The Tree of Life: Leeks au Gratin

Year Released: 2011
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken
(PG-13, 138 min.)

"Creator: A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh." H.L.Mencken

Is it great art or hokum? Director Terrence Malick overreaches when he tries to frame his poignant tale with self-conscious cosmic grandeur. Despite its tantalizing story, evocative performances, and breathtaking cinematography, this Cannes Palm d’Or winner is sadly compromised by its New Age spirituality run amok. 

Of course, every small story of merit is really about all of humankind. But great writers, like Chekov, for instance, were content to tell us their little tales and let them stand alone. Malick is not willing to believe that his audience will understand any deeper meanings unless he underscores their significance. It’s almost a bad as someone who laughs at his own jokes or, worse yet, explains them.

Which is a pity, since the core story of The Tree of Life is actually quite good. It takes place in Texas in the mid 1950s, a quiet time of simple pleasures. Malik lets the O’Brien family unfold in the most natural way, recording the birth of the three sons with an economy of visual images. One of the best scenes is toddler Jack reacting to his new baby brother. We see the curiosity as he circles this new invader cradled in his mother’s arms, almost like a bear sniffing around the tent. 

The trio of youngsters chase each other through the yard, climb the tortuous oak, and engage in the rituals of boyhood. These bring back memories to those of us who remember a pre-electronic age. They stomp around on tin can stilts, and thrust their hands out the car window to ride roller coaster fashion on the air currents. Then there are the rituals that reveal a throwback to our primitive nature. Jack, the eldest, perhaps 10 or 11 years old by now, is most drawn to them. 

He takes great satisfaction in throwing a rock through a window, in strapping a helpless frog to a homemade rocket, in the teasing game with his brother, Robert, where he dares him to touch the socket of a lamp. Then, after establishing trust with this maneuver (the lamp is not turned on), he does the same thing with a BB gun, asking Robert to hold his hand over the barrel. This time is no dry run and Robert runs away in pain.

We begin to understand Jack’s underlying hostility when we watch his father’s (Brad Pitt) version of discipline. A rigid set of rules and invisible lines defines their existence when Father is at home. The front yard has no fence, but Pitt teaches his sons where the invisible property line is and that they are not to encroach up on it. Weeding the lawn and tending the garden are not pragmatic chores as such, but a sort of homage to him. Getting something to eat from the table must be brokered with the requisite number of “sirs,’’ and “pleases.” Slamming the screen door, which the observant audience member notes Pitt does himself, earns Jack the task of closing the door silently 50 times. 

Yet, even more confounding is Pitt’s seeming devotion to his sons. He hugs them and tussles their hair. Perhaps it would be easier to cope with a predicatively malevolent father figure. 

We also learn some of the frustration behind their father’s need for complete control and his vision of training them to cope with a cruel world. He is a trained musician who has never lived up to his wish to be professional. He plays the spinet piano at home, but when he sits down to the massive church organ for some Bach, we are impressed. Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien is also a frustrated inventor who labors at a plant while he waits for success.

Their mother, played with a natural beauty and grace by Jessica Chastain, is a nurturing as their father is controlling. No practiced silent door closings for her; she becomes a child herself, jumping over beds and furniture in an impromptu game of chase with her boys when her husband is not at home. Jack confesses his petty evils (well, almost all) to her, confident she will offer wise counsel. 

Rather than develop this tale to fruition, however, Malick leaves it to get back to his cosmic bookends. Early on, we are treated to a short visual history of the beginning of our universe, with life emerging from single cells to sea creatures. We even catch a glimpse or two of dinosaurs, of random death and equally random reprieve. The land heats and heaves, great waters rush onward and inward. It’s a great show.

Intervening is Sean Penn, his permanent scowl a perfect example of the aggrieved Jack as an adult. He voices over the narrative as he goes from his gleaming and sterile home to the glassed in jungle of skyscrapers he purportedly designs. The voiceover also exists in the middle core story section, this time intoned in whispers as Jack wonders about the nature of God. When someone drowns at a swimming hole (Austin’s very own Barton Springs), we hear Jack ask God, “Where were you? You let a little boy die.” The voiceovers here, as does the whole section containing Sean Penn’s grown up Jack, seem contrived. The whispering begins to shout at us after a while. Why won’t Malick trust us to get it without the Cliff Notes whispering, we ask. The film ends on what it thinks is a note of grace, but again it gilds the lily. 

Instead of working so hard to tie his possibly autobiographical tale into all of eternity, Malick should have doubled down on his core story and explored it with more discipline and depth. But it takes a light hand and small ego to let the story tell itself.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

The O’Briens spend many hours in the family vegetable patch, where Brad Pitt as the father exerts as much discipline on his plants as he does his sons. Weeding is almost a religious expurgation of sins. Offending shoots must be ripped out, just as tender leaves tainted by insects must also go.

But let’s forget all those admonitions and just enjoy the harvest. I hope you will like this recipe for Leeks au Gratin from Different Drummer’s own Mystery Lover's Cookbook.

Leeks au Gratin

  • 12 leeks
  • 1 cup grated Gruyere (or similar) cheese
  • Butter
  • Salt and Pepper

White Sauce

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • Dash nutmeg (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Select fresh leeks. Wash and clean them well, trimming them off at the top, where the leaves begin to get hard. Cook them in boiling salted water for 30 minutes. Rinse and drain them thoroughly.

Dissolve the flour in 1/2 cup milk. Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. When it begins foaming, add the milk mixture, stirring continuously. Add the rest of the milk, and stir until the sauce comes to a boiling point. Lower the heat and continue stirring until the sauce thickens. 

Butter an oblong baking dish and cover the entire bottom with 1 cup white sauce. Attractively arrange the leeks in the dish and cover them with the rest of the white sauce. Sprinkle the surface of the dish with the grated Gruyere cheese, salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes

Recipe Source: Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook