Terrence Malick’s project The Tree of Life movie has eluded many. There are epic tree life quotes strewn across the movie that are deeply satisfying to read and feel. To say that The Tree of Life was one hell of a baffling movie would be an understatement. Since it doesn’t skim mainstream, it might be hard for some to fathom. But in a whirlpool of avant-garde films, if you take a look at its ballsy attempt at trying something out of the ordinary, The Tree of Life movie beats everything else to a pulp.
The Tree of Life movie is a beast that tops avant-garde elite cinemas. Why, you ask? Read on to find out:
The Tree of Life Movie Explained
There is a heart melting metaphorical poem residing in Emmanuel Lubezki’s spectacular frames, a bold defying question that Terrence Malick poses via human pang, and tries to answer through our creator’s perspective. Also, The Tree of Life movie retains a touching screenplay that amazes you invariably with every stellar Lubezki image.
The Tree of Life movie must have perturbed many. But if you don’t attempt to give it a fair shot at explaining itself, then you have no right calling yourself a true movie buff.
To those who didn’t get what was going on in the movie, I have tried to explain it as unequivocally as possible, rhyming things through its thoughtfulness. I hope it helps in putting things in perspective.
Theme of The Tree of Life Movie (Spoilers Ahead)
Even before you try to understand the movie, get this beforehand – There is no proper timeline followed. So, if you are expecting a series of certain frames to go in order, it simply won’t. You have to remember images on the go, and what they are trying to tell you with every change. Alright? Okay, let’s go!
The titular name of the movie has been aptly named so since it is trying to present us a map to the universe. It goes spiritual, cosmic and skims human psyche at the same time. That being said, it tries to cover all the 10 prominent spheres that acquaint us with mystical extant powers. They are also known as Sephirot.
As the movie commences, we are shown a formless representation of the divine. It could reflect our creator’s formless state, since the real form of what has created us is still unknown.
“Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door.”
You can hear in the background a surging roar of the sea and squawking Seagulls as we look at that artless form flicker. That is enough to make you understand it is the protagonist (here Jack) who has come at His door, trying to justify his seeking Him with the aforementioned line of how and why.
Moving on let’s focus on the theme of the movie. Just like every movie has a theme by which it is supposed to bide by, The Tree of Life movie too has one, and an exceptional one per se. It gets expounded via the following diegesis.
“The nuns taught us there are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
As thoughtful words of Mrs. O’Brien go in the background, we see her younger self embellish the screen. She is an epitome of grace. A personification of joy and mirth, and all the good, pleasant and buoyant things in the world. She plays with other elements of grace, meek harmless animals – like a baby goat, or cows. Then we see Nature – her father (here the men) who appears just when she talks about the existence of nature in their lives.
“I will be true to you. Whatever comes.”
Then the aforesaid is dropped all of a sudden. I believe it could be reflective of a time when Mrs. O’Brien had accepted Nature as a part of her life. Either through her marrying vows, or her offering herself to the universe in the form of prayers.
Demise of the Son
Then we time travel to a time in the future in The Tree of Life movie, where Mrs. O’Brien receives a letter that reads to her the demise of her son. Both Mrs. O’Brien and Mr. O’Brien take it heavily.
“I just wanna die to be with him.”
Death is nature. It is part of Universe’s way of creating and destroying things that has forever eluded us. But to her, it appears like an unfair, unjust act that has ripped off her son and taken him away from her.
People try to justify the ways of nature with condolences:
“I know the pain will, it will pass in time, you know? It might seem hard, my saying that, but it’s true.”
To that she replies:
“I don’t want it to.”
The way of the creator, the unseen is justified with a beautiful line then:
“He sends flies to wounds that He should heal.”
Grief is havocking. At the same time, it is pure. The purest of human notion that lets you brood profusely on things you could have done differently to change the outcome. So Mr. O’Brien laments for the first time succumbing to the ways of grace:
“I never got a chance to tell him how sorry I was. I made him feel shame, my shame. That poor boy. That poor boy.”
That’s where the second flicker of the same artless light consumes us. Jack’s talking again. This time with himself, trying to remember his brother.
“How did you come to me? In what shape? In what disguise?”
That’s also the place in The Tree of Life movie where we get to see an even further future memory glimpse of Jack standing right next to a doorway. It could be a place in his memory, where he is trying to reconcile with himself. We see seagulls for real this time too.
We then find Jack in gloom waking up to the news of his brother’s death. His distant wife who doesn’t have the right words for him is just staring at him. She is a victim to human nature, and Terence makes sure of it that they don’t speak in those fleeting frames. At another point in his office, Jack even though miffed with dusky thoughts, can’t help but stare at a woman who passes him by. That’s again human nature coming at play.
