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Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4 ESV)

In my first post on The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, I discussed the film experience, the creation sequence, and the overall worldview. Now, let’s look at sin and the family.  Tree of Life is a tour de force of a glimpse of sin and the impact of a father.

The very beginning of the film presents two ways of living: the way of nature and the way of grace. For the way of nature, you can pretty substitute “law” in place of nature. These ways are represented in the parents: the way of grace in the mom (Jessica Chastain) and the way of nature/law in the father (Brad Pitt). Malick also does a tremendous job of painting the nature the sin in young Jack’s struggles and temptations.

The Mother

Mrs. O’Brien is clearly pictured as the way of grace. She delights in her children, runs and plays with them, and seems to enjoy nature. She is full of life and hope, and genuinely loves her three sons. As a mother, she is sensitive to her children but does not simply let the boys run without boundaries. Mrs. O’Brien is not perfect but endures 3 boys and her husband, which begins to sap the life from her. My wife caught the progression in her life: from joy to squashed. Why squashed? Because Mr. O’Brien is the way of nature and the law and he eats the life out of his family.

The Father

Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, the classic overbearing, semi-hypocritical, controlling father. Mr. O’Brien demands respect, and expects perfect manners at all times. He works hard and thinks respect (& love) should be earned. His love feels very conditional and yet very genuine at the same time. He reminded me a lot of my dad, and, unfortunately, myself. He hammers young Jack on taking care of the grass. The 3 sons detest dinner time. They feel like they walking on eggshells around him all the time, worried about the one little mistake that will unleash dad. He is affectionate but tempered and always guarded. He has to be. It’s not like he doesn’t have similar expectations on himself! Mr. O’Brien is a picture of the law: unforgiving, man-powered, and life-sucking.

There are 3 keys scenes: teaching his sons to box, when he explodes on his family at the dinner table, and he confession to young Jack near the end. When he is teaching them to box, his intent is good but he is crushing them. He is frustrated with them, not giving them any grace or any room to breath, only pressing them to hit his jaw. Hit your unsafe and unstable father in the face even though he’s asking? I’d pass too. The dinner table scene is intense but perfect. I felt their fear but I also say way too much of myself in how he responds to the disrespect shown him. A grace driven father could have laughed at himself, laughed at the middle brother’s statement, but not the law driven father. He confession to young Jack near the end practically brought me to tears. It takes something to break him, and he still is himself, but he knows his sin.

I resonate with Mr. O’Brien. I confess I can tend to be overbearing at times and nagging my kids too much about little things. I struggle with an internal flesh desire for control and respect. It’s a very ugly thing. I appreciated Malick’s portrayal because he so clearly paints the effect of it: a squashed wife, kids who are angry, scared, and boxed in, and the older brother lashing out, clearly seeing his dad’s hypocrisy and sin. Other films paint the depth of sin but wash it away easily. Not in the Tree of Life. You see the impact of the law driven father. I certainly want to keep trusting God to grow me to not be that way, to keep pressing to live by grace, not by the guilt, control, and suffocation of the law.

Young Jack & Sin

Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is a fascinating character. You feel what he feels under the crushing effect of his father. You feel what he feels also when he confronted with some of his emerging darker desires. The growing temptations of sexual desire. The anger he feels and the temptation to hurt his brothers and simply unleash his destructivity. The way he starts to treat his mother. As a man, I can remember that time and it resonated with me. Malick paints it so well. That struggle is relevant just as much now as when I was that young. Why do I do what I don’t want to do? Why does choosing sin once not appease it but drive it? What will bring me back from being given over to it? The scene when he enters the woman’s house and steals the nightgown and the effect on him afterwards was so, so good. I felt the darkness but I felt the allure of sin to him and the loss that came to him emotionally when he succumbed to it. It was very powerful. McCracken does a great job with very few words in how he played young Jack.

Final Thoughts

This film is worth seeing. We need more films like this: big picture thought provoking, the effect of sin, and a unique and challenging experience. This is not a film where you can check your brain at the door and be entertained for 150 minutes. Malick calls you to engage, to think, to ask questions, to empathize, and to wonder. I am thankful for such a film. Don’t be afraid of it, endure the beginning, and read a few reviews (see below) to get your brain cranked up prior to seeing it.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15 ESV)

More Reviews Worth Reading

A Visual Prayer (by Rebecca Cusey, World Magazine)

Review of “The Tree of Life” (by Michael Horton, White Horse Inn Blog)

The Tree of Life (by Brett McCracken, Christianity Today)

A prayer beneath the Tree of Life (by Roger Ebert)

A Tale of a Father and a Son (by Makoto Fujimura, The Curator Blog)

The Tree of Life (A.V. Club)

Malick’s Film Adds a Dose of Sincerity to the Festivities (by Manohla Dargis, NY Times)

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I have seen Tree of Life (from Terrence Malick) called “a prayer,” “a symphony,” and  “a magnum opus.” It is all of those and it is a meditation. It is a journey through memories and heartache, through the questions of life, and the question of who I am. The Tree of Life is a movie experience that I’ve never had before, a film that plays out like a painting or maybe even a devotional. I’ve never seen a movie that presents the questions and truths that Malick does, and actually give you the space and time to contemplate and think about it. This movie is a contemplation as crazy as that sounds. Critics have raved while filmgoers have been mixed. When my wife and I saw it in downtown Reno last night, there were at least 3 people that walked out right in the middle of the film. It’s not linear, it’s not a simple story and plot, and the creation sequence can seem bizarre if you’re not looking for it. This is a movie that should be read about and thought about before even seen, I don’t think I can actually spoil it for you no matter how much I share. It would be as if I was describing a song or painting – you ultimately just have to see it and experience it.

Malick gives you a lot to think about and wrestle with in his masterpiece. In this post, I want to touch on the film experience and style, the creation sequence, and the big questions. In another post, I want to discuss the aspects of sin and family that Malick so brilliantly gives us. My desire is that this discussion will help you not only digest the film but be prepared to view it as well.

The Film Experience & Style

This is no simple story or plot. You find out about the death of a character before you even meet him. You hear voice overs of characters intermixed with other characters through sequences of the big bang and the ocean. This film was genius. I realized at the end as my wife and I discussed it that it truly is a walking through of the memories of the older brother. Malick goes beyond that to give you meditations and memories of the parents and the vision of creation, but it is mostly through the eyes of the oldest brother and thereby has some of the limitations of his knowledge and vision. There is still significant progression through the middle part of the film from the birth of the older brother to the significant moment that starts to bring the movie to a close, but even that progression jumps and melds together like a collection of memories and thoughts.

The acting was powerful. There are so little words that the film depends upon the unspoken interactions of the characters, the facial expressions at the dinner table, the look of their own wrestling with life, the way these characters express physical affection and how that is affected by their struggles and sin. Pitt is amazing, Jessica Chastain is brilliant, Penn is perfect, and Hunter McCracken as the oldest son is really good. This film is made or broken by how well you empathize & understand these individuals and I was sold. But what will turn off and turn away most of you is the creation sequence that seems to come out of nowhere early in the movie.

The Creation Sequence

The parents are introduced, as well as the older brother, and a reason for grief. Then, the creation sequence hits you. This is where one couple simply got up and walked out. It’s not a simple 2-3 minute part but it felt at least 15-20 minutes long. Malick takes you from the big bang to the dinosaurs all with the overarching questions of “Where is God?” and “Why?” You know this is creation though presented more with the slant of millions of years. It was very jarring to my wife. She even leaned over to me, saying, “This is weird!” So why is this story here? A dinosaur interaction sequence, really? Couldn’t the film have been fine without it?

I think the creation sequence is crucial to the film, as strange and jarring as it can feel. Malick presents a world where God is real and where God created, where we look for him and listen for him. This creation is part of who God is to Malick, who God is to these characters, it’s the main way Malick presents God and introduces us to him. This part of the film, along with the beginning scenes leading up to it, made me think of Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl by ND Wilson. If you’ve read Wilson’s book, I think it helps you appreciate Malick’s focus on creation, nature, and the wonder of the world we live in. However, the problem with the world of the Tree of Life is what my wife quickly discerned: God is creator but distant, impersonal, and seemingly absent.

The Big Questions

Who is God? Why is their pain and suffering? Who am I? Malick presents a world where God exists, where he creates, but a world that I would question where the hope is. In Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, Wilson ponders creation and suffering but brings his thoughts to single point on which it all relies in order to know God is good and that he is personal and loves us: the Cross. Without the cross, without God coming to us in the form of a man in Jesus, we are lacking. Tree of Life presents the weight of sin with no atonement, God with no face, and us with no grounded identity. Think about Jack in the future: nostalgic, pondering, praying, and… very alone. God apart from Jesus Christ is distant, impersonal, and simply who we make him. This is the fatal flaw in the powerful vision presented by Malick. Don’t get me wrong though. Tree of Life is a tremendous movie and an experience that worth the ride. I appreciated the creation sequence, it was very gutsy and amazing. I appreciated the prayers of these characters. I appreciated that God was even invited to this experience of a film. The film simply evoked a desire for more than just nostalgia and meditation. I wanted God himself.

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. (John 14:9-11 ESV)

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