plane (life of the Universe) of such recurrent, thematically complementary elements as the street lamp and candle lights from the micro plane (Jack's world).
Basically, these scenes are shown to portray the evolution of our life as God may have planned it. Though explained that these sequences are not "narratively connected" but "thematically complementary," the purpose of these scenes' presence may be an effort to place the audience in a position to admire the scope of the film's central plot against the grand scheme of the Universe itself. The film continues after these scenes to show the birth and infancy of the three O'Brien sons, so the fact that we are shown prehistoric "infancy" of the universe may represent some connection to the nature of evolution between the Earth and the brothers. Both invite comparisons to the opening epitaph from the Book of Job. In it, God asks Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?" Jack's (along with his Mother's and Father's) consistent questioning to God ("Father" in the narration) about why his brother died and how he came to be could be seen as being "answered" by these cosmic scenes, referencing the Job quotation. They also serve as a reminder of the infinite smallness of Man, even when facing tragedy of the highest order, against the grand scheme of things.
It is probably no coincidence that both segments feature extensive imagery of water and trees. In the Birth of the universe segment, life starts in the oceans, at one point culminating with the image of a single tree standing on the shore. Perhaps the sea and oceans symbolize the source of life, with the shore being the cradle of life, and the tree serving as a metaphor of life itself with all its complex branches. A similar tree is seen again throughout the rest of the movie, standing in the yard of the O'Brien home, and also in the futuristic building where adult Jack works. Water is also featured in virtually every scene during Jack's childhood and (to a lesser extent) his adult life. The shore returns at the end of the movie, where adult Jack meets the people from his childhood in what may represent the metaphoric cradle of his life. These images of water, sand and trees help to keep the different segments thematically and symbolically connected.
On a different level, the Birth of the Universe scenes feature a wide display of how life comes about through the opposition of forces. We see rocks being split by crashing waves, lava (which is liquid stone) clashing with water from the sea, volcanic eruptions where earth can no longer contain the lava. We see a large dinosaur heavily injured, perhaps due to attacks from sharks; at one point, one wounded dinosaur is at the mercy of another one, and finally, all dinosaur life is wiped out by a meteorite impact, which gives rise to new forms of life. It is as if to say that life exists out of a balance of opposing forces, just as that Jack's life is formed out of happy moments (such as playing with his brothers) and tragic ones (the death of his brother). Perhaps more strongly is the major opposing force in Jack's life, his father. The strict teachings of Mr O'Brien keep Jack in check for the major part of his childhood, but when his dad goes on a long business trip, we see Jack increasingly misbehaving (physical altercations, vandalism, theft, disrespecting his mother, cruelty to animals and his brother). So as tough and unfair as his dad may have been to him, his presence in Jack's life formed Jack, both in good and bad ways.
Another interpretation is that the grand images of nature and the progression of life on Earth, along with the glorious and beautiful music that accompanies these images, serve to illustrate a question: If God created and orchestrated all these incredible and beautiful phenomena, credits to his glory, then why does he seem absent during suffering and tragedy (such as when one of Jack's friends drowns)? This would explain some of the questions asked in the film, such as "Where were you?" and "Did you know?". The request "I want to see what you see" might be a plea to God to reveal what his perspective is on, or explanation is for, this deep paradox—that is, how does he reconcile the grandness and beauty of nature and life with the tragedy and suffering that he allows.
This moment is very brief and passes without any form of explanation. It comes immediately after, and may be another part of, the scene with the airplane and her explanation that it was a graduation gift. Due to the abstract nature of the film's elements, this may simply symbolize her graceful, ethereal, forgiving nature, "floating" if it were, as if she appears or comes across this way to her sons.
This is an element found often in Terrence Malick's films. It is a form of jumping into the minds of the characters and hearing their honest, most basic feelings which may not be conveyed as bluntly through direct speaking or acting. Within the context of this particular film, which revolves heavily around the prospect of faith and questioning faith, these quotes may very well be prayers, whispered to the audience directly as if directed towards God or some form of higher power, asking questions of why, how, and what?
There will probably never be a clean-cut answer among numerous theories. Likely it is a display of symbolism representing Jack's resolution with his past. Jack's father's gesture of turning Jack away and leaving with the rest of his family could be interpreted as an implication that Jack never felt welcome within his family, and that his parents cared more for his siblings who had tragically passed away. Jack may even feel that his parents would have rather he died instead. We all at one time wish to confront the images of those from our past and offer an olive branch of forgiveness. This location could also be some form of after-life, with Jack either dead or imagining himself with his younger self and family along the sea shore with countless others from his life.
Here are just a few of the many pieces of music heard in The Tree of Life:
John Tavener - "Funeral Canticle"
Giya Kancheli - "Morning Prayers"
Zbigniew Preisner - "Lacrimosa - Day of Tears"
Bedrich Smetana - "Má Vlast - No. 2, Vltava (Moldau)"
François Couperin - "Les Barricades Mystérieuses"
Ottorino Respighi - "Airs and Dances - III Siciliana Andantino"
Gustav Holst - "The Bacchae - Hymn To Dionysus, Op. 31, No. 2"
Henryk Gorecki - "Symphony No. 3 Sorrowful Songs - Lento E Largo - Tranquillissimo"
Hector Berlioz - "Requiem, Op.5 (Grande Messe des Morts) - 10. Agnus Dei"
There are many nods to Kubrick's astronomical cinematography and visual style during the Creation sequence; whether they are intended as such is unknown. Douglass Trumbull, who was responsible for the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, was approached by Malick because he disliked the results of now commonplace computer-generated imagery. Trumbull experimented with new and various methods of capturing the images of the universe forming, utilizing micro-photography (a technique he coined in 2001: A Space Odyssey during the climactic Stargate sequence, in which he filmed cellular and chemical activity on a minute scale to illustrate the formation of galactic bodies and processes). Such techniques have also been used in such films as Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, which also faced similar comparisons for its scale and special effects.
Additionally, The Tree of Life features a prehistoric scene of the formation of the Earth and the evolution of early dinosaur life, which is heavily reminiscent of the "Dawn of Man" prologue in 2001: A Space Odyssey that recounts the birth of mankind's ingenuity and creation of the first tools. As this is shown to have direct correlation to the present or "future" timeframe of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whether or not there is a connection between the past and present times in The Tree of Life remains ambiguous. Lastly, both films employ an epilogue—a sort of ethereal coda that brings forth the most complex imagery and staging of the entire movie. These "after-endings" go much further beyond the central plot of both films, and explore the possibilities and mind-boggling film-making tactics that leave many movie-goers baffled. The nature of either film's ending is abstract and may not actually contain a central or singular meaning, but rather acts as a doorway into people's minds for contemplation and discussion of the meaning of such scenes.