Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Tree of Life: Review and Analysis

Going into the theatre to watch The Tree of Life yesterday, I didn't know that much about it-- which is how I like it.  I knew it was the latest film by Terrance Malick, who is the magnificent director of Badlands, Days of Heaven and The New World.  I knew it starred Brad Pitt.  I knew it was about a family. And I knew that it was going to be one of the most beautiful movies ever.

It is certainly one of the most beautiful movies ever.  It is also one of the most thought provoking movies ever, and unlike many other films, it gives you time to think, during its run time and keeps you meditating on it long after.

Sean Penn plays a middle age business man, who, at the peak of his success, considers his brother who died at 19 years old and the grief his mother had to deal with.  Why did he die?  Why do the good suffer?  And how does one deal with this grief?

But the film, thematically, goes way beyond a movie about grief.  Going into the film, it is helpful to know that the pacing of the film is similar to Malick's New World and Days of Heaven.  It is slow, and filled with beautiful, almost breath-taking images.  There is also a twenty minute segment in the first third of the film that takes us through the creation of the universe, earth, life and dinosaurs.  It may be confusing, but the introduction to that segment is introduced by the question, "Why did he have to die?" And just like the book of Job (quoted at the beginning of the film), the answer to suffering is seen in the themes of the creation of the universe. 

I want to describe the themes at length, but for those who have not yet seen the film, I might recommend skipping the rest of the text, look at the images, go see the film (as soon as it arrives in your city) and then come back and read the rest of the review.  If you've already seen it, or are particularly daring, read on:

There are three big themes all folding over each other in The Tree of Life.  The obvious one is the grieving process.  I think that the final section with all the folks in the desert and Sean Penn having difficulty deciding to walk through the door is the place of acceptance.  The whole film is about a struggle to accept a tragedy.  Not just that, but that's a good portion of it.

Second theme is related.  It's the big question of "Why do bad things happen to good people?"  If there is a God and God is both powerful and good and you have people who live for God, why do bad things happen to those people.  That boy who died in the middle of the film-- he was just a kid, he didn't do anything wrong.  It is at this point that the boy's problem with his father becomes his problem with God-- "You don't want us to do anything bad, but You do."

The third theme is nature v. grace.  Clearly the mother is the representation of "Grace" and the father the representation of "Nature".  This is an common Christian theme, which Malick uses for his own purposes.  To get the idea you could read Thomas Kempis' Imitation of Christ, chapter 91, but I'd like to give you part of a song (by Catholic artist John Michael Talbot) that summarizes it well:

Nature and Grace
Deep within me there lies a true distinction
Between the things that I would and what I really do...
Nature will seek only its own advantage
It considers only how another might be used
Grace will breath a new humility
To comfort the afflicted and to help those once abused

Nature might seek it's fair compensation
It never offers its help without its price, without reward
Grace finds reward in another's consolation
Learning in this paradox the power of our Lord

Nature will seek to be exalted in authority
To argue its opinion and to have all the world conform
But grace humbly comes in a silent assuredness...
Nature isn't always violent or evil, but it is about "the way the world works."  Grace is always about charity and freedom.  Nature sees the way of Grace as "naive" and Grace sees Nature as brutish and hard-hearted.

Although Grace has the upper hand in Tree of Life, and is the final transformation Sean Penn's character finally falls on, it isn't seen as exclusively the winner.  When the mother is raising the boys on her own, they lack in discipline, which seems joyful at first, but it also allows our boy to give into trouble after trouble.  After he shoots his brother with the BB gun, he realizes that the hypocrisy he sees in his father (and God) is in himself as well. 

This is what I think the film is about: Sean Penn's early decision in his life to follow his father's Nature, because he couldn't help himself.  He quotes Romans 7-- "What I would I do not; what I hate, that is what I do".  He can't help but be the person he sees his father being.  But after examining his memories, he determines that he can follow the way of Grace, as his mother displayed.  That Grace was what was missing in his life.

So the decision at the end was a multi-decision: To accept the death of the brother; to live a life of Grace; but also, to see that Grace is at work in the world, even in the difficult things.

This is significant.  Seeing that Grace is at work in the world.  This is what the whole creation segment is about.  It doesn't have anything to do with science or non-scientific view of creation.  It has to do with the purpose of creation.  Creation has a constant movement-- toward life.  Big bang, creation of stars, creation of planets, water (more about that in a moment), the creation of life, the multiplication of life and more complex life.  And it all culminates in the dinosaur showing mercy to the other dinosaur: all of the universe led up to that moment where Grace could be demonstrated.  Where the other is more important than the desire of the self.

The segment is introduced by the mother asking "Why?"  Why did her son have to die?  Why did he and she have to suffer?  Why did God/the universe do this to her?  She is reminded, like the quote from Job, that the answer to suffering is found in creation.  And she is reminded that the whole of creation is about the creation of life, of grace.  But then, right at the end of that majestic creation movement, she is reminded of the meteor that crashed into the earth, causing a massive destruction of species.  Death.  Every time life succeeds, death comes in and destroys all life and grace.

