Boys learning sin and sex

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The Tree of Life (PG). Director: Terrence Malick. Starring: Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler. 138 minutes

The relationship between brothers is not like any other. Growing up, brothers, especially if they were born close together, can be at once the best of friends, and the fiercest of adversaries. I have two brothers, and to this day I can identify the ways in which my character has been shaped by my relationships with them.

There are many layers to Terence Malick's remarkable new film The Tree of Life. As noted by reviewers such as American Jesuit James Martin, the film is first and foremost a meditation, and like any act of meditation, it will speak to each individual in a unique voice. To me, it contains one of the most touching and authentic portrayals of childhood brotherly love that I have seen on screen.

This is a film with esoteric aspirations. In his review Martin poignantly describes watching it as like 'living inside a prayer'; this is apt, for, like Malick's earlier work, notably the sublime war film The Thin Red Line, it contains, in place of voiceover narration, the whispered, questioning prayers of its characters.

These tumble across the film's mundane, 1950s American suburban setting, but follow us also, literally, into space, and into the far reaches of the earth's history; to the very corners of the universe and of time, which Malick shows us in a way that sets his characters' tiny lives in the context of a vast continuum of existence.

Not that this makes these lives seem inconsequential. On the contrary, the stylised images of roiling, looming space, accompanied by evocative classical music, attempt to recreate on film nothing less than the formation of the world, with the characters' existence shown explicitly to be the end result of this creative event.

Yet despite such metaphysical considerations, the film's most striking feature is how it portrays ordinariness with such truth and beauty that it is rendered extraordinary. 

The core of the film is a portrayal of the childhood of pre-adolescent Jack (McCracken), who grows up in the suburb of Waco, Texas in the 1950s. He has two younger brothers, an adoring, affectionate mother (Chastain), and strict disciplinarian father (Pitt).

Jack is nurtured by his mother, yet comes to relate more closely to his emotionally distant father, after he takes the first tentative steps across the threshold of experience (sin, sexuality), and learns of the cruelty that exists both within humanity and, it would appear, within God ('Why should I be good if you aren't?' he prays).

This is a coming of age story, and so there is a sense of nostalgia about these childhood memories; romantic recollections of a world where children owned the outside world, running through streets, fields and forests, climbing trees and leaping among the spray of a sprinkler.

That world contrasts with the modern world inhabited by the adult Jack (Penn), who we see reflecting on his childhood from a glass-and-concrete skyscraper world. The contrast is stark, and reinforces the fact that this is a film about loss, and that experiencing loss is one of the formative features of growing up.

The loss at the heart of Tree of Life is that of Jack's brother R. L. (Eppler), who, we learn, died as a teenager. This loss clearly affects the adult Jack still, for many of his recollections centre on his relationship with this cherubic boy. The relationship is beautifully portrayed.

Two scenes in particular epitomise this. In one, Jack goads R. L. into putting his finger inside an electrical socket. The socket is not live, but R. L. is afraid. When he eventually does place his finger inside it is not because of pride or because he has overcome his fear. It is simply, as he says, that he 'trusts' his brother.

This scene finds a dark reflection later on, in an incident involving a ballbearing gun. By this stage, Jack has begun to examine, curiously, his own potential for wrongdoing. And so this time R. L.'s faith is repaid with betrayal. Yet the aftermath of this incident finds the boys discovering perhaps their first poignant experience of giving and receiving grace. This is an incredibly powerful image of the unique love that is shared by brothers.

Malick's vision is ambitious. Not only does Tree portray the creation of the world, it concludes with a vision of heaven. This is shown to be a place of reunion with the people you have known in your life. So even in this the grandness of Malick's vision boils down to a simple acknowledgement of the centrality to existence of human relationships. The film's metaphysical elements will divide audiences, yet its vision of humanity is profound.


 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Terrence Malick, Tree of Life, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

 

 

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Existing comments

This must have been a difficult review to write. But the result is excellent. The brotherly love discussion is so pertinent as are comments on its extraordinary and unusual portrayal. Salient sections of the film are enlightened and will be food for further personal thought and reflection.
Maggie Power | 30 June 2011


Thanks Tim, for opening up this film, and my eyes, to its potential for giving a whole new perspective on life and relationships. I've read a few reviews in my quest to discover whether it is a film for me and this one clarifies a perplexing plot very well. You have convinced me now that I should see it and so learn from it.
Anne | 03 July 2011


My wife & I saw it today, on the strength of your glowing critique. We thought it was overblown, pretentious, grossly underedited (too much irrelevant 'creation'footage), undeveloped characters, too many hanging questions, and poor elocution. Much of the script, and there was precious little, was lost in inaudible mumbling. We were some of the few left at the end -- about 80% of the audience walked out mid-way -- at the Gold Coast Arts Centre Cinema. A case of the Emperor's New Clothes, in our opinion.
Alan Miller | 06 July 2011


The movie is so good. I have five brothers and the film was excellent at portraying little boys' and big boys'interactions.

As a little girl, I was always adoring them or upset with them, always admiring the difference between them and my sister and me. It was a beautifully rendered film.

I can understand how some people would not understand it, or be thrilled by it. It was a thoughtful, work of art and did not use 3-D effects and glasses. Some people are not contemplative, and maybe that's why most of us live so long, so we can learn how a bit.
Mercy | 25 August 2011


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