Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ follows Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) at two stages of life. He is presented as a young boy growing up in a Texas home with his family, and also as an older and disillusioned man. Through his younger years, the film tells Jack’s story of silent rage. This anger stems from an abusive and dismissive father (Brad Pitt) who feels self-failure and a submissive mother (Jessica Chastain) who is walked over. Through his first steps toward rebellion, violent experimentation, young Jack stands on the fringes of manhood and childhood. Flashes forward display an older Jack with a silent and distant marriage, regret for his lost relationship with his father, and long-held grief for his young brother’s death.
The films central symbol, The Tree of Life is displayed consistently, subliminally and artistically throughout. The tree outside of Jack’s office reminds him of his brother as well as the tree the family plays on in the younger scenes are the few times we see a happy family picture. Long scenes of the Big Bang and birth of earth’s nature with existential voice overs by Jack appear long and irrelevant, but in fact ad a great deal to the crux of the film’s message.
Terrence Malick expresses themes of grief, death, regret, love, jealousy, and deeply hidden insecurities. The film comments on the long lasting emotions which stay with families and are not healed. It relates these themes to nature and survival. Jack’s mother embodies a type of mother Mary, a calm and angel like figure while Brad Pitt seems to be an ominous obstacle. Mrs. O’Brien symbolizes nature and abstraction, but does not hold any grounding or self-security. Mr. O’Brien is portrayed as orderly and strong, when in fact he is weak and transient in the face of love.
With close-ups which depict nature and destruction in such detail and definition at points in the film, the audience can see how large issues which haunt families and tear lives apart seem to be microscopic, irrelevant, and part of the natural cycle and order of life when zoomed out to a bird’s eye view.
How does life seem, all the biggest issues and problems, from ten feet away, from ten days away, from thousands of miles away, from years away, from space's view, and from touching up close? Are all the patterns of life, the cycles of emotions and events, comparable to the way of nature?