THE TREE OF LIFE
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011
Terrence Malick, the wandering auteur, has directed only five features in the thirty-eight years since he scored a major critical success with his 1973 debut film, Badlands, an artistic road movie starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as natural-born killers on a spree.
His second picture, Days of Heaven (1978), is an elliptical romance; his third, The Thin Red Line (1998), is a philosophical war picture; and his fourth, The New World (2005), is a Wagnerian retelling of the Pocahontas story. Each is experimental and unorthodox—enough so to forestall profits at the box office—and each opens intriguing, new perspectives on the nature, purpose, and possibilities of cinema itself.
The Tree of Life continues this trajectory in fascinating ways, extending Malick’s lifelong project of blending film and philosophy into areas of autobiography and religion. On one level it’s a domestic drama and coming-of-age tale, centering on a boy named Jack who’s entering adolescence in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s, the place and time of Malick’s early years. On a deeper level, it’s a study of grief and loss, tracing the effect of an untimely death on Jack’s family and on his own still-forming sensibility. And ultimately it’s a tale of salvation and redemption, with a story that moves from the earthly plane to the heavenly one in emphatically religious terms. It’s a movie of great intellectual ambition, weaving a not-quite-seamless web of images, sounds, and meanings that stretches from the beginning of the world to the end of days.
With all this going on, The Tree of Life is not an easy movie to describe. First comes an impressionistic prologue, with diverse images accompanied by the disembodied voiceovers that Malick uses in every film; here they introduce the themes of love and death, and suggest that every individual must choose between “the way of nature” and “the way of grace” as the correct path to follow in life. This prelude leads to the film’s loosely strung story, which begins when Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive news of a loved one’s death. Extended flashbacks then show the early days of their marriage and the births of their children, including Jack (Hunter McCracken), who becomes the movie’s main character. Other sequences place the O’Brien story into the sweeping contexts of the material cosmos that contains humankind and the spiritual destiny that awaits us.
The film’s long middle portion centers on Jack in early adolescence, showing his everyday life and etching his relationships with his warm, easygoing mother and his stern, sometimes belligerent father. Malick sees Jack’s development in classically oedipal terms: he’s attached to his mom and hostile toward his dad, and his tensions are resolved when he realizes that his father is very much like he is, flawed and frustrated but trying hard to do the best he can. Circumstances outside the home also test the family’s resilience, especially when one of Jack’s brothers drowns in a sudden accident. Near the end of the film it becomes clear that the story is unfolding in Jack’s mind many years later, when he has become a successful professional coping with another family death that brings memories of these bygone events flooding into his mind and heart, along with intimations of a higher power that has played an elusive yet decisive role in his life.
The Tree of Life is stunningly effective in its family sequences, vividly capturing the sights, the sounds, and the very feel of what it’s like to be a growing boy in a typical American household of the 1950s. I’ve seen more coming-of-age movies than I can count, and I remember few scenes as evocative as the moment when Jack slightly injures his brother, then apologizes in ways so delicate and understated that they’re hard for an outsider to fathom; or when Jack and another boy have a whole conversation while running down a back road at top speed; or when Jack and his friends stand on homemade stilts that symbolize their dim awareness of humanity’s special place in the world; or when Jack steals a piece of lingerie from a neighboring home, then feels overcome by a mysterious mixture of fear and desire. The screenplay is less important here than the breathless cinematography and razor-sharp editing, which blend fleeting and ephemeral aspects of childhood with the timeless and enduring undertones of day-to-day existence. The film is equally authentic in its depiction of the lower-middle-class suburb where Jack’s family lives, portraying the environment not as shabby or run-down but as average and ordinary, which is surely how it’s seen by the people who live there.
Although the fragmented structure and breathless visual pace of the family scenes have puzzled some moviegoers, they fall into elegant patterns once you accept Malick’s approach, which is poetic and allusive rather than linear and commonsensical. The sequences surrounding the story are another matter, and as brilliant as I find The Tree of Life as a whole, I don’t think Malick got the cosmic episodes quite under control during his three long years of editing the film. The problem lies not in their sensory impact, which approaches sublimity at times, but in the way they’re stitched together. Malick evokes the creation of the world (or maybe it’s the universe) via cataclysmic collisions between bits of space-borne rock and strands of nucleic acid, attended by planetary alignments that recall Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Then he leaps to the age of dinosaurs (created with computers, a technique Malick normally avoids) and leaps again to the age of humans, omitting eons of evolution along the way. These quantum jumps are elliptical in the extreme, but we get the general idea—the immense and the infinitesimal have equal value in God’s omniscient mind—and Malick’s combinations of luminous imagery and soul-stirring music pack a majestic wallop at even the most mystifying moments. I only wish they added up to a coherent creation myth rather than a disjunctive series of cinematic feats.
The film’s religious visions are more perplexing. The Tree of Life opens with a quotation from the Book of Job, where God asks: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” In addition to its resonance in Job’s story, the word picture of harmoniously singing stars connects powerfully and movingly with the concept of “shining” that Malick adopted years ago from the writing of Martin Heidegger, whose philosophy he taught and translated as a young scholar in the 1960s. Heidegger’s influence is especially strong in Malick’s earlier film The Thin Red Line, where a character says in voiceover, “Darkness and light, strife and love, are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul … look out through my eyes. Look at the things you made, all things shining.” The lesson Jack finally learns in The Tree of Life is that all things are indeed shining—with God-given grace and glory—even when human experience seems to be at its most dismal, dark, and distressing.
This gives the film an inspiring message, and Malick underscores it by imagining the characters in heaven at the end, all alive and loving one another in God’s eternal kingdom. The odd thing is that Malick depicts this via old-fashioned clichés—glowing skies, rippling water, blissful faces, hugs and embraces everywhere you look—that may be meant as a ringing affirmation of religious tradition but comes off as more hackneyed and naive than many spiritual progressives, much less the secular humanists among us, will feel comfortable with. This problem is exacerbated by Malick’s tepid depiction of suffering; in a film that evokes the tribulations of Job, it’s strange to find characters who hardly seem to age, who give birth without exertion or pain, and who die sudden deaths with no dread or agony involved. This makes for soothing cinema, but as theology it’s facile and simplistic.
These reservations notwithstanding, I want to say again that The Tree of Life is a brilliant achievement in almost all respects, bringing the eternal and the everyday, the macrocosmic and the microscopic, and the physical and the metaphysical into graceful convergences that are awesome to behold. Malick has shown great courage, moreover, in organizing such a vast and personal film around theological ideas at a time when Hollywood’s idea of religious cinema is limited to propaganda screeds like The Passion of the Christ (2004) and superstitious fantasies like The Da Vinci Code (2006). He is the one true visionary in American feature films today, and his breathtaking new movie makes up for its theological deficiencies with towering waves of ingenuity, originality, and cinematic splendor.