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Thursday, July 14, 2011
Tree Of Life": A Multi-Part Exploration: Part One
Sean Penn as Jack in his older years,
contemplating in Terrence Malick's drama "The Tree Of Life".
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
July 14, 2011
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen "The Tree Of Life" it is probably not a good
idea to read any further.
PART ONE Cover
| Part Two
The OLDEST SON Jack, Mr. O'Brien, Mrs. O'Brien and the middle son, R.L.
McCracken as young Jack in Terrence Malick's drama "The Tree Of Life".
Jack loves his father Mr. O'Brien but doesn't like him. He notes his
father's contradictions. Jack flirts with murder. The relationship
between Jack and Mr. O'Brien is somewhat tense. "You'd like to kill me," Jack says to his dad, who demands to be
called "father". Jack, played by Hunter McCracken, has a mild resentment
towards his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler). Those seeds of
resentment are sown early on, as a baby as the toddler Jack threatens to throw
wooden toy animals at the new born R.L. "No!", Mrs. O'Brien warns Jack.
Jack has a lot of pent-up anger within him as a young boy, the anger that his
father Mr. O'Brien occasionally unleashes at the dinner table.
R.L. is the middle
child. He bears a strong resemblance to his father (Brad Pitt). Both
are aspiring musicians. R.L. plays guitar. Jack watches Mr. O'Brien
play the church organ. He's not necessarily pleased. Jack
manipulates the vinyl record playing classical music. Mr. O'Brien loves
Jack circles the family house when R.L. is playing the guitar and Mr. O'Brien is
at the piano smiling at R.L. Jack has a scowl on his face. These two,
R.L. and Mr. O'Brien,
are close in their relationship -- closer, at least, than Jack and Mr. O'Brien are.
Although Mr. O'Brien gets rough with R.L. there are warm embraces between the
two. By contrast, the embraces between Jack and Mr. O'Brien are fraught
with tension. During one embrace initiated by Jack, Mr. O'Brien looks
mildly shocked, as if he doesn't know what to do or is uncomfortable in the
After a church service Mr. O'Brien embraces R.L., who is happily nestled under
his father's wing. Jack, on the other hand, strays away, angered,
resentful and distant.
R.L. is apparently the favorite son of Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) as well.
When she is asked by R.L. (or Jack), "who do you love the most?", she replies,
"I love you all three the same," as her hands glide back and forth on R.L.'s
chest and stomach. Seems as if she favors R.L.
"Tell us a story from before we can remember," R.L. says.
Earlier in the film, we hear the voice of the older Jack asking, "how did she
bear it?" Is this an allusion to the idea that R.L. was her favorite son
in addition to the already-obvious knowledge that Jack's question is an allusion
to the death of her child at such a young age?
When we find out early on that the O'Briens have lost one of their children (and
it turns out to be R.L.), a female voice is heard saying to Mrs. O'Brien:
"You've still got the other two." This is hardly comfort to Mrs. O'Brien,
who is obviously (and understandably) visibly upset.
Jack is on the outside looking in when it comes to where he fits in to the
O'Brien family. Jack constantly defies his mother and shouts at his
father: "He only loves ME!", he says, possibly referring to God.
Little is said about the third (and youngest son) however.
Jack is angered by his father. He takes the acts of aggression he's
learned from his father but suppressed because of him. Jack tells his
mother, Mrs. O'Brien, that "I'm more like him."
In my review of "The Tree Of Life" I had originally opined that Mr. O'Brien is a
strict disciplinarian, then had second thoughts after an explanation in a review
of the film I had read. Since then however, and with subsequent viewings it
ever more clear that Mr. O'Brien is indeed a strict disciplinarian. Mr.
O'Brien says, "I know I was tough on you, and I'm not proud of that."
Mr. O'Brien concedes that he is trying to make Jack strong, but despite his love
for Jack he makes things hard for him. (One hurts the ones they
love.) Earlier in the film, Jack asks God, "why is he tough on us, our
father?" This question could just be an illustration of "nature" that
is a character in the film.
There are things Mr. O'Brien does at the dinner table, in the
garden, in the kitchen to his kids and his wife -- that are violent and/or
Mr. O'Brien may love but he exhibits a profound lack of love.
R.L. (Laramie Eppler), the middle son in "The Tree Of Life". R.L. is a
musician and the favorite son of The O'Briens.
Jack tampers with three elements of "grace" -- or at least those things that
represent grace in their own carefree purpose or sense of immutability -- innocence,
First, Jack attaches a frog to a firework skyrocket and ignites it. Shots
of frogs, salamanders and lizards have been shown before this happens. We
see the shots of these amphibians in books, on blades of grass and in bathtubs.
Second, Jack, an adolescent, has sexual tension around his mother. He
watches Mrs. O'Brien as she walks around the house in a see-through white slip
dress. There's a close-up of a woman that looks like an older version of
the girl that young Jack likes -- in the school scene where he looks at her and
then looks away when she looks at him. After Jack surveys the woman in the distance he breaks into her house
in the neighborhood, steals her night slip and floats it down a river.
Third, Jack fires an air gun when R.L. has his finger on the barrel. An
uncomfortable response of course, from R.L.
Each of these three actions are violations of grace, all brought on by "nature"
impulses wrestling within young Jack --
or at least the nature of curiosity in a child or in anyone else. Jack
also throws stones at an empty house, smashing the glass. I thought about
"people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones", and while young Jack is clearly
outside that house as a pre-teen, the older edition of him is moored in his
thoughts, a place where glass, trees and water converge.
"The Tree Of Life" is a pitched battle, as it were, between nature and grace.
That is made clear on more than one occasion. Mr. Malick's Mr. O'Brien and
Mrs. O'Brien are like a fully-clothed 1950s version of Adam And Eve.
As in "The Thin Red Line", there is a face in the ground, or more specifically,
a body buried underground. As we see the face, it appears to be R.L.
His eye blinks. He's alive. When we hear Jack whisper, "was he bad?", he could be referring either to a boy
that has drowned in the film moments before this point, or, to R.L. Jack questions the
sudden death of the boy, and although R.L. doesn't pass away until he's 19,
the question could well be asked in hindsight through Jack's youthful voice, but
as recollected by Sean Penn's character looking back. Does that make
Mr. Malick loves centering his characters in the frame of his films, either at a
distance or close-up. We see the completeness of their existence with
their surroundings and the space they occupy. In "The Tree Of Life" and in
other work, Mr. Malick frames his characters and the atmosphere around them and
their connectivity to it. For the director these entities are inseparable
yet distinct. Nature means something. Life means something.
Experience means everything. There's a very sensual, richly-detailed
depiction of the interaction between and among each of these elements.
Click here for part two
| Part Two
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