Fox Searchlight (2011) 139 min. PG-13
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editing: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber & Mark Yoshikawa
Production Design: Jack Fisk; Set Decoration: Jeanette Scott; Costumes: Jacqueline West; Score: Alexandre Desplat
Stars: Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), Laramie Eppler (R.L.), Tye Sheridan (Steve), Fiona Shaw (Grandmother)
“Think of a tree, how it grows ‘round its roots. The branch breaks off, it don’t stop, but keeps reaching toward the light.” — The New World
Terrence Malick has always been an acquired taste. His movies are mood pieces paced to the cadence of internal monologues whispered rhetorically by his characters in hushed, reverential tones onscreen. Striving for more than the movie medium can encompass, he’s a visionary seeking to push past its restricting barriers to self-expression. When the man stays focused there’s no director better at vividly evoking the sentient, existential sensations of simple human perception. His movies pulsate with the vibrancy of life as we experience it at almost a subliminal level. They heighten our awareness in a way that makes us feel as if we were experiencing a movie fully awake and responsive for the first time.
Critics characterized his latest, The Tree of Life as impressionistic, which only hints at part of the truth. While the film does seek to capture the subjective feeling of experience rather than its realistic depiction, some scenes are undoubtedly expressionistic, distorting reality to visually externalize the character’s thoughts and emotions. Montage has been applied to still others in a fragmentary, time collapsing way that suggests Cubism and collage. Even others are surreal, symbolic, Romanticist in their deification of nature, or betray the stark influence of cinéma vérité. The Tree of Life is really a fugue of different disciplines and movements that Malick has seamlessly adapted into a signature auteurial style all his own. Though elusively cerebral, his free form film reaches those artistic, poetic, spiritual places where one can intuitively grasp and respond at a level deeper than conscious thought.
If you surrender to your sensibilities, allow yourself to be overwhelmed and swept away by the awesome and awe-inspiring imagery shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezcki, who did The New World (it’s one of the few films that justifies being seen on a big screen in our overhyped, IMAX age), The Tree of Life will prove an overwhelming emotional experience. Words prove inadequate when describing the perfect splendor of certain passages. This is the sort of movie one must drink in visually in order to fully appreciate it. On the other hand, those with their receptors closed off will likely lose patience as Malick starts meandering. The director begins to veg out on the vegetative imagery pretty early here, becoming lost amid the ancient deciduous forests and soft, spongy old growth of his mind. At those moments there’s no saving his movie from its own top-heavy, high-minded pretentiousness.
Malick was dreaming an impossible dream with The Tree of Life, by musing over man’s place in the universe, the existence of God, the meaning of life itself. Clearly the director was striving for something truly philosophic and profound in seeking answers to the big questions, but he’s trying to find closure for issues that have been plaguing humankind since we first developed cognitive reason. Of course he can’t; no one could. So having overreached himself and been stumped, the director falls back on familiar homilies and safe platitudes. The Tree of Life is a Sunday school sermon on the tribulations of Job with the opening quote “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” taken directly from Job 38: 4, 7. Job’s preceding question, as to why a just and merciful God would allow the wicked to prosper while misfortune befalls the righteous, becomes the searching central theme of the movie, reiterated by both mother and son. These bigger questions remain insoluble however, mind-massaging thoughts beyond the scope of mortal man to grasp, all of which leaves the movie feeling rather vague and nebulous, its philosophic ruminations reverberating off the walls like an enormous echo chamber. Malick is trying to say so much here, too much really, that his aim exceeds his grasp. It’s his most ambitious movie, but he tries to cover absolutely everything, from Genesis to Revelation, bookending the film with the beginning of the universe and winding his way right on through to the end of time while stuffing in all the mysteries of existence that come in between. The end result is as impressive as it is unwieldy, but it’s too much to take in. As a movie, a means of visual storytelling, the elliptical Tree of Life falls short. It’s a near-miss masterpiece.
Malick uses cinema as a rapturous vehicle for artistic expression, but he’s closed himself off by speaking in his own private tongue. Far too often the audience is at a loss to grasp what precisely it is the director is trying to say. Malick seems to want to be a meditative messiah as much as a movie-maker, to use the cinema as an instrument of spiritual enlightenment and educational enrichment more than entertainment. He’s an esoteric aesthete. Though he’s found the ideal medium of expression (the only medium that could come anywhere close to approximating his vision), a prudent prophet with a tad more foresight might have experienced a twinge of misgiving about releasing a conduit for such deep thoughts in June, amidst the sea tide of superficial summer blockbusters. Apparently inspired by his own childhood reminiscences, this is the first Malick movie set in the same Waco, Texas locale where he grew up in the fifties. The oldest of three boys, he likewise lost a guitarist brother at a young age. Those facts alone mark The Tree of Life, which is very much about getting back to your roots, as the director’s most autobiographical work from an emotional standpoint. It is the work of a man closer to the end of life than the beginning and the movie unfolds before us as events might flash before the eyes of a dying man thoughtfully looking back, meditating on all his mistakes, missed opportunities, wondering what it’s all been about (“Someday we’ll fall down and we… we’ll understand it all. All things.”). He’s also gazing into the future, seeking answers to where we’re going once we shake off this mortal coil. It’s the work of a man staring in the face of his own mortality who ultimately finds comfort in the continuity of things. Everyone dies, but the tree of life remains, eternal and impermeable. Rather than presenting time as an absolute flow, the director blends past, present and future into an unbroken stream of consciousness. By merging far-flung corners of the cosmos. and parallel timelines in this way, The Tree of Life intends to show us life from God’s vantage (“Let me see what you see.”), a bird’s eye view of how all things are in harmonious communion. To his mind it’s all relative, all part of one omniscient creator’s grand design and the eons here pass as in the blink of an eye. At least they seem to under the rapid fire montages of the editors’ scissors. Malick put a small army of them to work on The Tree of Life, whittling it down like a pack of termites into something presentable. Thematically based crosscutting may allow past to share screen space with both present and future, and occasionally, such as at the ending, for all three tenses to share the screen at the same time (totally distorting our sense of the cardinal unities), but Malick has a difficult time making a case for all these things being somehow related.
