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The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

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(Read Seth Lachterman’s review of The Tree of Life in New York Arts.)

I.

First disobedience. Sticklers are fond of pointing out that Proust was not remembering things past but in search of lost time, as the original French title says. So is Terrence Malick. His most Proustian film to date is The Tree of Life, which is now awing and stumping audiences, trailing a Palme d’Or from Cannes in its processional through movie houses where most of the audience, children of Star Wars and Scooby Doo, stand as amazed as Nebudchadnezzar reading God’s message in fiery letters. The film is autobiographical and philosophical, like Proust’s A la recherche, and just as mannered in its stylized language, although in this case the invented diction is visual.

Malick’s film is an artwork, replete with dazzling images of Nature, that deliberately overreaches. In all seriousness it competes with the Bible. The Book of Job is played out allegorically through the bitter travails of Mr. O’Brien, as the script tersely calls him (played with sobriety and fierceness by Brad Pitt), an engineer raising his family of three boys and a delicate beauty of a wife in 1950s Waco, Texas. Curiously, critics have taken the setting, with its tree-lined streets, screened porches, and gauzy curtains fluttering in the breeze, to be an innocent world, when in fact it is exactly the opposite: this is the same New World that failed to redeem fallen man when the Pilgrims landed, recycling theological torments that contorted Jonathan Edwards and Captain Ahab.

Instead of dipping a madeleine in tea, Mr. O’Brien’s adult son, Jack (Sean Penn), sees a tree being planted in a modern-day city of glass towers where he works, wan and soulless, as an architect. Jack is reminded of the day his fahter planted a tree in their front yard in Waco, and a second allegory is launched, this time of Emerson’s “Things are in the saddle. And ride mankind.” Jack whispers “Where did I lose you? Where did you go?” and Malick’s layering makes it plain that “you” is many things at once: Jack’s youth, the green world, innocence, his father, and God. But most particulalry this sorrowing search for lost time is a hunt for Jack’s middle brother, (R.L. in the script but not called by name) who dies of unknown causes at nineteen, sending the O’Brien family into a state of grief that roots the rest of two and a half hours.

It’s hard to review The Tree of Life without growing breathless in every paragraph. The first frame shows a tiny flame hovering in a sea of black, imaging divine creation at the moment it was being breathed into the void. Because it was conceived on the scale of the Sistine Chapel (with better special effects, God-wise) and covers the same territory, the film has no credible predecessors, although it bookends D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance in its peculiarly American notion of salvation through allegory. Thar she blows! Both are delivered on an epochal scale and open their arms to embrace a democracy.

The film envelops its own genealogy, actually. It is the fifth installment in a widely spaced series of Malick films since 1973 – Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World are the others – forming a single span. (The film’s last image is of a bridge connecting this world, possibly, to the next.) All share themes of transcendence and redemption, along with a seriousness amounting to solemnity that has been alien to Hollywood for at least thirty years (allowing for a respectful nod to the reissued and expanded Apocalypse Now, another study in death-ridden guilt). Now 68, the director is extraordinarily intelligent and educated, with a summa from Harvard, a stint as a Rhodes scholar, and a book of Heidegger translations in his resume. It’s as if one of John Le Carre’s slippery sly moles had branched out from MI-5 to the far more devious heart of Tinsel Town.

Given his intellectual resources – and the maddening obstacles that would naturally block his way in getting his films made – Malick has been open, even transparent about his overweaning themes, which are essentially null today. In that regard, The Tree of Life isn’t nostalagic for postwar America so much as for F. O. Matthiessen and the once-potent manicheanism that D. H. Lawrence held to be America’s obsessive contribution to literature. The New World was a manifested holy ground between sin, which is death, and salvation, which is rebirth. Malick was taught that, believes it, and has made it his troubled gospel. If these comparisons seem academic, there’s always the unintended humor of the Times’ reviewer, who said that The Tree of Life was the Immortality Ode meets Leave It to Beaver. Cool.

Our spot on the cosmic map hasn’t changed, but gameboys don’t play Battlelstar Beelzebub (yet), and thus The Tree of Life is itself an artefact of lost time. Malick resists giving interviews – would they be like TV Guide interviewing Sartre? – but it is assumed that the O’Brien family is autobiographical, since he was born in Waco and came of age, slightly ahead of the boomer generation, during the Fifties. If this is Malick’s story, however obliquely told, the director shows extraordinary sensitivity in portraying the psychology of fathers and sons, with a saintly but passive mother (Jessica Chastain) standing by in the niche where Mother Mary stands, to be venerated and loved but ignored when it’s fightin’ time.

