2010s, Drama

The Tree of Life (2011)



Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

By Roderick Heath

I’ve remained a little bit of a Terrence Malick sceptic over the years, in spite of running the gamut of admiring to genuinely loving his first four films as a director. Malick takes the idea of the filmmaker as artist with profound gravity, and keeps reminding you of it so often there’s an instinct to rebel, as there was at times with predecessors in supercinema like Bergman and Antonioni. Unlike many, I found The Thin Red Line (1998) a flailing, if occasionally arresting mess, as the mismatch of Malick’s airy-fairy preoccupations and the salty stoicism of James Jones ground gears for three hours. But the coherence of his vision in his other three (original) films—Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), and The New World (2005)—transcends easy categorisation and demands contemplation. Clearly, in spite of his sporadic output, he’s become a director who knows cinema and senses its potential as a symphonic device like very few directors now or past.


There’s something about The Tree of Life, his new film, which seems practically preordained, or, to put it another way, I was surprised nobody’s tried to make something like it before. His basic material could easily have been rendered as another momentarily absorbing, keenly attentive indie flick about a boy’s rites of passage. But Malick realises it as a supercharged rhapsody of sound and vision, bringing the cosmic and the microcosmic into direct comparison, filled with revelations and curiosity about the meaning of life. If nothing else, Malick deserves an award for his determination to take humans and their universe seriously. The default mode of utter contempt for them displayed in so much contemporary pseudo-drama and comedy has finally met its match in a director who is also a teacher and philosopher. He’s also the most quixotic, if not quite the last holdout of the American New Wave who hasn’t given up his fraught desire to make personal films in a welter of paycheck productions and coke-fuelled mistakes. Malick takes on his subject with a neo-Victorian breadth of curiosity and clasping insight, if also occasionally sinking to the level of a primitivist’s juxtaposition of cute and fluffy nature against human bestiality.


But The Tree of Life doesn’t run away from a key question that Malick has implicitly contended with in his earlier work: is the human soul a fundamentally unnatural aberration, a glorious exception, or a true expression of something too innate to be understood by itself? What about when the soul goes wrong, and the world plunges out of balance? Here he also takes in another question: can a scientific understanding of the universe and a religious sensibility, a desire to believe in the immutability of the consciousness, ever be reconciled? In Adaptation (2002), Charlie Kaufman’s on-screen alter ego, trying to think of an original and coherent way to tackle the obscure subject matter he had chosen, considered tracing the history of evolution itself. Kaufman was taking a poke at the limitations of the commercial cinematic model of storytelling and its needling constrictions, but here it’s as if Malick decided to make Kaufman’s joke into reality.


The Tree of Life has earned a lot of comparisons with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and that’s for fairly good reasons: both employ similar and stunning depictions of outer space and earthly evolution. Malick turned to 2001’s special-effects master Douglas Trumbull to conjure these images, and Trumbull hasn’t lost his touch. Along with Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), Malick’s film is almost certainly the most ambitious film by an American director since Kubrick’s in terms of what it wants to encompass, which is nothing less than the place of humanity in the universe. Malick, however, rejects any device to make that link concrete, like Kubrick’s monolith or even Aronofsky’s Buddhist-derived journeying on a spiritual plane. His terms are at once more ethereal and concrete.


The Tree of Life commences with an episode of galvanising emotion: a suburban mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt), known simply as Mrs. and Mr. O’Brien, cope with floundering, soul-shaking grief and regretful pondering when they learn their 19-year-old son has been killed. They walk the streets in ambling despair; neighbours flock around and some are ordered away; weepy self-admonitions are delivered; mother is consoled by her own mother (Fiona Shaw) with the thought that she still has two sons left. Which of the three sons died is ambiguous: we only know that one of them, Jack (Sean Penn), lives into middle age. There is a hint of identity, as the camera takes a glancing look into a bedroom with a guitar propped up within, and later we see Jack’s younger sibling, Steve (Tye Sheridan), learning the instrument. Indeed, it is Jack’s relationship with Steve that seems most crucially affecting in a signposting fashion, and older Jack then becomes the controlling perspective for what follows, broadly describable as a melancholy and aging man’s wild internal fugue through pasts irreducible.


Jack is a successful architect who labours in great modernist enclaves of glass and steel and flounders around in his bed and kitchen with his wife (Joanna Going), who becomes the hapless, bewildered witness to his tiny ritual of lighting a candle for his dead brother. Fragments of detail slip by to alert us that it’s the anniversary of the brother’s death. Jack has recently sounded off at his dad and apologises to him over the phone. He slides through a working day constantly dipping into distracted reverie, more than trying to recall his childhood, siblings, or parents: he’s trying to conjure where his sense of the divine, the intangible, the moral order, whatever you wish to call it, came from.


His mother, heard in voiceover close to the start, offers a clear-cut disparity between Nature and Grace, between self and selflessness, substance and spiritual: she points to the sky when he’s a baby and says, “God lives there!” Yet everything Jack knows about the universe, earth, life, explicated in a magisterial sequence showing the eventuation of those things, tells him they’re something less literal and apparently schismatic, if not imaginary. In what’s already become the film’s signature moment, Malick depicts one dinosaur, a roving flesh-eater, sparing the life of another, a seemingly ill or wounded animal: the hunter steps on the prone figure a few times, adjudging whether to eat it or not, and then moves on. Most interpretations of this moment have seen it as representing the birth of mercy, something distinct from nature, but I dissent a little. We don’t know, for instance, if the carnosaur has just eaten, whether it’s actually looking for a mate, whether it doesn’t dig sick flesh (as some predators don’t): the point, then, is that nature only kills when it needs to, and it’s this hint of what is naturally necessary that gives the moment some heft that doesn’t rely on dubious anthropomorphism in dinosaurs. It’s in the stricken consciousness of humans where primal instincts and civil reason collide, where crisis and then cruelty truly develop. Much of The Tree of Life is about the young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) crisis of growing personality when he contends with the urges to destruction and malice within himself.


Jack’s parents embody the schism between grace and nature with seemingly primordial certainty, and yet there is blending of the two as well, at least in Mr. O’Brien, a man frustrated first by not pursuing his dream of being a musician and then by being constantly stymied in his professional life. He weaves beauties with music and sustains the life that allows mother and children to eddy in bliss. But he also demands a price for his sacrifice. Malick observes the direct, if not always immediate, cause and effect of O’Brien’s fury at getting beaten out in a patent lawsuit and failed business ventures, which force him to continue on in a salaried job, eaten at by financial and social resentment, and his occasionally explosive temper and taskmaster’s approach to fathering his three rambunctious sons following lengthy scenes in which they were under their mother’s expansive wing.


This world is one of rigid roles in the post-war period, and O’Brien’s lot fits into a strand of American drama exemplified by Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in contemplating the disconnection between personal weakness and the grand narrative of American success, although O’Brien is even more archetypal in that he is, in his own way, beset by the trials of Job. He is glimpsed at one point in what is apparently his and his lady love’s courting days clad in a naval uniform, all beatific canoodling, and left living through the post-war idealisation of the settled and suburban with all the contradictions, hypocrisies, and frustrations attendant, in the American landscape that’s perpetually torn between the glories of worldly daring and success and the lustre of spiritual certainty—what Norman Mailer once described as the incapacity of Jesus and Evel Knievel to share the same body. The fallout is registered in telling fragments and elided glimpses of parental fights and father’s quietly bilious life lessons, as well as occasionally jarring moments of O’Brien’s fierce anger at his sons, which leave them with a boding disquiet registered every time he touches them in his bearish fatherly fashion. The main narrative of the film ends with a key act of childhood severance: moving house, when O’Brien loses his job, ripping them from these familiar environs that have shaped them and enveloped them so profoundly.


Malick’s work is genuinely poetic and cinematic in several senses: he’s less interested in dramatic explorations of character, though there are intimations of character, than in articulating the archetypal through the specific, an example of T.S. Eliot’s formulation of the poetic sensibility as one that senses how everything is connected. Dialogue, often coming in Malick’s trademark questioning voiceovers, comes either in telling snatches or virtual elegy. The Tree of Life details the processes of birth and growth on universal and human scales and tries to dispose of all remnants of the familiar theatrical structure of storytelling in favour of a sprawl of evolving chains of imagery, compiling into a mosaic. Much of the film is dedicated to capturing a child’s viewpoint, full of near-random shards of experience and observation, the great panoply of life as well as the darker side of things: their introduction to dreadful failure; seeing convicts, variously thin and crazed-looking, revealing to Jack that anyone can end up reduced to total degradation; and death, when a friend drowns in a swimming hole.


Eventually, the boys’ love of freedom and play is corralled into a sense of order and discipline, not without resistance and resentment, by their father, evoking the gradual corralling of the princess of The New World into the forms and trapping of civilisation, an act itself filled with subtle violence but also inevitability and transformative capacity. The real meat of this drama isn’t Science versus God but Rousseau versus Freud. The boys’ sense of rebellion seethes in noting the way their father breaks his own rules. Simultaneously, oedipal glimmerings begin to infect Jack’s preadolescent erotic sensibility. He seems attracted to a vaguely ethnic girl in his class, but he’s also snatching peeks at his mother in her slip, and announces fiercely in one of his occasional shows of possessiveness that his mother “only loves me!” When, on a dare, he invades a neighbourhood house, he snatches away a slip and, infested with guilt and shame in having both committed a crime and its darker sexual implications, he drops it in the river, but the lingering emotion continues to boil within him. Challenges of power, virtually unstated but communicated in sullenly turned eyes, riddle Jack’s relationship with his father, and each senses something within the other that is both familiar and inimical with the preternatural certainty in fathers and sons that Hemingway wrote about in Islands in the Stream (there are other similarities with that novel I won’t dwell on).


Grand ambition in film directors is often like ambition in generals: when the smoke and thunder clear, often there’s not much left standing. But Malick’s sense of technique is at least equal to the challenge. The filmmaking swings from his now-familiar style of explicating narrative through running montage, replete with observational moments and covert epiphanies, in the character-based scenes, to visions that more resemble those roving life-as-spectacle documentary-frescoes like Baraka (1993), and then changing again for the last segment. The result is a genuinely powerful and transfixing piece of cinema for much of its running time. And yet it demands a certain forgiveness from viewers: anyone not particularly convinced or impressed by the urgency of Malick’s attempt to singlehandedly roll back the Enlightenment and reconcile a schism that still feeds our contemporary discourse, and the often precious nature of his voiceovers, can and will take umbrage at the relentlessness of it. In The New World, one of the great modern films, Malick kept his philosophical and spiritual enquiries mostly encoded in the drama and style, whereas here he shouts them at the top of his lungs before settling down into a story that is far more intimate in its style and permutations, but also more familiar in its essentials. The film’s third quarter, frankly, starts to become a bit oppressive, as it relentlessly proffers a stream of pretty images tied to a narrative that is, by this stage, working in a pretty minor key.


It’s more how the story is told that makes it a genuinely powerful, if not entirely choate experience. The great cannon blasts of Malick’s early narrative suggest man, configured in the adult person of Jack, wrestling with mortality like Jacob wrestling the angel, though the narrative explicitly references Job, commencing with a quote from that book of the bible and with Jack O’Brien’s name neatly condensing into that most beset of biblical heroes. But the bulk of the tale is a memory-dream about the forces that build an individual’s sense not just of life, but also death and how we order our world. The trouble is it’s too hermetic much of the time: the universe has been art-directed into submission by Malick and his production designer, Jack Fisk, who has worked with Malick since Badlands. The substance of adult eroticism has barely entered into Malick’s work except in the tragic passion of Days of Heaven, and his female figures in his last three films have all been flowing-locked, pre-Raphaelite nature sprites; even Smith and Pocahontas’ jailbait romance in The New World was essentially a lot of lounging in the grass and caressing. Don’t look here for anything like as much insight into Mrs. O’Brien as Mr. O’Brien: mother here is everything spirited and angelic, even to the point where there are images of her floating in the air. Her only moments of real substance come when she fumes after one of father’s eruptions of violence. Otherwise, Malick unfortunately confirms a reductive tendency that sees Chastain’s mother as a virtual Victorian ideal of wispy spiritual femininity, and it’s the closest the film comes to sentimental schlock.