With their free association, Malick’s movies are already somewhat difficult to follow, but there’s a specific emotional disconnect between the three big sections in The Tree of Life that imparts the same episodic impression as the movements of a symphony. It’s clear what the director is trying to do, but the ambiguity of his high concept results in a formless, ill-defined narrative (Malick was also his own writer). The result is so dreamy, abstract and pensive that the movie struggles to stay focused, while viewers try to keep their eyes from clouding over and their minds from blurring out. Malick’s movies are never mainstream Hollywood releases (star Brad Pitt’s presence undoubtedly misled many who found themselves in the theater), and this one could more honestly be regarded as an art house piece or even an experimental work, despite its budget. The Tree of Life may be the cinema’s most expensive avant-garde work of art.
The film is deeply flawed; parts of it are pretentious, and it never finds a fitting pace. But when Malick hits his marks, which is mainly during the middle portion, set in the ’50s, he finds resonances and soundings that most movies aren’t even aware of. Then the film’s ambitious ideas rise to the heights of Malick’s rapturous imagery, his dissonant themes and visuals blending perfectly together, and everything seems to fall into place, become all of a whole. The result is that The Tree of Life fairly shoots off the screen like Jack’s beanstalk, its diverging branches extended in full spread, reaching up toward the towering heights of Malick’s lofty ambitions, scraping the canopy of the sky. At these moments it feels infused with the dizzying euphoria of life itself, and there are few comparable movie experiences.
More ambitious than just about any other release of the past few years, The Tree of Life tries to encompass more than most movies dare, and there are undeniably great things in it. Much like loose kindling though, they aren’t bundled together as well as one would like. The Tree of Life can be searching and revealing, but also pompous and ponderous, both quiet and loud. To the director there’s no such thing as a small moment in the eye of a creator who notices when even a sparrow falls, so the seemingly insignificant and everyday is weighted with the same import as the beginning of the world. The movie’s message, the final sentiment that “unless you love, life will flash by,” seems unduly trite, a pittance after the problems of this average American every-family have been placed on a grand scale equitable to the deep rumblings and settling of the cosmos. In equal measure The Tree of Life manufactures tempests in teapots while trivializing the tremendous, discerning the extraordinary in the commonplace while reducing the formation of the universe to a science fair caliber pulsing light show that would have done the dawn of creation sequence in Disney’s Fantasia proud. Malick is no Steven Hawking. Planetarium footage that looks culled from the Hubble Space Telescope for the Epcot Center produces a professional finish modeled after any number of Discovery Channel specials. It’s beautiful to look at and Malick gives us plenty of time to ogle, but we half expect him to point out the face of Jesus in the stars. This Dawn of Time sequence is trippy, hallucinogenic psychedelia accompanied by classical arias intended to leave us in gaping awe at the glory of His design. Though Malick seems mighty impressed at his own profundity, the sequence isn’t quite as meaningful as it probably should be given the circumstances. But the dinosaur bits are the logical culmination to the creation of life imagery leading up to them and feature acceptable special effects that are discreetly kept to a minimum. This extended birth of the cosmos has invariably drawn comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey and similar use of classical music with ‘The Blue Danube.’
Perhaps to distance himself, Malick has omitted any mention of man’s own Genesis, stopping short at the Age of Reptiles and skipping ahead several millennium to the present day. It’s disappointing, since the title references to the biblical tree of life could easily have been enlarged in scope to include man’s evolutionary tree itself, the way it was in Creation, with its many branches diverging from our one common ancestor. Or even stretched further to reference the genealogical family tree. Malick’s ambitious concept is so expansive it seems to suggest all these possibilities and more. The imagery detailing the birth of slowly spiraling galaxies is later visually rhymed with similar glimpses of the world under the sea. Malick is just about the only filmmaker who dares take his time in our sound bite era, stopping the lugubrious Tree of Life in order to smell the roses, reveling in rapturous delight over the beauty of images that only the film camera could capture. This is evident in the appreciative way his camera rhymes the ripples of jellyfish with the motion of the waves surrounding them, or the wind whipping over scorched desert sand dunes like a blast of cooling air.
He uses CGI in this movie to recapture the childish wonder we all experienced when movies were brand new to us and we first saw King Kong, Dynarama, or Jurassic Park. By getting back to basics, he’s rediscovering the reason visual effects were invented in the first place, not to howl the audience down as civilization is destroyed by space aliens for the umpteenth time, but rather to play into the simple thrill of seeing vanished worlds and impossible events recreated for our viewing pleasure. Like Kubrick as well, Malick doesn’t just trace where man has come from but also outlines just where he believes we’re going, evolving not into star children exactly, as Kubrick suggested at the end of his own opus, but rather ascending to a better place, a higher plane of existence, achieving a semblance of spiritual grace in the hereafter. Malick himself invited many of these comparisons to Kubrick by contracting Douglas Trumbull to do his special-effects, thereby setting himself in some pretty impressive company. Though Trumbull’s work on 2001 helped it win a visual effects Oscar, he still seems an odd choice in this day and age, when the art of FX has advanced so far beyond what was possible forty years ago. In a way it’s unfortunate that The Tree of Life has been so closely compared with and measured against the Kubrick masterpiece (others have noted the stylistic influence of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky). Malick is too much an original to be compared to any other director, living or dead, even Kubrick, perhaps the one contemporary who matched him for the peculiar eccentricity of his genius. Malick’s movies defy classification. This is certainly true of The Tree of Life, a film which frequently beggars description.
The reach of this man, the heights to which Malick seems to aspire, are awe-inspiring, but when he’s felled he topples over hard and without even a warning shout of timber. This is most marked in the ending sequences which are confusion worse confounded, a perplexing attempt to approximate some visual semblance of the afterlife and the interconnectedness of all things in heaven and on the earth. But it’s a clichéd conception that diminishes Malick’s themes when they should be at their most soaring. It’s glorified near-death nirvana, and leaves the movie feeling false and affected, taken in by its own delusions of grandeur. What’s worse, the scene seems cheaply pandering since the primary motivation behind it appears to have been to maneuver the movie’s two big cash stars into at least one scene together. There’s no other reason why Jack remains an adult in this vignette while his brothers are seen to have reverted to their youth, regained the faith of children. Malick is above this sort of thing. If The Tree of Life had ended a bit earlier, with the relocated family being uprooted from their home, having learned life’s most valuable lesson, viewers would probably be left feeling more satisfied, maybe even emotionally contented. Like a guest who overstays his welcome, however, The Tree of Life rambles on, for an additional half hour, exhausting viewers’ patience and losing them down its pretentious metaphorical and metaphysical corridors.
The relatively modest story crushed between the pomp and circumstance of epilogue and prologue deals with archetypal familial conflicts among members of a working-class Texas family in the ’50s. The three O’Brien boys are torn between their deeply spiritual mother’s strong religious beliefs and the more worldly values espoused by their materialistic father, a petty tyrant who intimidates and bullies his sons because he thinks it’s for their own good. He believes that he has to be merciless with them in order to toughen them up, so that they’ll be capable of surviving in a dog eat dog world. A born dreamer (he owns several patents for inventions that never came to fruition) and failed pianist, he’s suppressed his better nature, that sensitive, creative side of himself, and is determined to beat it out of his boys as well. Harsh, judgmental, critical, he lords it over his household insufferably, the uncontested king of his castle, because out there in the real world he feels irrelevant and inconsequential, an impotent little man with no power or authority. While the world has disregarded him, he uses fear and coercion to enforce the respect of his family. Subconsciously, he also blames and resents his sons for his own unrealized ambitions. He had to settle down to a steady but creatively unfulfilling job in order to support his growing young family. When the eldest boy accuses his father of wishing him dead, there’s a jarring truth in the statement since it was his unexpected arrival that necessitated his parents’ marriage, aborting the father’s dreams of a musical career. Feeling like a failure himself, the father can’t abide anything short of success, perfection in his children. His firstborn, Jack, is the direct focus of his father’s brutality because he’s inherited his same obstreperous nature (“I’m more like you than her,” he admits late in the film). Because he sees so much of himself in his recalcitrant son, Jack represents the possibility for failure all over again, the failure the father can’t tolerate in himself. The Sunday sermon on Job, recounted in the film, expresses the father’s own child rearing agenda with, “We can’t protect ourselves against it. We can’t protect our children. We can’t say to ourselves, even if I’m not happy I’m going to make sure they are.” There are no such guarantees in life. Like many men of his generation the father doesn’t know how to show his children affection, perhaps doesn’t even think it proper he should. He considers it a sign of weakness. When neighbors come to comfort his wife and offer their condolences upon the death of their son, he shoos them away (“Go on now. We’re alright… we’re alright.”), as if this simple gesture of concern were deeply embarrassing to him. Mr. O’Brien has been so hurt and disappointed by this corrupt system of things, in which he sees sinners profit the most, that he’s developed a ruthlessly Darwinian outlook on life, observing “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” Extolling the notion of survival of the fittest he tries to drill the philosophy into his boys’ minds as well, telling them on the ride home from worship, “The wrong people go hungry, the wrong people die, the wrong people get loved. The world lives by trickery. You want to succeed, you can’t be too good.” His creative talent having gone unrealized, O’Brien is determined to wrest his fair share from an unappreciative world he feels has taken for granted everything he had to contribute. Consequently, he balls his delicate musician’s hands into a fighter’s fist to teach his sons to box so they’ll never be kicked around as he’s been all his life. Indicating how he feels the world has treated him, he masochistically orders the boys to hit him as hard as they can and when they display the slightest hesitancy to further hurt their father, becomes irate. We can understand then why his sons would gravitate toward their wispy dream of a warm, nurturing mother.
