In The Tree of Life (Terrence Malik, 2011) the book of Job is translated to the 20th century. Spanning from the forging of the universe to the modern era, the film offers few easy answers among its sweeping visuals, but at the same time it provides a small cast of powerful characters that reinforce and illustrate the far-reaching themes of the film. Staging the course of a single family against the history of the universe may seem to be too extreme, and in some cases it is, but Malik displays his steady hand by allowing everything to feel appropriate for the context. The death of a single child may not seem significant against the cataclysm which caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, but Malik manages to convey the appropriate impact of each so that nothing feels out of place or, more importantly, insignificant. The Tree of Life tells a story about people and their lives, but what distinguishes it from other films is that it harbors few, if any, misconceptions about the impact of its portrayed events and actions.
Beginning with Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) learning of the death of one of her three sons, the film runs the risk of trivializing this cataclysmic moment by continuing on to portray many other much more impactful events on the course of the universe. But The Tree of Life avoids this by continuing to place the O’Brien family at the forefront of its portrayed events and so placing their lives and the events that impact them as extraordinarily important. For the adult Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), and indeed Jack (Hunter McCracken) throughout the entire film, the most powerful force in his life is his father (Brad Pitt). Even though universal events such as the first occurrence of life have had an immense effect on Jack, they pale in comparison to the force that Mr. O’Brien brings into his son’s life. The Tree of Life portrays Mr. O’Brien as the most powerful force of nature on those around him, and also as the film’s Job; a man that has everything taken from him and does not completely understand why.
But for the rest of the film, God is a curious presence. Though the O’Brien family is shown to be attending church several times, God does not seem to be a truly impactful force on their lives other than the fleeting beliefs here and there. God is reserved for Sundays and for deaths, as the family is shown attending the funeral of a boy who drowned. Large swaths of the film do not seem to directly relate to God either, as the segments of The Tree of Life displaying the history of the world run counter to what many faith-based beliefs believe. But perhaps this is Malik’s point. The film does not offer many answers, but at the same time its questions are the same ones that have plagued all of humanity since humans came into existence. Can the big questions, such as wondering why certain things happen, be answered? And more importantly, can their answers be comprehended? The film does not seem to think so, but instead it frames these questions and the events that provoke them against events that themselves can barely be understood.
For Jack though, these questions are irrelevant when they are considered against the force of nature that he must reckon with in his father. Mr. O’Brien is shown to be the most complex character in the film. At one moment he is concerned for his children and the next he is berating them and telling them to be silent. Though he attends church and tithes every Sunday, for him the most important force in the world is money. Though he speaks of other things, such as ambition, everything comes down to money for him in the end. He bemoans the state of his lawn compared to those of his neighbors, whom he says “…have money.” Mr. O’Brien also often speaks of the rich in town, and he meditates on their influence and power. Money equals influence and establishment, both things that he craves. Ultimately though, he loses his job at the plant and is, in his eyes, reduced to nothing. He has done everything he can and his fate has remained the same. But this event is not the end for Mr. O’Brien’s character, as in the wake of this event he is shown to apologize to his son for the first, and only time.
As the family leaves their house for the last time as they move away, a sense that everything will be alright arises. This sense is curious in that The Tree of Life has already shown that tragedy will befall this family again in the future with the death of R.L. (Laramie Eppler). But in the grand sense of the universe, which the film portrays, nothing ever concludes. There will always be another event considered a tragedy, and so it is either pointless to consider that nothing will ever be alright or that things ever can be alright. The film sides with the former, as it argues that the events of the O’Briens are just as important as any other event in the universe. As an adult, Jack is still reconciling with the death of his brother and also the affect that his father and his methods have had on him. He is shown to be following himself as a child through a desert and he later comes upon a plain full of people whom he has known. He smiles at his father and his father does the same to him. Together, as a family, the O’Briens say goodbye to R.L. Reconciliation is finally gained. But even this event, imagined as it may be or at the least, metaphorical, is not immune from the greater context of the world.
As these events transpire, the sun is shown becoming a red giant and later shrinking to a white dwarf. The end of the Earth is at hand. Just as the film has portrayed it’s beginning, it now portrays its conclusion, all the while placing its family against these events. Just as God questioned Job as to his place in the forging of the universe, the film contextualizes the O’Briens against these same events. They are not minor elements in the film at all, and The Tree of Life makes sure to emphasize this fact by portraying their struggles as impactful as they are to each other such that they seem just as powerful on an even grander scale. The O’Briens may be just another family in Texas, but The Tree of Life argues that they are as valuable to the world as any of the other life that it portrays. Contrast is the most important tool utilized by the film. Showing one dinosaur display mercy to another may be odd, but when compared against Mr. O’Brien, who spends much of the film without this characteristic, it becomes a provocation rather than an oddity. The world is not a simple place, argues the film, and it reinforces this through its complex characters and the equally complex world and themes which surround them. Answers are not important for The Tree of Life. Instead, the film seeks to, and succeeds in, contextualizing the entirely of the universe through its artistic lens and sense of scale. Nothing is without significance in The Tree of Life, and its success lies in its ability to push its human characters to matter while at the same time not bending to their wants and needs.