The Tree of Life is a rare film – so ambitious and so directly concerned with the meaning of our existence. The last film I saw to attempt so much was Synecdoche, New York, and the scale of that was smaller, because The Tree of Life places our puny lives against the scale of aeons, of the earth forming and life evolving.
We learn early in the film that Jack O’Brien’s brother died at 19 and Jack has never got over it. Grief, then is the frame through which we watch the rest of a film centred on the experience of being a child and the meaning of life.
Most of the film is a series of fragments of the childhood of the O’Brien boys. Significance, perspective, scale is all through the eyes of the children. The film reminded me of what it was like to be a child, surely one of the most incredible things a work of art could do. (The only other piece of art which has done this for me is Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea; perhaps also the beginning of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.)
The boys love their parents. The stories their mother tells them have the same dreamy truth of all of life, the fascination of light and objects, and the unsettled laws of the universe. Their mother reads them Peter Rabbit and then they see a rabbit running through their garden. The gap between the story world and their world is still thin.The boys ask their mother to tell them a story from before they can remember. She tells them about the time she got to fly in a plane as a graduation present. It has the magical quality of all stories. And it also echoes our own imagined request of the film-maker: he tells us stories from before we can remember, the primordial history of our planet, to set our lives against and give us the right scale.
The boys mimic a crippled man in the street and feel guilty when he notices. They live in fear and admiration of their father and his tough love which can so easily turn to anger. They torture and admire frogs. Jack looks longingly at a girl in his class when he should be doing a spelling test. He follows her on his way home; it comes to nothing, and yet he felt something so strongly at that moment that it should have come to something.
And that is the experience of life shown in the film: intense moments of fear or love or insight not necessarily coming to anything so grand as the movies we watch might make us expect, but instead being followed by another day and another, much the same.
The film starts with a quote from Job – “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” One of the narrators echoes this through the primordial sequence – ‘Where were you?’, ‘Where were you?’. It is a theological vision of the world similar to Job’s – who are we to complain about our suffering, measured against the infinity, the scale of God?
It is not an easy film to watch, nor a necessarily enjoyable one, but it will be talked about for decades and decades and rightly so.
Further reading – a great post on the religious dimensions of the film.