On its most superficial level, The Tree of Life could be simplified as an archetypal Oedipal conflict with roots that stretch all the way back to classical drama. Jack wants his father dead, prays to God to kill him in fact. He even entertains the idea of releasing the ratchet holding up the car the father is tinkering under, not just to be freed from his tyranny but so that he can have his mother all to himself (“She only loves me!” he raves at one startling point). Onto this timeless and misleadingly minimal framework however, Malick has layered meanings as diverse and far-reaching as creationism versus Darwinism, the discovery of Original Sin, mankind’s fall from grace, the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the immutability of the soul. Malick’s parental figures serve as prototypical archetypes, representative illustrations of the opposing extremes in the universe, the Yin and the Yang. They haven’t even been christened with first names to distinguish them as individual human beings, being billed simply as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, much as Pocahontas was never called by her rightful name in The New World, so that her story could be accepted as representative of the Native American experience. The battle of the sexes has been expanded into a metaphor for the spiritual war eternally waging within man’s soul. The father and mother are meant to represent conflicting forces in the ethical struggle their sons are faced with, that we’re all faced with really, concerning how to live both in the world and apart from it. With his parents as guides, Jack must negotiate a balance between the fundamental need to wrest a living out of a corrupting, material society, while simultaneously striving to remain apart from it, to rise above it and by doing so keep his soul pure. No chinks ever appear in the mother’s sparkling armor of virtuousness, even though we know the devout must be as wise as serpents and simple as doves to survive in this world. Yet Mr. O’Brien, so tragically flawed, ultimately does approach human dimensions. Despite the outward show of hardness, the father who tends his garden so diligently is actually a cultivator, a nurturer at heart. Like Rolfe in The New World, he’s a tiller of the earth and in his soul of souls he’s committed to seeing things grow. The Tree of Life proves to be rooted in the same fertile soil as his own family tree. His only lasting legacy is his children; it’s only through them that he’s managed to make any mark at all on the world. The one time we had seen a look of enrapture on the father’s face was when he first beheld his newborn son, and late in the film he’ll reveal to Jack that he’s finally gotten his priorities in good order and come to understand what’s fundamentally important. “Y’all are about all I’ve got in life, otherwise I would’ve drawn a zilch. You’re all I have. You’re all I want to have.” At day’s end, the family he’d treated so poorly in his quest for the finer things is the only thing of value he can really lay claim to. As with the character of John Smith in The New World, through Mr. O’Brien Malick shows us how chasing after success in the world’s eyes can blind one to the abundant bounty of life to be freely gathered all around, riches far more precious than gold. In the initial scenes, the character expressed regret that he never apologized to the son who died, yet in the moment that caps the movie, the father does humble himself enough to apologize to his eldest boy. Even though this all important scene, temporally, takes place long before the death of the middle son, since it’s structurally placed later in the film, the arc of his character seems to come full circle, dramatically speaking, with the father reclaiming by this simple act of contrition, the keynote of grace that he’d long ago forsaken.
Brad Pitt already ambled through the mock Malick The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so perhaps his casting as the father here isn’t as out of left field as it may seem at first glance (Heath Ledger had originally been considered for the role before his death). Malick is the same man, after all, who capriciously cast Colin Farrell in The New World, and just as it was with Farrell the performance he manages to pull out of Pitt is beyond what we would have previously considered him capable, fully justifying the director’s faith in him. Seeming smaller and shrunken in his grey flannel suits and thick glasses with their heavy, black brims, he’s hidden for most of the film behind discreet aging makeups, a severely bristled buzz cut and the same petulantly protruding lower lip he sported as the crack commandant of Inglorious Basterds. Fully immersing himself in a part for the first time, Pitt is thoroughly convincing as this misguided authoritarian and the result is a masterful stroke of character playing. As far as acting stretches go, this just may be the best work of the star’s career, the first time I’ve ever been completely persuaded by his dramatic range. Pitt is a skilled light comedian and in that guise has been little short of brilliant in movies like Thelma and Louise, 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Burn After Reading, Inglorious Basterds, Moneyball. But like most stars known primarily as sex symbols, he’s always struggled to live down the onus. The same way beautiful girls want to be respected for their minds, Pitt wants to be taken seriously as an actor. This is a frequent Hollywood complaint, and most stars in similar straits are so desperate to prove their dramatic gravitas that they take on subjects that are woefully out of their depths.
For his part, I’ve never found Pitt to be particularly convincing in dramatic roles, not even in the most auspicious of them such as Babel, The Assassination of Jesse James or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which he was actually nominated for an Oscar. There always seemed to be something lacking in his performances that made it impossible to be taken in and completely won over by them. The Tree of Life is the first definitive proof he’s ever given me that he could make just as persuasive a dramatic actor as he’s proven to be as a comedian. But if it takes a director of Malick’s caliber to bring this out in him, Pitt’s going to have to hunt far and wide for an equally impressive follow-up.
Malick’s mother figure has been conceived as such a perfect saint it’s clear he means her to be accepted less as a feasible character than a filmy construct. Graciousness and absolute goodness are some of the hardest qualities to convincingly convey onscreen. A few actresses have managed it, such as Lillian Gish, Olivia de Havilland in Gone with the Wind, Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, Emma Thompson in Howards End, and both Viola Davis in The Help and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist came pretty close to approximating it onscreen the same year. But Jordan is a hard road and Jessica Chastain has a particularly rocky one laid out for her. A relative newcomer whose career really bloomed in 2011, with significant roles in several releases including The Help (for which she was Oscar-nominated), her ingénue status at the time she made the film (principal photography wrapped all the way back in 2008) must have helped suspend disbelief, since audiences had no preconceived notion of her that she needed to overcome, as with a major star like Pitt.
Chastain imparts a luminous impression of a woman too good for this world, though Malick is regrettably inclined at times to get his point across by draping the actress in nunnery shrouds of religious white or having her fluttering angelically overhead rather than coming into coarse contact with the earth. Even for scenes meant to represent symbolic flights of fancy like this, it seems too much. We can practically see her halo, yet Chastain’s lovely performance, floating through events like the notes of a haunting, half forgotten hymn, grounds the character. She’s firmly rooted, like that tree she plants in the nourishing soil from which it draws its strength, as she draws her spiritual nourishment from God and his natural world (the concepts are the same to Malick).
