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in The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick tackles the age old questions of “What is the meaning of life?

Kierkegaard vs. Nietzsche, the Big Bang vs. the Book of Genesis, in The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick tackles the age old questions of “What is the meaning of life?” and “Is there life after death?”, and portrays them in an operatic, naturesque, supernova artform, while transcending philosophy, religion, nature, innocence, success, violence, and sterility on to the big screen. The film starts off with a verse from The Book of Job 58: 4, 7, “Where were you when I laid the foundations on Earth?”, in which Job frequently uses an analogy from nature and compares his own situation to some animal or phenomenon of nature to argue his innocence despite the allegations of his friends. The movie continues on with the sound of the ocean waves roaring, seagulls screeching, waterfalls cascading, volcanic lava flowing into the ocean, outer space nebulae, the sun breaking through underwater, desert sands blowing, and camera shots from the ground up staring at the trees and skyscrapers while passages including: “Brother, it was they who led me to your door”, “There are two ways through life; the way of nature and the way of grace, you have to choose which one you’ll follow”, and “Lord, who are we to you?”, are being whispered and set to classical music.

When Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, an All-American family living in the suburbs of Waco, Texas in the 1950′s, receive a telegram stating that one of their three sons has died, they try to make sense of why the Lord giveth and taketh away, meanwhile, one of the three remaining O’Brien sons, now an adult (Sean Penn) reflects back on his upbringing and the conflicting emotions he experienced during his childhood. From his modern day corner office in the sky, he ponders their hypocritical, religious, strict father who brought him and his brothers to church, yet taught them that, “You can’t be too good in order to succeed. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world, because if you are too good, people take advantage of you”, his loving, sincere mother who never talked back, and the death of one of his brothers.

After reading Terrence Malick’s pedigree listed below, it is easy to understand how he tied all of his life experiences together to make this existential film.

“Terrence Malick was born in Illinois, and grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. He graduated from Harvard University in 1966, and attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, went on to work for LIFE and THE NEW YORKER, and taught philosophy at MIT before going to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.” He was once thought of as the next Stanley Kubrick, for his other works including, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World. His upcoming project is entitled, Untitled Love Story.

Article by Sharon Abella

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