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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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