Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is challenging, complex, and captivating which are all great ingredients for a mind-boggling experience. It exhibits a dynamic and evolving metamorphosis on a contemplative question of whether one should live the way of nature or live the way of grace. Two contrasting ideologies that complement and conflict with each other. As it’s narrated in the opening of the film: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself and Nature only wants to please itself.” And yet, the Tree of Life feels like it’s a super-hyper-active version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s the Mirror which idiosyncratically stands alone from a mainstream cinematic feel good movie. One of the primary thematic elements is sadness and mourning which is emphasized in the beginning of the film. Jack’s brother has been killed, to which the audience will never understand how, it’s just accepted while each character attempts to process their own grief that’s visually captured in numerous ways. For instance, Mr. O’Brien (the father) learns of his son’s death through a phone call and as he’s trying to listen, the use of non-diegetic roaring of the airplane’s engine and propellers revving up and then slowly fading out creates a cerebral affect of how one might experience shock. It’s a genius strategy that conjures up elaborate emotions that aren’t expressed in dialogue but simply in an actor’s expression and other external elements.
Malick had an extensive, ambitious vision for his film in terms of what the meaning of life really means and it’s as if there is always this creepy omniscient presence watching every detail which is brilliantly captured in the fluidity of the camera movement. The camera’s long tracking shots of the characters walking outside, or inside the house, rolling around in the grass, or capturing the sweet innocence of a newborn’s gaze on the world around him all intimately shot, conveying a looming presence that there’s an attentive eye observing everything. The eye of an all loving, all knowing creator?
Thematically, the film embodies a powerful presence of compassion, love, and nature. The tree itself could be perceived as a metaphor for love, in that it continuously grows if nurtured and cared for properly. Perhaps, love fills the universe and all the living creatures that inhabit the planet. This could be visually evident in the transgression between the two dinosaurs takes places where the moment of consciousness begins which similarly parallels the gun sequence between the two brothers. The moment where Jack convinces his younger brother to place his finger over the barrel of a gun. The younger brother is skeptical but also lovingly trusts his older brother. So, Jack pulls the trigger which hurts his brother and he later feels guilty and attempts to console him.
The swift editing, fluid camera movements, and grand musical compositions cultivate a decadent nearly meticulous cinematic dance. Both Malick and Tarkovsky’s vision have the same objective story wise: to emulate a stream of consciousness using one’s memories almost in a montage fashion. Both filmmakers craft an introspection on what it means to be human based on the choices we make, the lessons we learn and the influences that shape our lives. Both emphasize the use of nature, levitation, and a sense of fleeting moments that make for a cinematic feast for the eyes. Yet, the dichotomy of reality and dreams highlights that the Tree of Life is centered on the character’s inner thoughts and emotions which is sometimes tricky to fathom in the nature shots. Perhaps, the vivid cinematography is suppose to reflect a person’s abstract inexplicable thoughts and emotions that words cannot express.