(nb: if you live in our around Victoria, you are invited to join us at St. Philip Anglican Church [2928 Eastdowne Rd.] on Tuesday August 2 at 7:00 p.m. to discuss “The Tree of Life”)
Terrence Malick’s film “The Tree of Life” is an experience best approached with the senses. The film can only be diminished if we approach it first with analysis and interpretation, attempting to “get the message.” However, questions inevitably form in the viewer’s mind after seeing this film.
As with all the serious questions life presents to us, we must be cautious about taking our answers too seriously. Any responses we might make to the questions “The Tree of Life” poses must always be tentative. We must hold our answers with humility. The movie invites exploration, not definitive conclusions.
With those cautions in mind, working through the film in the order it tells its story, here are some of my questions:
A.Opening Sequence – The Death of RL
1. Does the film seem to fully endorse the nuns’ teaching that we must all choose between the way of grace and the way of nature?
2. Given what happens to her middle son, what do you make of Mrs. O’Brien’s statement that “No one who loves grace ever comes to a bad end”?
3. Why is the middle O’Brien boy called RL? Why are he, the parents, and the young brother all unnamed in the film?
4. Why do we never know how RL died?
5. What does the image of Mr. O’Brien saying to his neighbour “We’re alright,” while standing holding a bent hose, suggest about his relationship to the community and its effect on his life and family?
6. What does the grandmother attempt to do in response to the grief at RL’s death?
7. What might be implied in Mr. O’Brien’s lament for RL?
8. What does the recurrent ethereal image suggest?
9. Why might adult Jack feel like he is “bumping into walls”?
10. What does adult Jack’s apology to his father suggest about their grown-up relationship?
11. What has adult Jack lost?
12 What does the swarm of birds around the office tower suggest about Malick’s understanding of the nature of life?
B. Creation Sequence
1. What does the insertion of the creation sequence suggest about the O’Brien family’s grief and our understanding of suffering?
2. What does the recurrent image of mighty cascading water suggest about the nature of life? Are there other images that seem to carry the same sense? (eg. the swarming birds around the office tower)
3. Is the first dinosaur on the beach wounded in the side? If it is, why might this be?
4. Is there any significance to the fact that there are three dinosaurs walking by the river?
C. The Young O’Brien Family
1. Why, at the point of birth do we see an image of “The Door of Hell”?
2. When Jack’s question,”When did you first touch my heart,” is immediately followed by an image of baptism, what is being suggested about our understanding of baptism?
3. What do the recurrent images of stairs suggest?
4. Why does a kitchen chair mysteriously move out from the table by itself? How might this relate to the image of a butterfly landing on Mrs. O’Brien’s hand?
5. What is the significance of the fact that toddler Jack is playing with a wooden Noah’s ark?
6. What happens in Jack’s life when RL is born?
7. What is the role of fear in this film?
8. What is evoked in you by the image of the empty bare room at the top of the stairs?
9. Why does Mr. O’Brien draw an imaginary line between his yard and the neighbour’s yard? How might this relate to Halloween and to the reading of Peter Rabbit?
10. What may be the significance of the fact that Mrs. O’Brien indicates that the sky is “where God lives”?
D. Adolescence in the O’Brien Family
1. What might be the significance of the fact that this section of the film opens with Jack finding a dinosaur bone?
2. What is Jack’s experience at the family dinner table?
3. What do you feel about Mr. O’Brien’s love of music?
4. How would you characterize Mr. O’Brien’s relationship to his adolescent sons?
5. What is the significance of the rock python in The Jungle Books?
6. Why does Mr. O’Brien tap his watch when he walks by his co-worker at his workplace?
7. What are the boys experiencing when they go into town and see the man who is drunk, the man walking with a cane, and the men under arrest?
8. What does Mrs. O’Brien giving a drink of water to one of the men under arrest suggest about the nature of grace? (see Matthew 25:37)
9. What desires seem to lie at the root of Jack’s prayers?
10. What is Mr. O’Brien’s philosophy of life?
11. What does the preacher suggest in his sermon about the nature of God and the nature of human suffering? What does the image of the stained glass window suggest about their relationship to Christ?
12. Why do we see a scene of Mr. O’Brien and the boys at a barbecue in a black neighbourhood?
13. What is Jack’s impression of his father?
14. What are the implications of the multiple images of water in this film?
15. What is Jack’s understanding of why the boy drowned in the pool? What fears come to the surface for the boys through this incident?
16. How does Mr. O’Brien “hurt” his boys?
E. Mr. O’Brien Away on a Trip
1. What happens in the O’Brien family when Mr. O’Brien goes away on a trip? What might this suggest about the relationship between “nature” and “grace”?
2. What is Mrs. O’Brien’s prayer for her children?
3. What is Jack experiencing as he wanders outside peering into neighbouring homes?
4. What happens to Jack’s relationship with his mother in this sequence? Why?
5. How would you answer Jack’s questions at this point: “What have I started? What Have I done?” What does Jack need? What does he get?
6. What is Jack doing in relation to RL with the light socket and the bb gun? What does he learn?
7. Where does Jack want to get back to?
8. What does the Romans 7:15 quote suggest is a central tension in this film?
9. What does Mr. O’Brien feel as he looks at his life?
10. What does it mean for Jack to say that his mother and father wrestle inside him? What is the nature of this struggle?
11. What does Mrs. O’Brien understand about the nature of love?
F. After the O’Brien’s Leave Their Home
1. What is the significance of the recurring image of the orange cave with the light at the top?
2. What may be suggested by the fact that adult Jack steps through the doorway at the end of the film that he faced but did not walk through at the beginning?
3. What is the impact of the barrage of images at the end of the film?
4. What is Mrs. O’Brien able to do at the end of the film? What might this suggest about the way of grace?
G. General Questions
1. Why is the film called “The Tree of Life”? (see Genesis 3:22 and Revelation 22:2)
2. Why may Malick have structured his film in such a way that it does not follow an obvious linear narrative plot?
3. What is it about this film that so polarizes audiences?
4. How does the use of voice-overs effect your experience of this film? What might Malick be trying to achieve in using this device?
5. What vision of faith does the film convey?