Considering the scope of Malick’s aims, I can’t help but wish he wasn’t such a one-note director in many ways; there’s barely any humour in the film, few moments when the banality and boredom of life can be allowed to intrude, no shots of mother labouring to clean up the pristine house in which they romp. Such neglects wouldn’t be a great fault if the aims weren’t so encompassing, but then again, the totality of the mood Malick weaves is a great part of the film’s effect, like a wave crashing on you. Some of the film’s best moments are actually small and well-observed. Perhaps the best blending of his themes comes in a casual scene in which the neighbourhood kids prance with joy in clouds of billowing white issuing from a van spraying the suburb with DDT; the schism between the grim adult awareness of what that could be doing to their health is accompanied by amusement at the kids’ delight in the clouds that seem almost cosmic and spiritual—they resemble the supernovae of the earlier scenes—as well as the good, old-fashioned capacity of kids to turn anything into fun. There’s also a terrific moment when Steve begins to play along on guitar with his father’s piano playing, a sense of things that have been latent in the boys and the father suddenly finding fruition, and Jack’s aggression, which he begins to turn on his brother, then becomes jealous of this bond, too.


Malick’s dedication to classiness, with his (again trademark) selection of peerlessly discriminating classical music, and the clobbering force of Emmanuel Lubezki’s sun-lacquered images replete with Kodak moments of massive frames full of baby feet and hands and heads, might eventually start to feel as phony as some directors who specialise in conjuring endless grime and cynicism, if it weren’t for the compensatory attentiveness to the finite by Malick and his editors. They bash a mass of footage of the actors and their minutely detailed environs into scenes that are deeply realistic and revelatory without staginess. Malick keeps a strand of American naturalism alive in this regard, even as his films generally reject mere naturalism. A toey, physically charged quality permeates the acting, especially of McCracken and Pitt, who so long regarded as a pinnacle of movie star handsomeness, here looks rather piggish and glazed with a crew-cut and period affect. There’s also the genuine charge of corporeally affecting anguish in Penn’s brief appearances that contextualises the emotional element of the film. The sense in Malick’s structuring lies in the fact that the death of Jack’s brother is not the subject, but a great millstone that has severed him from a sense of his past. All of Malick’s major protagonists want to return to a state of innocence—nothing so corny as sexual innocence, but rather innocence in accepting life as a bounty. Adult Jack rails at contemporary greed, getting “worse and worse,” and the mind flits back to the dinosaurs, taking nothing more than is necessary. Malick depicts a fracture somewhere in his—and America’s, and the world’s—past, where an inability to reconcile aspects of existence creative a vortex of grasping anxiety.


The film’s last phase tends to be cited most as problematic by the film’s detractors, but in many ways, I actually found it the most interesting, if also overlong. Jack’s reverie changes pitch: as he ascends in an elevator, a vision of end times comes upon him. Shots of the Earth consumed by the sun’s final supernova segue into a resurrection. As people wander a vast tidal plain, Jack encounters his father, mother, and Steve. Having earlier pondered how his mother came to terms with his brother’s death, here she’s glimpsed willingly giving him up to spirits that embrace her. The images here, as Jack follows a mysterious woman through the desert and sees himself stepping through a door in the middle of nowhere, filled with enigmatic wanderings, dream-figures, and invocatory gesture, take on a totemistic surrealism reminiscent of Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, and the film operates on the level of a senseless sensibility that rejects the literal in approaching transcendence. It’s arguable that Malick runs the risk of disappearing up his own backside, but I resist this, because as well as Anger, the scene also reminded me of Castorp’s waking dream in Mann’s The Magic Mountain. One does not have to take it all literally, but rather as an acceptance of imagining as a place where contradictions are reconciled and the intangible solidified: “The great soul of which we are a part may dream through us,” Mann wrote, “Of its youth, its hope, its joys and peace—and blood sacrifice.” In the very last moments, Jack merely reels away from his office and regards the world, with the sun going down behind a grandiose San Francisco bridge, and the sense of time ticking away comes to the fore. Life goes on, but to what end? In much the same way, I came out of the film feeling on a distinctly different plane to the everyday world I re-entered. Faults, blind spots, obscurities and all, The Tree of Life is still a great movie experience.