The Tree Of Life | 2011
Terrence Malick abandons straightforward narrative to turn a family drama, into a total immersive experience of memories and sensations, kicking off with a quote from The Book of Job. Its religious and philosophical complexities will provide literary cinéastes with a steady income for years.
The story, more hinted at than narrated, revolves around Jack O’Brien’s complex relationships with his parents and brothers.
Set largely in ‘Waco, Texas’, the town of Jack’s childhood in the 1950s is an amalgam of sites around the small community Smithville, halfway between La Grange and Bastrop, about 40 miles southeast of state capital Austin.
The O’Brien house is 709 Burleson Street at NE 8th Street, in the north of Smithville itself. This is a private home and I’m sure I don’t have to remind you not to disturb residents.
A few blocks south, you can find the school attended by young Jack (Hunter McCracken), which is Smithville Public School, Gresham Street at NE 4th Street.
The local square, where the young brothers witness an arrest, can be found east of Smithville, in the town of La Grange, dominated by the distinctive stone Fayette County Courthouse.
But you need to travel about 40 miles northwest to find the white-painted church, where the family ominously hears a sermon on the tribulations of Job. It’s the New Sweden Church, 12809 New Sweden Church Road, on Farm To Market Road 973, about five miles northeast of Manor. The elegant narrow spire is a local landmark and supposedly one of the most photographed sights in the district.
The boys swim in the Barton Springs Pool, 2201 Barton Springs Road, a man-made recreational swimming pool in Zilker Metropolitan Park, just west of downtown Austin.
And it’s in the state capital, Austin, in the Texas State Capitol Building, Congress Street at 11th Street, that the family’s disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) bitterly contests a court case over patents. If you too want to view the towering interior of its dome, here are daily tours of the building.
The Capitol building can also be seen in 1982 musical The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, the 1988 remake of noir classic D.O.A., with Dennis Quaid, and in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids 2: Island Of Lost Dreams.
The adult Jack (Sean Penn) is adrift physically in a faceless hypermodern city, and spiritually in an arid desert.
The unnamed city is a combination of Texas conurbations downtown Dallas and Houston.
Dallas supplies the distinctive Reunion Tower, 300 Reunion Boulevard, the unmistakable ball-on-sticks high-rise. Part of the Hyatt Regency complex, at 560-feet-tall, it houses the inevitable revolving restaurant (Wolfgang Puck’s Five Sixty).
Also in Dallas, you can see the spiral stained-glass window glimpsed near the beginning of the film as the family mourns the death of one of Jack’s brothers. It’s the Chapel of Thanksgiving, a small, spiral tower in Thanks-Giving Square on Pacific Avenue a few blocks northwest of Reunion Tower.
Most of the cityscape is Houston, including the architectural office in which Jack works. This is the PageSoutherlandPage Office, 1100 Louisiana Street, with its distinctive eight-story glass lobby. The office looks down on the 1927 Italianate Niels Esperson Building (that’s the classical building topped by a circular pillared ‘temple’), at 800 Travis Street, a few blocks to the northeast. Alongside the Niels Esperson, you can see the angular towers of 1975’s innovative Pennzoil Place, 711 Louisiana Street, with their endlessly reflecting bronze glass faces.
The barren landscapes through which Jack wanders are all over the US. There’s, naturally, a glimpse of Death Valley in California; and the blazingly white Bonneville Salt Flats, Tooele County in Utah.
But, most strikingly, the strange red mushroom rocks of Goblin Valley State Park, 450 Green River Boulevard, Green River, northwest of Moab in Utah, where Jack ultimately discovers the doorway to some kind of resolution. You won’t be surprised to learn that movie cameras have been to this strange, unworldly place before. It was used as the alien planet in the slightly less po-faced 1999 Star Trek spoof Galaxy Quest.
There was an enormous amount of filming, much of which didn’t end up in the final cut (including at the Palace of Versailles in France, which still gets a ‘thank you’ in the final credits).
The briefly glimpsed carved face with gaping mouth is in Italy. It’s the Orcus, or the Ogre, in the Parco dei Mostri (Park of Monsters) in Bomarzo, near Viterbo, about 50 miles north of Rome. Carved in the 16th Century from existing boulders and the actual bedrock, the park’s strange creatures have been a magnet for artists such as Jean Cocteau and surrealist Salvador Dalí.
Jack finally finds resolution with his family, and his own younger self, on a mysterious shoreline. It’s Matagorda Bay Nature Park, a 1600-acre conservation area where the Colorado River spills into the Gulf of Mexico on the coast about 90 miles southwest of Houston. With bird-watching and a science centre, two miles of Gulf of Mexico and two miles river frontage (and, hey, there’s even a half-mile pedestrian only beach section), this seems as good a place as any to contemplate the way of nature and the way of grace.