“Why should I be good if you aren’t?”
The above quote is spoken with auteur Terrence Malick’s trademarked voiceover, as is most of The Tree of Life when words are deemed appropriate enough to enhance the image-driven composition played out with orchestral precision. These words are meant as an internal question, young Jack frustrated with the life he’s trapped in and the hypocrisy ruling it. Whether directed towards his father—Mr. O’Brien—or to God, the absolute seriousness with which he speaks only proves his dissatisfaction and his faltering faith in both religion and family. Both fail him, both contradict at every turn. But then, as we see throughout the events occurring to all the characters inhabiting the visual lyrics sung through color and shape, misfortune is not merely for the evil or misguided. Misfortune does not discriminate as it ‘sends flies to wounds that He should heal’. One could see this as the underlying theme of Malick’s opus, the strife we must contend with and accept in order to live. Only when we can forgive those who wrong us—including the God meant as our savior—can we ever come close to understanding the meaning of joy.
Having very recently gone through Malick’s sparse oeuvre, it was unsurprising to me to see just how abstract and heady his newest ended up. I watched thirty years of filmmaking maturation in the matter of weeks; I saw his progression towards minimalistic tone, using imagery to evoke emotion, sound to swell and penetrate your soul. With The Tree of Life, the artist has stripped down to his very core, editing together his largest montage of nature’s splendor with humanity’s imperfection. We hear his voice through the internal musings of his characters, his questions about faith, God, death, and immortality. These vessels are merely one representation of the cyclical process we go through from birth to expiration, though, our tenuous grasp on this reality, extinguishable without a second glance, pleading to know what we are to our creators. Are we playthings left to whither from abandonment? Are we precious creatures led along onto a path of greatness? Are we simply left alone to our own devices, the randomness of life our only means of rule? We aren’t as unique as we may hope if this film is any indication.
As soon as the question is asked, Malick whisks us away into an interlude of creation, the colors and biomorphic pulsations of life being formed, cells combining, separating, and eventually breathing forth existence. We watch dinosaurs roaming the land, carnivores flexing their aggressive power on the weak, somehow with the capacity to understand pity, letting those unable to fight go rather than take the easy kill. Here are beings that would rip humanity apart, giant beasts of pure physicality wiped away by a tiny rock cascading into the Earth. Perhaps God had gotten tired of the creatures; perhaps God didn’t play a role at all. What we know is that their extinction made way for our own rule, the length of our stay unknown and most likely much shorter than we think. It is now through us that life gives and takes; through us that humanity survives or falters. Forever we have dreamed about the Tree of Life, the Fountain of Youth that will give us immortality. But it isn’t a physical tree, it isn’t the young seedling planted by the O’Briens once their second son is born. Our eternal mark on this world exists through our children.
Everyone hopes and strives to be something great, to make a lasting impression on society and be remembered forever. Few of us realize we need only to do those things for the ones closest. For the O’Briens, (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), it is their eldest son Jack who feels the full force of their weaknesses and failures. She can do nothing but try and coddle the boys, loving them as only she can while he speaks of her naivety and does his best to make them strong. O’Brien is a proud man, but not one without a capacity to love. One moment he is chastising the boys, a whirlwind of malice, and the next a smiling father in awe of the lifeblood he created, bending for a kiss. But life is hard, times are tough, and choices must be made for the good of the whole. When work and outside pressures push down, sometimes one can’t help but let darkness seep into the home, creating a give and take of punishment alongside the question, “Do you love your father?” One must wonder if it’s possible to love when the words need clarifying. And the answer—Jack’s inaudible mumbling of acquiesce—does nothing to prove such feeling exists.
These boys—from youngest to oldest: Tye Sheridan, Laramie Eppler, and Hunter McCracken—are left to cultivate their own feelings of love, weeding through the pain and suffering to find the sparkling moments of beauty hidden between. Like Malick’s cross-cut scenes of water flowing over a fall, of swarming insects ebbing and weaving through the dusk sky, and the bright diffusion of light through the vibrant greens of nature, these moments live all around us if we allow ourselves the time to see. Pitt’s O’Brien—a devastating visage of a man attempting to reconcile strength, love, and humility—does his best, unable to express his feelings or to hide the glint of disappointment when his sons show the softness of their mother. Hardest on his eldest son, McCracken’s Jack shows the pent up anger where love should reside. His inability to be what his father wants and the slow realization he is most definitely his father’s son only pushes him deeper into the blackness of despair. With nowhere to go and a brother for whom his parents definitely favor, escape isn’t an option. Even the death of said brother cannot mend the fence, the pain of the memory only enlarging the chasm.
It’s only when Jack is an adult, his own existence languishing in the same way he remembers his father’s did, can he look back. Portrayed by Sean Penn in an almost mute performance, the wrinkles of contemplation and memory are wrought on his face as the journey leads him towards a revelation of redemptive forgiveness. Scenes of his relationship with Eppler’s brother, of the compassionate love given by his mother—Chastain is revelatory with an infectious smile and a heartwrenching cry—and the breaking point of his father flood over him, bringing Jack onto the dry, sandy landscape of isolated anger he could never release. The memories begin to put humanity back into those he forsook, the ceremony of church and the good times juxtaposed against the hypocrisy, the walls of hate slowly crumbling. The dry rock of his solitary walk makes way towards the beach kissed waterbed at its end, the people of his past populating it in a reunion spanning ages and form. Only when Jack allows himself to forgive—his father, his mother, his brothers, his God—can he open his heart to the faith he so longed to believe in.
Malick’s Tree of Life is less a film spanning any kind of plot with a three-act structure or representation of our world’s history than an expressively poetic tome of unbridled life seen through the memories we’d love to forget. All those instances in our lives that hurt the most, the moments where it appeared all hope was lost, are the ones that shape us for the future. It’s the pain we must overcome, those who have wronged us that we must forgive, and, above all else, it is ourselves who we need to accept as worthy of the love given, whether manifested in a kiss, a hug, or merely a knowing look devoid of sound. There is no tree we must aspire to find, no elixir holding the time necessary to discover truth. No, our immortality exists in us. If I took anything from Malick’s film—a piece without concrete meaning that begs for interpretation and inner-clarity, making it something different for everyone and extremely polarizing—it’s that love is ours to give. We live on through those we touch, but only if they let us in, despite the pain we may cause or the misguided actions we selfishly perform.
 From left: Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. PHOTO CREDITS MERIE WALLACE TM & (c) 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
 Sean Penn in the Tree of Life. PHOTO CREDITS: MERIE WALLACE TM & (c) 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
 Brayden Whisenhunt, Jessica Chastain and Zach Irsik in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ The Tree of Life (2011)