Like the director, Mrs. O’Brien sees the wonders of God in all creatures great and small (though in an amusingly human moment, this love is shown not to be extended to lizards), the same God whose existence her agnostic husband and questioning son can find no evidence of. Where her Darwinian husband sees the forces of nature as crushingly vicious and ruthlessly indifferent, this view is tempered through the mother’s eyes which are wide open to the natural beauty all about her. Like Pocahontas in The New World, Mrs. O’Brien is fully attuned to life, in harmony with all things. She notices the blue skies and the butterflies as if they were brand new to her, and the entire film is infused with this same air of enchantment. Malick’s camera betrays a sense of wonder on par with hers and the visual rapture apparent in every frame of The Tree of Life makes it clear which parent’s world view the director has modeled his movie after.
In The New World, Malick correlated Pocahontas with the eternal earth mother, and he seems to have conceived Mrs. O’Brien after the same manner. Behind that enigmatic, Mona Lisa like air of stillness and quietude she too seems in possession of some secret wisdom of the ages. She’s clothed in earth tones, sky blue or vibrant greens to link her with the colors of the natural world. The soul of serenity, she has striven to live her life according to the precepts conferred upon her by the nuns who taught “that there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.” While the fitful father is frustrated and unfulfilled, believing himself to be a failure by the world’s standards, the pious mother is able to see beyond material cares, and is at untroubled peace with herself, believing it matters far more to be considered a success in the eyes of God.
She’s a tree of knowledge and tries to pass her wisdom on to her sons (“Do good to them. Wonder. Hope… help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”). Words to live by. Mrs. O’Brien is a tranquil balm who has a calming influence on everything she touches. Which is why it’s so startling when this demure peacemaker lashes out at her overbearing husband in anger, and so dispiriting when this woman who has always accepted whatsoever providence decreed, loses the faith that imparted such capacity in her heart for understanding and compassion. She’d always seemed capable of bending like a supple tree whichever way the wind blows, so it’s heartrending to see her snap under the strain. Her crisis of faith occurs when she can’t reconcile her love for a God to whom she had promised to always remain true, with the traumatic death of her angelic middle son, whom she saw as a blessing. She feels God could only have divested her so cruelly due to some unforeseen failing on her own part. Her loss becomes a metaphor for the tribulations of Job, quoted in the opening passage.
As the priest states on Sunday, “Job imagines… that the integrity of his behavior would protect him against misfortune. His friends thought mistakenly that the lord could only have punished him because secretly he’d done something wrong. No, misfortune befalls the good as well.” Like Job, the mother struggles to sustain her faith in God despite a seemingly indifferent universe where bad things are permitted to happen to good people. “That’s the way God is,” Fiona Shaw’s grandmother avers, “he sends flies to wounds that he should heal.” The beauty of her soul is made manifest in her coming to terms with letting her son go, giving him back to God in essence with “I give him to you. I give you my son.” But we can’t understand why He would want the boy back anymore than his mother can, and must simply accept as she does, as Job did, knowing that we aren’t privy to the grand design and have no right to question why God works in such mysterious ways.
Chastain doesn’t impress us with her acting the way Pitt does, but only for the simple reason that she never appears to be acting at all. She’s not playing a part here, but inhabiting her character so thoroughly the two seem indivisible, to the point that it never occurs to us to question her performance. There’s not one there to question but rather a state of being. This is transcendent work, the most persuasive playing I saw onscreen all year. Chastain’s Academy Award nominated turn in The Help seems like a crude caricature by comparison. The willowy actress has the same auburn haired, lightly freckled, fair complexion as the young Sissy Spacek of Malick’s Badlands, and in The Tree of Life we seem to be witnessing the emergence of a star of similar quality. It’s unusual to find oneself becoming emotionally invested in a character so refreshingly soulful that she comes off without the actress hardly having to do anything. Chastain makes goodness seem like a virtue, an ideal. Jack says God showed him His grace through her, and through Chastain’s ethereal portrayal we too get a glimpse of the sublime. It’s the sort of spiritually uplifting performance that has an inspirational impact. Chastain’s beatific performance in The Tree of Life should touch everyone who sees it, make viewers want to emulate the character the same way her children do, make them want to be a better person. She’s an agent of betterment, for good, and the force of her character fairly radiates off the screen. Her delicately shaded rendering is the movie’s most deeply felt blessing.
The heart of the drama deals with the eternal struggle within man’s soul between nature and grace, the spiritual and the animal. That struggle here is embodied in the person of Sean Penn’s Jack, played in his youth by a jug-eared, astonishing new child actor named Hunter McCracken, making his film debut. McCracken looks and, even more uncannily, sounds like a young Lucas Black, around the time he appeared in Sling Blade and the short-lived cult television series American Gothic. He’s so good that he almost makes us believe that he could actually grow up into the Oscar-winning Penn. Jack is spiritually conflicted by the sage wisdom imparted by his sanctified mother (“Do good to them.”), and the grasping advice offered by his Darwinian father (“You want to succeed, you can’t be too good.”), the movie’s embodiment of nature and grace. But by associating the spiritual with the female and the visceral with the male in this way, Malick seems to be subscribing to the same gender roles so stringently adhered to during the ’50s time period in which this movie is set. In effect, these diametrically opposing forces are engaged in a tug of war over Jack’s soul, the type that parents frequently engage in, using their children’s allegiances and loyalties as casualties in their attempts to one up and outdo each other. “You turn my own children against me,” husband accuses wife, and he has a point. She wants them to follow the way of grace, her way, rather than his, the way of nature. She believes it’s the only way to save their soul. In essence, the two function as good and bad angels on Jack’s shoulders (“Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”).
