Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ and the tragedy of original sin

Josh Larsen

When did you first realize that this world was broken?

Think back on your childhood and see if you can remember when the idyllic nature of those years became infected with something foreign and unsettling, something you could probably only identify at the time as “bad.” It may have happened when you were very young or, if you were lucky, much later. Can you pinpoint the first time you became aware of original sin?

With “The Tree of Life,” writer-director Terrence Malick traces this awareness in the life of a boy growing up in 1950s Texas. But that’s not all. Using his signature blend of impressionistic imagery and ruminative voiceover narration, Malick also takes us both forwards and backwards in time to ponder the existence of sin throughout the universe, and across history. The flashes forward consist of scenes of the boy as an adult (Sean Penn), while the flashbacks zoom all the way to creation, including an extended cosmological sequence that mixes “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Jurassic Park.”

It’s bewildering, exhilarating and the culmination of Malick’s curious, fitful career. The tragedy of original sin is something Malick has wrestled with, to varying degrees of success, over the course of five films and 38 years. From “Badlands” to “The New World,” violence and beauty are held in constant tension. Malick’s gorgeous pictures at once celebrate the audacity of God’s creation and mourn its fallen state at the hands of man.

To my mind, “The Tree of Life” is the first time Malick has found a narrative framework that is at once big enough and focused enough for his ambitions. By anchoring his themes in a very familiar setting – the archetypal American family – he’s made the universal personal, and vice versa.

Caught between a domineering father (Brad Pitt) and a comforting mother (Jessica Chastain), young Jack (Hunter McCracken) enters adolescence with growing trepidation. His father's discipline becomes cold and relentless; friends urge him to break windows and torment dogs. The inevitable shift from carefree childhood to complicated young adulthood makes Jack confused, complicit and sick. His eyes have become opened to sin - in his parents, his friends and even, during an agonizing scene involving a BB gun and his trusting younger brother, himself.

Though I was born well past the ’50s, the movie’s nostalgic images of boyhood took me back to my own youthful hours - and one day in particular. I can’t recall my exact age; it was at that time when you were old enough to freely roam the neighborhood in packs, yet young enough to be glad when you heard your mother’s voice calling you home. A group of us were gathered behind a neighbor’s shed, where one of the older boys had found the tattered pieces of a Playboy centerfold in the wet grass. As the rest of us watched – rapt, silent - he painstakingly pasted the pieces back together one by one on the wall of the shed. This was something new, exciting, wrong. It’s not hyperbole to say that the universe had shifted beneath my feet.

This is the sort of primal, existential angst Malick evokes in “The Tree of Life.” It strikes that deep. Did the movie provoke similar introspection for you, or did you find it – as some critics have – to be pretentious hooey? Can you recall your own early realization of original sin?

(Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology