Dr. Grossi's Blog

The Tree of Life

Dr. Philip Grossi
Sunday, 15 April 2012

I have never before written a film review; however, I recently experienced a film, The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick that was so challengingly different from any other film I have seen and that exemplifies the unconscious processes that I wrote about in my prior blog (Some Thoughts on Being a Psychiatrist), I decided to tackle this difficult task. The film starts with a quote from the Book of Job: "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!" This is accompanied by a filmy diffuse image and choral music, singing that evokes images of being in a holy place or church. The mother (Jessica Chastain) of the O'Brien family then softly talks about the way of nature which cares for itself, wants to please itself, and lord it over others and the way of grace which is loving, forgiving, accepting of injury and insult. All this is accompanied by soft muted music and said in barely audible dialog -- characteristics that extend throughout the movie. Then she receives a telegram announcing the death of their 19 year old son. With a broken heart she conforms to the way of grace.


Then suddenly we are presented with an array of cosmic images of stars, planets, nova, supernova and more accompanied by soft choral music and then images of stained glass arranged in a coil. Then images of bacteria, amoeba, jellyfish, trilobites, ancient creatures, dinosaurs, volcanic eruptions, smoke, waterfalls, sunrise -- the creation of the world, the dawn of the world. The mother walks in the forest and it becomes cathedral-like due to the soaring trees as well as the music and voice-overs which are whispers. This is almost not a film but more like a meditation.

illustration to tree of life blogThe reader will notice that I have not presented a storyline as would be expected in a film review. The above is meant to reflect the film structure which is akin to a pointillistic painting. There is a linear story which is directly expressed but suggestion is still more prominent than direct expression. The O'Briens live in Waco, Texas in the 1950s and Jack, the oldest of the three boys, hates and wants to kill his tyrannical father (Brad Pitt).  Mallick presents a church service in which the priest tells the congregation that they cannot expect God's protection. Jack's anger shows itself in his abusive treatment of his brother as well as his torturing of animals. Jack's erotic feelings for his mother are pictured as he watches her in her nightgown after he has spied on a neighbor and taken that neighbor's slip. Ultimately Jack says to his father "I'm more like you than her." He has identified with his father and the conflict is resolved in part. These sequences take place before the telegram announcing the death of the 19 year old brother. Jack as an adult (Sean Penn) is pictured as wandering about in a desert wilderness troubled and sad. The final scene is of a bridge from which swoops a single sea bird.

When people talk, they always talk about themselves, no matter what the case of the subject pronoun.  We can't help it. This is then an autobiography of Terrence Mallick. He is a very private person. Some even call him a recluse and I haven't been able to find a picture of him. Mallick is the oldest of three brothers.  His younger brother died as R.L. in the film by committing suicide. The other brother was involved in a car crash and was burned badly. In the film, one of Jack's friends has a burn of the left rear scalp which is shown repeatedly.

I fear that this attempt to encapsulate a cinematographic masterpiece which calls on the systhesis of many unconscious threads simply does not do it justice. For that, I apologize. I will undoubtedly look at this film again.