But by personifying and splitting abstract concepts of nature and grace between two contrasting individuals in this manner the director fails to find any conceivable middle ground. One is either of this world or above it, either pure good or pure bad. Malick is dividing his sinners to his left hand and his saints to his right, a sifting God on his own throne of judgment. No wonder poor Jack feels so torn. We see this as he veers back and forth between his innate inclinations to be good and the base, animal nature that drives him to do just as he pleases. It’s a conflict that’s been being played out since time immemorial. For as we see, this universal struggle between the selfish animal drive and the ineffable spirit of grace is echoed in nature as well. Even in the ruthless wilds, all red of tooth and claw, the quality of mercy is not strained. This note is struck early on, when a predatory raptor unaccountably spares the life of a wounded herbivore that it could have easily made a meal of.
The point seems to be that even before there was man, there was the grace of God, so it’s ingrained in human nature, right alongside the animal instinct. Even the natural world is endowed with the free will to choose to follow one or the other, though this would seem to be at loggerheads with the movie’s contention that “nature,” as it is, “only wishes to please itself.” Indeed, The Tree of Life’s main theoretical flaw is Malick’s conflicted view of ‘nature,’ which is so confusing and problematic here. In The New World the director associated nature, in the traditional Romanticist manner, with the divine. It was an unequivocally positive thing intertwined as it was with the character of Pocahontas who was linked to the trees, sun, water all the wonders of nature made manifest. So it’s confusing that Malick turns around and uses the word ‘nature’ in a negative context in The Tree of Life, contrasting it with the notion of spiritual ‘grace,’ because his viewpoint hasn’t changed. Here, it’s the sainted mother who’s associated with the miracle of nature. The dinosaur passage confirms that when Malick uses the term ‘nature’ he’s not referring to the natural world, which he’s always depicted as worthy of man’s reverence, but rather the inclinations of inherently flawed human nature, which is a whole different animal. ‘Nature’ here refers to man’s innate inclination toward wickedness, his inherited, natural state of original sin. The Tree of Life however, fails to clearly draw this fine line of demarcation.
Malick’s use of the term ‘nature’ could just as easily refer to natural selection, or at least the ruthless social Darwinism espoused by the materialistic, glory hungry father. Like him, Jack comes to feel that being virtuous just leaves one vulnerable in a predatory world, but his growing reticence to follow the example set by his mother cuts deeper than that. Now that he’s becoming a man, he increasingly sees her docility as feminine, passive, weak. “I don’t want to listen to you. You let him walk all over you,” is his devastating accusation. As his father teaches, boys are supposed to hit back. They can’t simply turn the other cheek as she encourages, it isn’t manly. Society views sons who favor their mothers as sissies and mama’s boys. Jack can get away with picking on R.L. specifically because he does possess his angelic mother’s same submissive spirit. It makes him an easy target for his brother’s bullying because he knows he won’t defend himself. R.L. seems weaker than he is, and as their father has drummed into their heads, the weak warrant no pity; they deserve to be crushed. Jack’s father says he only ever wanted him to “be your own man,” to not have to kowtow to his betters as he’s been forced to do his whole life. The implication is that such scraping and groveling has undermined his masculine pride, something he doesn’t want to see happen to his sons. But the only way he knows how to make ‘men’ of them is by beating them senseless to toughen them up. I’m not sure if Malick is soft-peddling the underlying issue here, concerning which parent a boy, by nature, should rightfully take after if not his father, or if he believes himself too cultured for such a stock discussion of nurture vs. nature. But since the question isn’t addressed, it blends into that whole impressionistic picture that audiences pick up on intuitively, even if not quite at the conscious level.
Jack’s view of his strict, forbidding father is all mixed up with his conception of a God of wrath and fury and The Tree of Life expands this theme into an allegory for rebellious man’s own contentious relationship with his seemingly indifferent divine creator. For her part, the infinitely compassionate mother serves as celestial choir, a Virgin Mary figure who intercedes with the heavenly father on her sons’ behalf. To a lesser degree, the movie is also about the Cain and Abel rivalry between Jack and the middle boy, R.L. (The irrelevant youngest child, played by Tye Sheridan, fades out of the picture), as they both vie for their father’s favor.
Jack despises his brother because he possesses the same inherent, angelic grace as their mother, making Jack feel inadequate by comparison. This is insinuated by associating R.L. with the sensitive arts, music and painting, while his spiteful brother maliciously destroys the watercolor he’s left out to dry, reaffirming the old axiom that those who can’t create, destroy. R.L. incurs his brother’s wrath even further because he’s both inherited the musical gifts of, and looks just like, the father Jack hates. As played by towheaded Laramie Eppler, the middle son does bear a stronger resemblance to a baby Brad Pitt than the other two kids in the cast. Persecuting R.L. is Jack’s way of getting back at the disciplinarian he must walk on eggshells around. He’s deflecting his anger onto a safer target, yet paradoxically, as the oldest, he also considers it his duty to protect his younger siblings. When the dinner table erupts in chaos as the father prepares to thrash his disrespectful middle son, for instance, it’s Jack who immediately jumps to his defense. Still, knowing how much being a pianist meant to Mr. O’Brien, he’s intensely jealous of the bond the two share over their love of music. When they harmonize perfectly together, one tickling the ivories and the other strumming the guitar, it’s divine confluence, and one can see Jack’s blood boiling at not having been graced with any musical talent himself. This is sibling rivalry in extremis, with the eldest son wanting to eliminate R.L. and again be the only apple of his parents’ eyes. The rivalry between the brothers is treated as a continuation of the parental war between nature and grace, as it’s played out in the second generation. In the bible, Cain killed Abel in jealousy that God looked with more favor upon his sacrifice. The rivalry in The Tree of Life is similarly instigated by the favoritism of a father for the son who has inherited his own ear for music.
