If there’s one film those aspiring to be good men–good fathers and sons–should see this year, it’s Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
It’s not a blow-’em-up, action-packed adventure. It’s not a leave-your-brains-at-the-door popcorn movie. It’s not a weepy, sentimental chick flick or a potty-mouthed, gross-out bromance.
The Tree of Life is many things. It is a meditation on life on Earth and in the cosmos. It counterbalances faith and science, Genesis and Job, Darwin and Freud, Oedipal sexual jealousy and sibling rivalry, evolutionary survival of the fittest.
But it is, above all, a film that intelligently and sensitively portrays the relationship between a man and his sons. Their story unfolds in a particular place and time (Waco, Texas, in the early 1950s). But it is our story too, rooted in an age-old myth—what Jungian psychology calls an archetype—familiar to us all.
We all know the tale of how Adam and Eve plucked the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were expelled from Eden before they could eat from the tree of life and live forever. Their elder son, Cain, killed his younger brother, Abel, in a fit of rage, and death came into the world.
Genesis tells us a lot about the conflict between Cain and Abel, but nothing about their dealings with Adam and Eve. The Tree of Life imaginatively fills this gap in our understanding. The O’Briens and their sons, Jack and Steve, are clearly a modern-day Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel.
In the opening lines of dialogue, spoken off-camera by Mrs. O’Brien, we are told, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.” Jack and Steve each take one of these paths, in life, generally, and in relation to their father.
Steve is the shining, golden-haired boy, talented and gifted in painting in watercolors and playing the guitar. He is his mother’s son, a being of light and grace.
Jack, on the other hand, is his father’s son, dark, moody and troubled. Perhaps because they share the same nature, they clash and conflict. But, ultimately, it is Jack who struggles and eventually wins his father’s love.
O’Brien is not always an easy man to love. He insists on setting boundaries, like when he literally teaches Jack not to cross the invisible dividing line between their front lawn and a neighbor’s. O’Brien is a hard taskmaster, too, determined that his sons keep their lawn as immaculate and well-groomed as the one next door.
O’Brien is a strict, stern disciplinarian. He insists on being called “father” and “sir.” He will tolerate no disrespect, and is not immune to responding violently to any transgression of his rules. Steve incurs O’Brien’s wrath only once. Jack bears the brunt of it on several occasions.
O’Brien seeks to toughen his sons and to make men of them. He teaches them to box and to use him as their punching bag. Jack proves equal to the test. Unwilling to lash out and strike his father, Steve is indulgently let off the hook.
O’Brien is a driven man, who fights for recognition of his achievements but is robbed by the courts of patents for his inventions. He is naturally embittered by his defeat. Jack’s successful career, later in adult life, vindicates O’Brien. Incidentally, Jack’s urban environment of towering skyscrapers suggests another story from Genesis, that of the Tower of Babel.
(O’Brien isn’t all bad, of course. He has a gentler, more sensitive side, as shown by his passion for music, for playing the organ at church and classical recordings at home. Likewise, Mrs. O’Brien is not always an elfin sprite, laughing and dancing with her sons. She too must sometimes scold, say “No,” and set boundaries.)
Jack’s boyhood relationship with O’Brien becomes so murky and troubled that, at one point, he tells his father, “It’s your house. You can kick me out any time you want.” In another disturbing and disquieting scene, Jack watches his father under the frame of the family car, and contemplates crushing O’Brien under its weight.
Steve’s psyche is not disturbed by any such murderous impulses. But, at the start of the film, Steve is removed from the picture and exists only in Jack’s memory. At the end of the film, Steve is forever a boy. It is Jack who grows to manhood and is reconciled with O’Brien, now both on an equal footing as adults.
Jack does not literally murder Steve, as Cain slew Abel. But it is clear that Jack sometimes bears his brother ill will. He is jealous of the affection Mrs. O’Brien showers on Steve as an infant. He menaces Steve with a two-by-four in a not-so-playful fashion. By the very fact of surviving to manhood, he symbolically buries Steve, who does not live past his teens.
We do not see Steve as a teenager, only the empty space left by his death. We are not told how he died. His mother is stony and disconsolate. O’Brien is stoic as befits a man of his generation. He tells neighbors that everything is all right, and waters his lawn as if nothing has happened and life goes on.
Steve has obviously left home, but he has never grown up and become a man. Only Jack does this. We never see Steve as anything but a little boy, whereas (without knowing it at first) we see Jack as both a boy and a man.
There is a fifth character in The Tree of Life, silent, speaking not a word of dialogue, yet pivotal and crucial to the film’s theme and message. Only gradually do we realize who he is and what role he plays. We see Sean Penn, with his rugged face and disheveled hair, making his way from the glass-and-steel landscape of the big city, across a parched, cracked salt flat, to the shore of a river, and finally to a bridge and a field of sunflowers. He is the elder Jack, a grown man reliving his life in memory as he makes his way to the other side.
Jack’s adult life in some ways mirrors O’Brien’s, and in some ways goes one better. The elder Jack lives in a spacious, well-appointed modern home, far superior to the humble abode of his childhood. He seems somehow distant and estranged from his wife, as they move through their different spheres. (The way of nature and the way of grace?) He is apparently childless in the physical sense but, in a reverse kind of procreation, the child has become father to the man.
The Tree of Life is, on one level, very much about mortality. The film’s title alone tells us this, and the deaths of the two sons serve as brackets and bookends for Terrence Malick’s storytelling. The film’s score is also clearly intended to evoke the music of a funeral mass.
But The Tree of Life is not so much about physical death as it is about emotional death and resurrection—in a word, survival. By living to manhood, Jack is able to relive and return to his childhood, first in memory, then in a moving father-and-son reunion on the far shore of life.
What, then, does Terrence Malick’s film tell us about father-son relationships? It would seem that the way of nature, and not the way of grace, is the royal road to a father’s heart. It is not the gentle, gifted, passive son who becomes a man and wins his father’s love, but rather the one who struggles, clashes, conflicts–and conquers. Between father and son, as Shakespeare phrased it, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
If we are able to survive the anger and guilt of our relationships with our fathers, then we can ourselves become men, good men, able at last to understand and forgive the one who gave us life and showed us how to live it.
There’s a scene in The Tree of Life where O’Brien gently chides Jack for not hugging and kissing his father good night. The boy dutifully, if without much enthusiasm, complies. “Do you love your father?” O’Brien asks. “Yes, sir,” comes the sullen answer.
My own experience was exactly the reverse. One night, some time before I reached adolescence, I approached my father for our nightly ritual, and he brushed me aside. It took me 25 years to recover from the emotional trauma of that moment. But then I restored the balance between us. For the following decade, until he died, I kissed him on the forehead every time I said good-bye.
The Tree of Life begins with the news of Steve’s death at the young age of 19, and ends with that of Jack, now grown to manhood. But, while Steve’s passing marks the sudden, brutal end of Eden, Jack’s signals a return to the garden.
The end result was the same for me as for Jack. Both of us—he on film, I in real life–grew to manhood. We both found our way back from a lost Eden to the paradise regained of a father’s love.