“The world has gone to the dogs. People are greedy. Keep getting worse.”
Within split seconds come images of trees, an entity that has stayed with us at all times, even as we have evolved, and Jack begins to wonder:
“How did I lose you? Wandered? Forgot you?”
Searching his Brother
That’s when we see Jack in a desert. This could be analogous to barren corners of his brain, and he is seeking memories of his lost brother therefrom.
A glimpse shows us a lady who has found his little brother and is kissing him. She is yet another paragon of grace. She could be an angelic memory or a messenger that has him, that also symbolizes the dead boy is now in good hands, with grace. That’s when Jack also finds an image of his little brother at a sea asking him to find him. It could very well hint that Jack wishes to come to terms by seeking faintest memories of him so as to succumb to reconciliation.
Right after that we see Jack imagining himself home, checking on her mother and wondering how she took it. Her screams echo, and he feels it in his bones that it didn’t go well for her.
Mrs. O’Brien is still talking to the almighty meanwhile.
“Was I false to you? Lord? Why? Where were you?”
Incessant Frames of Cosmos
That’s one of the high points of The Tree of Life movie when the real Lubezki magic begins to flow. And it flows straight for 16 wondrous minutes. That gets complemented gorgeously by Alexandre Desplat’s awe-inspiring music. In the form of Nebulas, gases, flickers, shimmers, cosmic energy and big bang, we find our creator answering her.
“Did you know? Who are we to you? Answer me.”
When a mother demands God to answer, asking if He even cares, Malick shows us our creator answering her through stunning frames of creation. A poetic gesture manifesting universe, big bang, volcanic eruptions, hot springs, and evolution ensue, as if He is trying to answer that he was busy creating, balancing, maintaining and nurturing the universe, all this time.
“We cry to you. My soul. My son. Hear us.”
We find nature creating grace too. The advent of life with an uplifting music, cells splitting, forming new lives in the process and thus giving rise to multi-celled organisms.
The Dino Era
Life began with water. So we are introduced to a lot of water animals. We see an injured amphibian dinosaur near a water body trying to figure out the gravity of its wound. It has been caught in an ugly side of nature. Something it doesn’t have control over. We see blood in water, and then a hoard of sharks. They are nothing but aquatic behemoths that are simply balancing life even in its blunt ugliness by killing ways of grace.
There is a beautiful frame wherein we find a predator sparing the life of an easy prey, an injured dinosaur, showing it mercy. It simply goes on to show how grace was present at all times, defying nature silently.
We see that destined meteor heading towards the earth that had disrupted the experimental life of dinosaurs back then, paving way for human life.
We once again reach Jack’s perspective who is scampering along barren lands, still trying to find the spot of placation in his brain.
“You spoke to me through her. You spoke to me through the sky. The trees. Before I knew I loved you. Believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
He is now trying to remember how grace had him from the very start. This is the part that takes us back in time wherein he was conceived by Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien played powerfully by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain.
Pregnancy has never been such poetically depicted before. We find Mrs. O’Brien calling out children, whispering into their ears, showing them gates to life, steps to the world, summoning them at all times. You see different types of children there, which could be suggestive of the process of fertilization and then how despite all odds only one makes it in the end. Here Jack! A child swimming in water leaving his room (womb) behind could be intimating us of how a womb is a world per se for foetus.
We find Jack growing up as Mrs. O’Brien helps him at all times. Then comes another child, and we see Jack becoming wary of all the attention that is given to him instead. There is repressed jealousy that once again directs us towards nature, something we have no control over. Then we see bubbles. A sign of grace! Then a man dying, a violent act of nature yet again.
Amongst other things of nature that follow are: a dog barking at Jack, him being afraid, his father scolding him, yet another baby etc. Then at the same time grace stays close by in the form of her mother caring for them all, their celebrating Halloween, lighting up sparklers, mother reading a story book, playing with water, Jack holding his brother’s hand, good night kisses and also them playing with each other.
Nature and Grace Speaking through Things
Whilst tucking children in bed Mrs O’Brien is asked to share a past good memory. She tells them about the time she went for a ride in a plane. Then we actually see her fly in the air which is in fact her telling them that it felt as if she was flying for real.
“Mother. Make me good. Brave.”
There are glimpses of miscreants showed, the bad elements in life (nature), and then a frame that shows Mrs. O’Brien helping a miscreant drink water. (grace)
“Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.”