Jack toys with the fantasy of killing R.L. by sweet talking his credulous brother into sticking a wire hanger, then his wet finger into an electric light socket. That R.L. obediently follows Jack’s lead is intended to demonstrate the implicit trust he has in a protective older brother who he believes would never purposely do him harm (“I trust you.”). The betrayal of trust is a recurring motif in most Malick movies. In The Thin Red Line it was the white soldiers who forfeited the trust of the South Pacific islanders due to their warring ways. In The New World John Smith lost the blind faith Pocahontas had in him as surely as the Jamestown settlers betrayed her tribe. Having shrewdly gained his brother’s complete and unquestioning confidence, Jack will cruelly betray this trust by coaxing his musician’s fingers over the barrel of a loaded gun. It is his brother’s premature passing, coupled with Jack’s latent guilt over having wished him dead so often in their youth, that instigates his existential crisis as an adult. Like God, the imposing father represents the social inhibitions and restrictions placed upon behavior. When he goes away on business, the children and their mother, free of his imperious presence, celebrate in a spontaneous explosion of riotous joy. But with his absent father not around to keep him in line with the threat of hellfire, Jack begins to backslide. He no longer feels fear of the laws of man, as he had when he’d watched the drunken brawlers in town being carted away to jail (“Can it happen to anybody?”).
Nor does he fear the punishment of God, whose presence he no longer senses (“Where were you?”), and whose indifference to the suffering of man (“You let anything happen. Fire. You let a kid die.”), he can’t relate to an infinitely merciful deity (“Why should I be good ? When You aren’t?”). Testing the waters, he behaves wickedly and waits to be struck down by lightning. When nothing adverse happens, he finds no evidence of a higher power in place to punish transgressors, which seems to open the floodgates. Believing that the eyes of God and man are both turned away, there’s nothing to stop him from doing exactly as he pleases, from indulging his ‘natural’ animal instincts. He becomes a working demonstration of the conservative religious notion that without a God of fire and brimstone to fear, civilization would descend into anarchy and chaos, though Malick has gone to great pains to show us there is a governing conscience inherent in all life. If there weren’t, Jack’s guilty conscience wouldn’t gnaw at him as it does. But being human, he doesn’t feel capable of living up to the unrealistic standards his saintly mother sets for him. And because Jack sees the hypocrisy of the adult world, the do as I say not as I do mentality of his father and on the larger stage of God, who doesn’t walk his own talk, he refuses to recognize the social and moral boundaries set for him, just as he hadn’t as a toddler taught not to cross the property line dividing his yard from the neighbor’s.
In effect, he wants “to do what I want to do!” and there seems nothing to prevent him from going feral as he roams the streets with a gang of like-minded youths looking for mischief to get into. Away from disapproving eyes, they engage in uncivilized behavior that hearkens back to man’s savage, pagan past. Lit by bonfires that burn openly in the street, their wild dancing looks for all the world like some type of tribal ritual or primitive rite. At no other time in life are people permitted to get away with behaving as savagely as they do as children, who are excused on the pretext of not knowing any better, and Malick’s point in this Lord of the Flies passage, is that our latent barbarism is only thinly disguised by the surface veneer of civilization, waits only a slight catalyst for man to revert back to his bestial roots as Jack does. Dabbling with sinful thoughts, he indulges his base animal nature, even his sexual impulses, now that he’s old enough to notice girls. For a time, The Tree of Life becomes a discomfiting rite of passage movie akin to European vanguard cinema. Jack receives no counsel about how to deal with these confusing feelings, since he can’t talk to his parents about them and so ends up believing himself to be wicked, evil. He so ashamed of himself he can’t abide his mother looking at him, withering under her piercing gaze for fear she’ll see into the dirty secrets of his soul. Entwined as it is with his proclivities for violence and cruelty, Jack’s growing awareness of his sexuality is treated as though it went arm in arm with man’s downfall, casting Jack out of his Edenic state of innocence, cursing death on the human race, making him feel personally culpable on some level, for what happened to R.L.
Malick takes a strangely fundamentalist tact that appears to equate sex with original sin and because the movie is already dealing with unequivocal extremes of good and evil, the boy’s behavior is made to seem horrendous, complete with connotations of the diabolic. Sexual curiosity becomes something shameful to be hidden and suppressed, every naughty thought and feeling another temptation in the desert. This is unfortunate since Jack’s experimentation and sense of sexual wonder, new and terrifying though it may be to him, seems perfectly normal to us. While it’s non-denominational in that familiar, new age way, as its title suggests The Tree of Life is a quintessentially religious parable, and clearly Malick means for Jack’s sexual awakening and moral corruption to serve a more universal purpose. He intends for it to stand for mankind’s own loss of innocence, a story that is played out time and again throughout every generation. Jack’s ‘innocence’ is brought to an end by his discovery of original sin, the emergence of his base animal nature which induces him to forsake his mother’s way and succumb to his father’s by lying, stealing, killing, indulging his proclivity for violence, cruelty, and the first stirrings of sexual yearning, precipitating his personal version of paradise lost. His story is, in effect, meant to represent the story of all of us (“What have I started?”), and how we fell so far from God’s grace.