Finally, at the end, both the mother and Sean Penn accept that even Death is part of grace.  It is difficult to accept, but Death is, ultimately, a part of life.  Thus, rather than living in fear of death, in living for nature, which demands control, they choose to live for Grace, to trust that Grace rules the universe, despite death, despite Nature's presence.  

This is a religious film, but one doesn't have to be religious to appreciate the message.  To determine to see all existence as a movement of Grace is a decision we can all make.  To reject the narrow-minded ways of Nature is something we can all do.  

Finally, about water.  Water is used again and again in the film, but there is one short closeup of a waterfall that is used three times.  The first and third times seem random.  But the second time, the waterfall is shown as the bed of life in the creation sequence.  Thus, water is another symbol of Grace, the mother in which life is bred.  Water is birth, water is life, water is grace.  Without grace, there is no life.

I still need to see the film again.  There's so much I've missed and I want to see how well this analysis holds "water".  

As far as my audience reaction.  First of all, I was pleased to see a full house, and two other showings at the theater were sold out (it's playing in two theaters in a multiplex in downtown Portland).   For the most part, the crowd seems taken in by the family story.  No one snored.  At the end, however, the comments I heard were: "Well, I... don't know.  It sure was beautiful, though."  And "It was soooo pretty!"  Um, yeah.  Well, it seemed well received, although I think most people just didn't know what to do with it. 


  1. Such a wonderful analysis! I was a little hesitant to go see this film, because I am sick of seeing clutsy religious ideology embedded in a movie. I especially dislike slap-you-in-the-face christian themes, and new age themes like "The Secret" that assume to arrogantly band-aid all of life's issues.

    But by your description, this movie sounds like a beautiful expression of ideals that are primarily expressed through images, allowing the viewer to interpret. This film then, is a work of art. So masterful - to neutralize conflict by allowing the viewer to take in the imagery and absorb on his/her own terms.

    It is too bad that people walk away "not knowing" , but I am also encouraged by your description that the movie gives the viewer time to meditate. The balance between grace and nature is a gorgeous theme, and one that I firmly believe our society needs to hear.

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis.

  2. I saw the movie a couple of days ago, and I was deeply moved by it. Like you, I need to see it many more times in order to understand it better, but I know it hit me hard on an unconscious level. Your analysis was great. I'm glad you mentioned the dinosaur segment. In my mind, that was one of the most moving parts of the film.

  3. Thanks for the analysis. I agree with everything you said here. One theme that wasn't mentioned, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on is the direct shots of the sun in so many of the scenes. At first I thought this was simply providing a beautiful, dream-like esthetic for the scenes, but it's recurrence made me wonder, at first, whether the sun was reprensentative of god's constant presence. Then, as I noticed that water became a more constant theme, including drinking from and playing with sprinklers, I began to think that they were there to represent the two necessities of life. The same sources for trees and people, branching and growing in different ways. Also, the father's preoccupation with gardening and growing, also had parallels in how he was trying to grow and raise is sons, not always to great success in either case, despite great attention.

  4. The tree represented life as a whole family and as life became more complex, difficult, one large branch had been severed -could represent change, death.

    Warm, hot depictions of colour could incorporate feelings of turmoil, evil, rebellion and cool depictions as in water, trees equivalent of peace, growth and harmony.

  5. I was curious if you had re-watched it and still held the analysis of water as grace. I just watched it last night and took the images of water to be the most important/haunting images of the film. I am not sure what my analysis of it is but water giveth and taketh away in the film (water as sustenance, the death of the boy in the river, etc) which definitely fits with grace. I was more interested in the constant show of the hoses and sprinklers particularly in the beginning of the film after the funeral when Jack's mother is talking to her mother(?) and Jack's father is seen strangling the house so the sprinkler can't go saying something to the effect of "We're fine." It appears often throughout the film as they are playing with the hose with Mr O'Brian, when Jack takes a drink from the hose and says "Thank you" to his mother... thoughts?


  6. I am due for a rewatch in a week or two. I'll get back to you.

  7. Great analysis. Dumbest movie ever!!!! Tangled is better

  8. Thank you for an interesting review and analysis! I saw the movie yesterday but there seems to be a slow motion effect to the story - it keeps moving my mind afterwards and in a different way from when I watched it.

    I actually watched it with a seven year old boy. I thought he was going to fall asleep during the movie but he was so fascinated with the sceneries and the animals that he got stuck. Afterwards the beauty of the movie, and of course the violent father was something he talked about. It was interesting to hear his thoughts about it - and find out that even a child (in his own way of course) understood the message of such a profund story.

  9. The story is Visionary, in so many ways its impossible to name them all. I know I probably sound like some Fanatic, as I know some dismiss this film as "Self Absorbed" or "Pretensious" I'm not quite sure what human being could concieve of calling this film those words, except perhaps one of Immense Stupidity who only values passing entertainment.

  10. One of the things that I think is mistaken about the film is that it is primarily a narrative film-- telling one story, just as we see most films. I believe that Tree of Life is a film about a concept, and Malick uses many elements to communicate that concept-- images, surrealism, spirituality and, yes, narrative. Narrative is even the most prominent way of communicating his ideas, but not the only way.

    This confuses people. They think they are seeing a narrative that is overblown with images and the narrative of the universe that seems to make no sense. However, if we look at every image, story and idea as connected to the opposition of grace and nature, I think the whole makes sense. If we try to apply them all to the story of a man whose brother had died, it won't.

    I think that the people who see the film as pretentious aren't stupid at all. I know some very smart people who can't stand the film. I think, rather, they just weren't prepared for what they saw. Or it didn't suit the kind of film they like.

  11. Congratulations and thanks for your analysis! Now, since I saw this movie and the last week Melancholia I've noticed a GREAT coincidence, so I wonder if you could make comparitive analysis with both of them. I think it could be interesting...

  12. Nice article and comments, Steve Kimes. I think the important question here is "what does the audience expect from this film?".

    People will understandably call it "pretentious" or "self-indulgent" if they're expecting certain things from it. Even I struggled with what I thought about it after (and during) seeing it.

    I think however it's important to hold off with blanket conclusions and let the film sit with you for awhile and see what you think. I was pretty unsure about the movie just after seeing it but the more I think about it the more the power and vividness of it are convincing me it was a great movie.

  13. What a beautiful analysis. What you wrote in the end about many people appreciating the film but not really knowing what to do with it... I agree. I think I'm kind of one of those people. After I'd seen the film, I thought it was splendid with all the breath-taking nature pictures and the amazing music and I knew it was a religious film and I knew it dealth with death and the problem of suffering but I really didn't notice all of those layers that you so beautifully laid out for us. (I didn't even notice how the creation was narrated... I just thought it was a sequence of amazing nature shots. :D)

    Anyway, I think that many people can feel those many layers in their heart even if they don't have the words to explain it like you could.

  14. I just saw the movie. Wished I had seen it on the big screen. Brought back memories of my childhood (like playing telephone with the cans. This was a beautifully shot movie. Probably should see it again. Interesting though...the shot of the oldest son praying in his bed, in the background there's a dresser. My husband found the dresser in a house he was working on a couple of years ago. I wanted it and a few other items so bad. He brought it home for me. When seeing that scene with the dresser. I thought I really should pray more not just when I'm tired and about to fall asleep. That dresser will remind me of that scene but more importantly, might just lead to a few more prayers.

  15. Interesting analysis indeed. I also noticed a few elements that appear continuously, and that nobody has mentioned on this page so far. First of all, hands take a great place through the movie: passed in the kids' hairs, or as a container to bring water up to one's mouth, or during prayers... What do you think it is for? I would say hands represent the presence of some kind of guide for people... Doors and windows are also showed tons of times, in houses (we can see people through the open door or the glass of windows), in the car, in the coffin sinking in the ocean at the end, in the middle of the desert (the door which Sean Penn walks through at the end)... I could not count how many times these appear, but it is enormous. Like an obstacle to get through? Anyway, that gives the permanent impression that people are 'contained' inside something, and cannot express themselves. Someone mentioned the importance of the sun, well I would extend it to lights in general (sun, lamps, mirrors...). On the other hand, you will notice that Malick plays with shadows too, and many scenes show people moving only with their shadows. Last but not least, stairs and ladders are omnipresent too - leading to a door upstairs, the a balcony, to the tree growing in the yard...
    These are just ideas. I would love to read comments about them. I just watched the movie today, and I am still in the phase where I am all confused. But this movie is remarkable as a piece of art (I am not religious myself), and deserves a lot of analysis from experts. (by the way, I apologize in advance for the numerous mistakes I must have done above, I am not an english-speaking person! French actually^^)

  16. I love the additional analyses that are being added here, especially from first viewings! I think that there are so many details to Tree of Life that could be analyzed. I look forward to watching it enough times to try to understand it all!

    And, please, don't apologize for your lack of language. Most of us English speakers are still learning how to spell!

    1. First of all, thank you for your analysis, Mr. Kimes, and to all those who wrote comments below. You helped me a lot in understanding the film, as I finished watching it I was wondering whether there was someone else who could interpret the film the way I did, and was almost happy to see most of you did. Actually, it's the first time I've watched the film, and did it really curiously, interesting, the PC even turned off, I switched it on again to watch the rest of the movie, and this took me about half an hour. As to where exactly I see the message, it's the concept of knowing what mercy is, of helping each other, of being aware it's never late to be back to the right way: the grace as the film calls it. One thing I'd like to know your opinion about is what could mean the low roof of the attic, where the child was freely riding a bike, and the tall man was bending. Could it mean adults don't fit in infants' life?

  17. Congratulations and thanks for your analysis! Now, since I saw this movie and the last week Melancholia I've noticed a GREAT coincidence, so I wonder if you could make comparitive analysis with both of them. I think it could be interesting...

    1. What connections do you see between the films?