We find contrasting images, in the Tree of Life movie, of their mother trying to wake them up with their father’s. The latter always compelled them to comply with a glum face. Whilst the former would mischievously yet gracefully wake them up with ice, bringing smiles to their faces.
Lessons by Nature
Then comes remarkable lessons from the father:
“Don’t do like I did. Promise me that. If you are looking for something to happen, that was it. That was life. You lived it.”
Then at one point we see Mr. O’Brien using this beauty of a line:
“Wrong people go hungry, die. Wrong people get loved. The world lives by trickery. If you want to succeed you can’t be too good.”
We find a boy ending up getting drowned and a boy razed by fire, which compels Jack to question God’s existence.
“Where were you? You let a boy die. You’ll let anything happen. Why should I be good, if you aren’t?”
Jack succumbs to vandalism, animal abuse and trespassing when his father goes to a long business trip. The absence of Nature, goes on to create a subset of nature. His heart fills up with guilt when he finds himself getting weirdly attracted to a neighbor, and ends up stealing her nightgown. This again is an aftermath of a wild uncontrollable act of nature. All of it gets aptly justified by:
“Things you got to learn. How can we know stuff until we look?”
His mother on the other hand keeps teaching them good:
“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”
There’s malice, hatred that flows as part of nature in Jack, and there’s nothing he could do to feel otherwise. In a deep reminiscing voice Jack says:
“How do I get back…where they are?”
There is this moment where he accidentally takes a joke too far, and ends up shooting his brother’s finger. He goes abounding with guilt as the backdrop says:
“What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.”
He is truly sorry and is instantly forgiven by his brother too. It is like an unnamed feeling for him, but it shatters him beyond limit nevertheless. He learns compassion, sympathy – the ways of grace.
What was it you showed me? I didn’t know how to name you then. But I would see it was you. Always you were calling me.
Hatred for his Father
There are conspicuous moments of abomination in The Tree of Life movie wherein we see Jack hating the guts out of his father. He hates to see his mother being fine with it all. That grace can’t live without nature, and vice versa. Jack wishing his father dead is like a person hating nature. The inevitable segment that is blunt and yet quintessential in order to ensure that life goes on.
Finally we see Mr. O’Brien realizing his big mistake:
“I wanted to be loved because I was great. A big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us. Trees and birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.”
Jack has never seen his father so fallen or lost.
“Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
Mr. O’Brien realizes he hasn’t done anything substantial when they are forced to move out of their house, and asks for forgiveness.
“You boys are about all I’ve done in life. Otherwise I’ve drawn zilch. You are all I have. You are all I want to have.”
In the last moments of Jack’s memories we see how they move on ending one of the crucial chapters in their lives. It aces with a beautiful quote too:
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good to them. Wonder. Hope.”
You can order The Tree of Life Movie from here:
We slowly fade away from Jack’s memory and head towards reality, where we find the mother, Mrs. O’Brien coming out of her grief. She has come to terms with all her questions with the Lord.
We also see the grown up Jack coming out of his trance, for a while too:
Keep us, guide us, till the end of time.
We finally see what looks like the end of time. A point where souls come to rekindle. Images of dead calling out people from the grave, to reconcile is evident there. Jack finally reaches the spot, a beach, where he finds every dead sauntering along trying to find each other. So, even though the place looks like a figment, it is a glimpse shown to him about how everything pans out in the end. Yes, there are seagulls squawking over them.
Finding Each Other
Jack finds his mother, and his dead brother. They are happy to see him. His whole family is there. His old man is proud of him. Love is everywhere. Mrs. O’Brien’s joy as she finds her dead child would bring tears to your eyes.
She then kisses a shriveled hand which could be a random one or could be her mother’s too, it’s hard to say. She then leads her child through a door and is able to reconcile with the sad truth finally, and yet understands the way of the nature.
“I give him to you. I give you my son.”
It looks like there are angels around him, or elements of grace that help her overcome grief. They are talking to her with hand gestures and nimble movements, and she comprehends the way of living with their elemental energy.
We see a smiling Jack in the end as if he has realized the ultimate truth, and has come to terms with it too. He feels lighter and better.
The Final Verdict
Of course there are other explanations possible, but what would be spot on would be Terrence’s own thinking. I would love to hear it though and see how close I was to getting him.
Movies like The Tree of Life are rare gems that need to be celebrated. If you have a knack for watching the unusual I would highly recommend you to watch The Tree of Life movie at once. It is an esoteric flick that will definitely blow your mind away. However, you need to stay on the same page in order to truly understand the movie for what it is. If it isn’t your forte, I would say don’t bother. Because it could be really vexing for some.
You can check out the trailer of The Tree of Life movie here: