I’ve avoided writing about the films of Terrence Malick thus far; frankly, I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to convey what makes them special. They’re elusive in a way that is completely unique; where other directors on the same level of ambition might provide us with symbols, archetypes or formal cues to guide our interpretation of their films, Malick defies signification. In Malick’s movies, a tree represents a tree; they are visual, experiential, intentionally open to the viewer’s interpretation even as they resist classification. As with the two most recurring characters in his work – wind and water – they are at once physical and ephemeral.
Whether one likes or dislikes a Malick film, it’s undeniably challenging to put the experience of a Malick movie into words. One of the most powerful moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had was a double bill of Badlands and Days of Heaven at the Brattle; while I’m normally very chatty after a movie, I had little to say on the walk back to my hotel room that night. His movies evoke feelings and ideas that are difficult to put into words without being reductive, which makes the work of writers who find a meaningful way to engage with Malick (as Matt Zoller Seitz did with his recent video essays) quite valuable. Otherwise, discussions of Malick’s films too often split into two groups – detractors who accuse Malick of New Age-y pretentiousness and his fans of blind worship, and supporters who argue that anyone who doesn’t like Malick’s films is either being a contrarian or doesn’t “get” them; both responses betray a good deal of insecurity. I cannot claim to “get” every moment in The Tree of Life; I can only describe my own experience with the film, which is as beautiful, challenging, maddening and audacious a film as Malick has ever directed.
So. The Tree of Life.
I don’t think there has ever been a film that has better conveyed the process of memory. I’ve recently had several instances where old friends have, out of the blue, hit me with potent reminders of moments in my life, years ago, that I’d forgotten. While my friends may not have realized it, a simple reference to days I hadn’t stopped to think about in a long time have triggered potent emotional journeys that were probably imperceptible to anyone around me. That is, as far as I can tell, what The Tree of Life is about. On a perfectly normal day, Jack (Sean Penn as an adult, Hunter McCracken as a boy) is drawn into memories of his childhood, fantasies about the creation of the universe and imaginations or premonitions of its end, where he is reunited with everyone he’s ever known. While the the film’s thematic scope is literally universal, the scale of the story is shockingly intimate. The Tree of Life presents us with the beginning and end of everything and places its protagonist, and us, squarely at its center – our own small dramas are completely insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and at the same time simple things like our family and our neighborhood provide our language for experiencing the infinite.
Most of the film takes place in Jack’s memories of one summer of his childhood in small-town Texas. Malick’s characters have grown increasingly archetypal with each film – here, Jack’s father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Jessica Chastain) embody the conflict between what Malick terms “nature and grace,” and Jack is caught in a classic Oedipal struggle between these two opposing forces. We’re given a few details about Mr. O’Brien - he works as an engineer, is a talented musician and often expresses envy of those who are wealthier or more successful then him – and fewer of Jack’s mother. As others have pointed out, the parents are viewed through the young Jack’s eyes, and as such are defined in broad strokes – Mr. O’Brien as the hard, authoritarian figure, and Mrs. O’Brien as the empathetic, playful and nurturing parent. Pitt does an excellent job of balancing the father’s toughness with an underlying sense that he loves his sons and believes he’s equipping them for the challenges of adulthood. Chastain, in her first major film role, is tasked with finding a way to portray the embodiment of grace and, also, a 1960s Texas housewife; she pulls off the delicate balance that implies and is completely radiant. While Malick is often criticized for his lack of interest in traditional dramatic structure and character development, the scenes of family life in the film are completely believable and filled with small, truthful details that evoke our own experience.
The much talked-about sequence depicting the creation of the world isn’t strictly necessary from a narrative perspective, and yet it’s impossible to imagine the movie without it. The sequence serves a similar purpose as the “Dawn of Man” prologue in 2001, giving us a sense of the much larger context this story takes place in before settling into a particular moment in time for the majority of the film (Kubrick chose to leap to the present, Malick to the recent past). After beginning with the news of the death of one of Jack’s brothers, the film implicitly asks what is the meaning of our lives, then gives us this sequence as a possible answer. Though Malick is a Christian, his is a creation sequence that is true to our scientific understanding of our origins, while still acknowledging the questions that science cannot answer. Douglas Trumbull, the special effects legend behind 2001 as well as Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and many others, came out of semi-retirement to work on The Tree of Life. The images do remind of the overwhelming quality of 2001’s final scenes; as we move from darkness through the formation of celestial bodies and life – first cells, then primitive organisms, always growing more and more complex – we’re reminded of our role in the greater chain of existence, no more or less significant than any other link. It’s awe-inspiring, and it also made me feel a bit lonely; if there is a God out there, he’s provided us with all the blueprints, but he’s holding out on the mission statement.
And so we have Jack and his family, and every person and family, residing at the heart of this great mystery, which gives every small moment a greater philosophical or spiritual weight. A moment where Jack commits a small trespass against an attractive older woman in his neighborhood becomes a fall from innocence worthy of Milton. When Jack participates in a naïve act of animal abuse with neighborhood kids, the moment speaks deeply to our capacity for cruelty. Whether we remember or not, we all have these moments in our childhood where some small event leads us into a larger world. Admittedly, some of these moments don’t have the clarity or emotional impact they could have – while Malick has always been elusive, The Tree of Life is the first of his films that contained moments that seemed simply vague. I don’t know why there’s a giant in the attic, I don’t know what the clown in a dunk tank is about and I can’t help but suspect these moments are more private than personal. Most importantly, I hoped for a stronger understanding of the relationship between Jack and his brothers – as it is, it took a second viewing for me to confirm which brother is the one who dies, and as his death triggers the existential questions behind the film, I wanted to connect with that loss. That said, it’s very possible that these details will become clearer upon revisiting the film, which I expect to do many times – as confounding as it may be in its individual moments, The Tree of Life has a cumulative brilliance that is nearly inarguable.
It’s been interesting to see how people seem to interpret the film’s conclusion based on what they bring to it. To many, the final scenes are about the relative insignificance of our personal experiences in a godless universe. To others, it’s a spiritual affirmation of an existence beyond this one. Or perhaps it is merely Jack imagining what may be – the shores not of eternity but of the persistence of memory. I tend towards the latter interpretation. That the film can support each interpretation speaks to its strength – like any great film, The Tree of Life has the ability to speak to you wherever you are in your own narrative. We have so few poets in American film at a time when most directors are preoccupied with prose; The Tree of Life reminds us what our cinema is capable of.