Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“Tree of Life” not worth the money

Currently out on DVD for your local library-borrowing, Redbox or Netflix-viewing pleasure, Oscar nominated “The Tree of Life,” written and directed by Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line,” “Badlands”), will give your brain a two hour, 19 minute workout as you try to understand what your eyes and ears are taking in.


As the grown Jack O’Brien, Sean Penn grapples with the meaning of his childhood under his domineering father – who prefers to go by Mr. O’Brien – Brad Pitt, and his virtuous mother, Jessica Chastain. It’s hard to recall if Penn speaks at all in the film or if montages of him staring at glass-faced buildings in an ambiguously modern metropolitan office setting are his only purpose. Even when presented as an extended retrospective meditation, the movie is hardly therapeutic.

The flashbacks, which comprise the bulk of the film’s running time, instead serve to raise questions and unsettling revelations, as exemplified by the voice-over by young Jack, which was featured in trailers for the movie: “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me; you always will.”

The opening frame is a black screen with the Bible verse Job 38: 4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” in white text – a good indication of how much religious influence will be emphasized throughout the film.

The audience then begins its fragmented journey through time and space that stretches from a beautiful, twisting flame to a dinosaur sparing the life of another dinosaur to a close up on a suspension bridge to footage of volcanic eruptions that evoke feelings of both chaos and creation. There are views of a waterfall – not in the clear, picturesque style of postcards, but as seen from the top – cloudy, churning froth right before it plummets over the rock face.

We finally get a concrete sense of location in one of the many scenes devoid of narration but with the ever-present operatic and classical soundtrack of Brahms, Toscanini and more. The scenes encompass young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his two younger brothers (Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan) are running after a City of Waco public works truck spraying DDT.

A Noah’s ark baby toy, Mr. O’Brien as the church organist, blatant displays of silver wedding bands and saying grace before every meal set the pious tone for the household. The tone is matched by Jack’s simmering opposition at the table and his voiced over wish: “Please, God, kill him. Let him die. Get him outta here,” invoking his father’s religion for his own downfall.

The audience is left to decide whether Mr. O’Brien is to be pitied, hated or both. We see his violent actions, yet we also hear his reasoning and his version of an apology. His goal in life is to be in total control; his sons are to call him “sir” or “father” at all times, and he puts patents on his ideas so that he can be in command of his destiny.

Maybe the point of this film is to show one form of abuse. Maybe it’s a story of regret. As Penn searches for meaning in his past, audiences search for meaning in the black swirls of sand and abstract underwater shots on the screen.

Nominated for three Academy Awards in the categories of best picture, cinematography and directing, “The Tree of Life” is a unique film that while not worth your money, it might be a good source of inspiration for your own artistic or self-reflection endeavors.

Margaret Clayton can be reached at [email protected].

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