All of Malick’s movies since his miraculous artistic resurrection in the late ’90s have revolved around this similar theme concerning man’s symbolic expulsion from some Edenic paradise forever now lost to him. Just as the sullied Pocahontas was cast out by her tribe and Private Witt found it impossible to assimilate back into the South Pacific islanders shattered way of life after returning from the war, Jack’s loss of ‘innocence’ here blights him, robs him of his former state of grace. His discovery of original sin is treated in the same manner as the Native Americans’ corruption after their first contact with Europeans in The New World, and the pacifistic Pacific islanders’ of The Thin Red Line, who began fighting among themselves after interacting with WWII soldiers. To Malick, corruption is a contagion and in The Tree of Life man’s inherently sinful state is passed down from generation to generation, through the family tree itself. The difference between these earlier films and The Tree of Life, is that the concept was always applied to primitive societies before, inadvertently depicting ethnic peoples as childish innocents contaminated by contact with morally corrupt European outsiders who inadvertently initiated their downfall. The Tree of Life instead applies the concept to the loss of childhood innocence itself, making the notion in this instance seem at once less patronizing and more universal, since we’ve all experienced a similar, disillusioning awakening to the corrupt, sinful world around us and how it truly works.
We aren’t really given enough time to shape an opinion of the adult Jack, played by Sean Penn, one of the featured players in Malick’s The Thin Red Line, since much important material appears to have been pruned out. It’s clear though that he’s suffering some sort of existential crisis engendered by his own looming mortality and remembrances of the brother who died so young. Jack will wonder how his serene mother managed to cope (“How did she do it?”), maintain her seemingly unswerving faith in the face of everything life threw at her. It’s a gift he’d like to cultivate himself but doesn’t know how, having strayed from the path. Mr. O’Brien should have served as some sort of cautionary example to his eldest son, yet Jack so wanted his father’s approval and affection, by succeeding where the old man had failed and becoming a big man in the eyes of the world, that he turns out to be just like him.
The use of tree symbolism is as central to the movie’s theme as it was in The New World, in which Malick seemed to be trying to get at something similar by so closely associating Pocahontas with the trees and surrounding forest of green. Here, he brings this notion to the fore. The biblical tree of life would confer immortality on those who ate of its fruit. When Adam and Eve were banished from the garden for eating from the tree of knowledge, however, they were prevented from tasting the fruit of everlasting life and so death was cursed upon the human race. Malick mourns for its loss as grievously as he does that brother whose death sets events in motion.
Rooted in the earth and stretching toward the heavens, the sustenance of all things, the tree of life is the main motif here. The director repeatedly shows us images that associate the characters with the ancient, protective oak that dominates the front yard and symbolizes the family tree. We see the boys climbing it, the mother in the swing tied from one branch, or pushing one of her children in it. In happier times the O’Brien family is seen in their own symbolic garden of Eden, planting, watering and tending the budding young sapling that is associated with Jack and will grow as he does, his mother assuring him “You’ll be grown before that tree is tall.” Having followed in his father’s footsteps, the post-modern epilogue instead finds Jack trapped in a glass and steel world entirely of man’s manufacture, a gilded cage so sterile and barren that the greenery of nature would never dream of encroaching. Here, in this artificial office plaza, the trees are perversely strapped to the ground so that they can’t be uprooted or stolen, and also can’t find the light or water necessary to help them to thrive.
Residing in this climate controlled environment, Jack has, in effect, obliterated all connection to the natural world, cut himself off from contact with the very earth out of which man rises and, to Malick’s mind, derives his spiritual sustenance. He’s deprived himself of the nourishment of The Tree of Life and so may as well have chopped it down. It’s this concrete jungle that dares presume to compete with God’s natural world which Jack must escape at movie’s end, finding his way back to the water and sand, back onto the path he’d strayed from. He returns to the primordial sea out of which all life originally emerged, crawling back into the watery warmth of God’s great birth canal.
For all its flaws, The Tree of Life makes most other pictures look puny and petty by comparison. It is a towering work of art in an industry comprised primarily of commercial piffles. An artist of integrity whaling away at a movie industry that forces him to make compromises with his own values to ensure his efforts turn a profit, Malick undoubtedly feels a deep, personal connection with the movie’s theme, concerning the soul’s conflict between the opposing forces of the material and the spiritual. The Tree of Life is classical, elegiac, immaculate and the director doesn’t want to mar his film with anything short of this pure aesthetic. His movie wishes to exist on a higher plane of consciousness, and of cinema. The director is seeking salvation through the creative process. As the mother claims is true of those blessed with grace, it doesn’t appear to matter to Malick if this resolutely non-commercial release is slighted, ignored or forgotten (which it pretty much was by the public; critics were about evenly divided). With this film (with all his films), Malick has, to his own way of thinking, remained true to himself by not seeking to please others. But while the director clearly believes he’s following the way of grace, he’s actually become entangled in the undergrowth of his own theoretical paradigm. Artists are among the most self-involved of human beings, and the director has indulged himself to such an excessive degree here, he hasn’t given a thought to the entertainment of others, only his own personal, creative gratification. With The Tree of Life Malick has sought to please only himself, thereby following the self-serving way of nature, as his own words describe it, rather than that of grace.
One thought on “The Tree of Life”