Film Review – Tree of Life

17 Nov

– by Andrew Brady

The ‘Tree of Life’,  directed by Terrence Malick, is perhaps the film that has left the most lingering feeling on me both cinematically and in its story. Despite being the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year it received mixed reviews from Joe Public.

It essentially begins when Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) recalls a lesson taught to her that people must choose to either follow the path of grace or the path of nature.

In the mid 1960s, she receives a telegram informing her of her son’s death at age 19, while Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is notified by telephone. The family unsurprisingly is thrown into turmoil. The film then switches into the present day with one of three brothers Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn)  going through an emotional crisis of his own. When he sees a tree being planted in front of a building he reminisces about his life as young teenager during the 1950s. It is at this point the film begins to develop.
The early years of Jack become intertwined with grand scenes showing the formation of the universe and as galaxies expand and planets are formed, voice-overs ask various questions about existence and life. Some of the stunning cosmic scenes seem more akin to Kubrick’s ‘A Space Odyssey’.
On the newly formed Earth, volcanoes erupt and microbes begin to form through to the evolution of dinosaurs. In a scene designed to provoke an alternative narrative to Darwinism a dinosaur places its foot on the neck of an ailing other, preparing for the kill, but then reconsiders after watching it struggle and it wanders off.
As the family story evolves the young couple are enthralled by baby Jack and, later, his two brothers. When Jack (Hunter McCracken) reaches adolescence he is faced with the conflict of the nature of his parents – grace or nature. Mrs. O’Brien urges her sons to follow a path of grace and wonder while Mr. O’Brien (nature) is strict and authoritarian – although believing that it prepares his sons for life.
Yet in a deeper philosophical thread in the film he laments the course his life has taken questioning whether he has been a good enough person. The final scenes of the story of the family culminates with the final scenes of the evolution of our Earth until in the end it is left as a desolate, lifeless frozen place still orbiting around the sun. One is forced to ask in the final analysis what will be the enduring legacy of our Earth and of family, friendship and community.

The film really unsettles viewers to ask the enduring questions of Life – for what purpose has anything ever existed (is there one?), and, for what purposes do we live? Are we as beings simply a continuation of nature, inconsequential in the cosmos, or should our mortal time here on Earth be spent towards creating a greater grace? I will watch this film from time to time for years to come…..


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