The reader will be dismayed to hear that I’ve only laid the groundwork for talking about what lies at the heart of The Tree of Life. So far, we’ve hit on nothing that makes this a film rather than a family history with slide show provided courtesy of Friends of the Earth. A good deal more could be said on those fronts. The childhood narrative is an extension of James Agee’s lyrical posthumous novel, A Death in the Family, which is a search through memory for the pained sensations of Rufus, a little boy experiencing his beloved father’s death in a car accident in 1915; as in Malick’s film, death shatters everyday happiness, with deep religious overtones.

The visuals, which have consumed every reviewer, since they are the easiest element to grab hold of, are captivating by any meausre. They are also prelapsarian. Malick disliked computer-generated special effects enough to seek out an old hand, Douglas Trumbull, who did the visual effects for Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He devised a cavalcade of imagery, from the microscopic to the intergalactic, using, as Trumbull puts it, “chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography.” Photoshop is not on the list. The result is Nature unveiled through art, a Jesuitical argument from design that links circles, eddies, waves, wind, cell division, embryos, all creatures great and small, and a newborn universe by exhibiting how they resemble one another. Is that enough to prove that one Creator stands behind them all? Perhaps. Every character in the film is aching for a more definite, reassuring answer, and Malick assumes that we share that ache. If not, he will make us share it by the end.

II.

With a tip of the hat we must tiptoe, very quietly, out of Proust’s cork-lined imagination. He is too many things that Malick isn’t – precious, neurasthenic, dandyfied, snobbish. More importantly, their methods for recovering lost time, although they begin in one person’s memory, abruptly diverge. Proust’s sinuous, convoluted sentences follow Henry James’s dictum that a speck of thought must not be allowed to gallop across the field; it must be softly cupped in the mind until every trace of subtlety has been extracted, using the power of words to hide, suggest, imply, circumscribe, mystify, and above all, qualify. A table isn’t just a table. It’s a meeting of minds with a history, and its four legs sink deep into the writer’s consciousness.

In a movie, for better or worse, a table is just a table, and you are forced to show it first before the nuancing begins. To escape this confinement, directors discovered that stringing images together – montage – creates ghostly associations that are not objective. A table, Louis XIV licking his lips, and an old woman begging for bread tells a story that breaks free of objects. But where does this liberation lead? Quite often it leads nowhere but pools out in wider and wider circles, the way a scrapbook does as you turn more pages. The snapshots remain simple, but their associations bring back a tangle of memories. If you are extremely gifted, this tangle can resemble life itself.

To be blunt, the sum total of Malick’s eccentric creativity, mashing up poetry, Puritan guilt, and Panavision, should have been a mess. The dialogue is sparse, mostly whispered questions in voice over directed at God. The Count of Monte Cristo it isn’t. The visual panoply that encompasses life on Earth, including three dinosaurs that have become instant attention grabbers, has no narrative consonance with the life of young Jack O’Brien growing up disgruntled in Waco. Understandably, Malick’s project struck Hollywood as absurd and unfilmable for a long, long time (it was at least a decade in gestation and probably longer in the director’s imaginarium).

What saves the movie, and ultimately glorifies it, is the connection between montage and consciousness. Writers are lucky. Language is a deeper river than film, and once you dip your oar in the water, you can follow the same currents as Shakespeare and Milton; with a slight lean on the tiller, e.e. cummings and Virginia Woolf catch your drift. The miracle is that none of these strong currents have the force of fate. A writer can follow the Buddhist maxim that one never steps into a river in the same place twice. The flow of time, consciousness, and words is infinitely renewing.

The greatest filmmakers crave the same freedom, the same depth. But hard realities stand in their way, literally. Houses, furniture, the sky, blood on a murderer’s hands, a dog lapping from a puddle – the infinity of things that can be photographed is more about the things than the infinity. Malick has worried this problem for forty years, and it must be no accident that his Heidegger translation was of a text called On the Essence of Reasons. “Essence” is a bird that flies ahead of us, temptingly out of reach. Essence is like God: every time you almost touch the divine, it has moved on. God is always the next town tomorrow, or the last town yesterday.

Malick has made elusiveness his subject, and if you are attuned to it, no subject could be more fascinating. Marilyn Monroe’s beauty is elusive and Cary Grant’s smile and Dietrich’s raised eyebrow, on and on. Movie stars are gods and goddesses because they subjugate the objects around them and force them to glow in the charisma of a person. In Malick’s film this power is given to three people. Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien, the embittered Job, wanted to be a great musician. Stuck instead in a boring factory job, he lavishes his love and frustration in equal measure on his three sons.

Constantly he warns them against the futility of being good. He teaches them to box as a method of defending themselves against the very world that crushed his spirit. It’s a complex portrayal (far more complex than anyone could have expected from a former boy toy who has, amazingly, grown into an individual). As in the Bible, this Job does all he can to please God, tithing every Sunday and living within the strictures of godly behavior, only to wind up with “zilch.” Pitt’s character is not saved from despair. When the factory closes, he is given the bleak choice of no job or moving to another town and working at a job no one else wants. He pulls up stakes and moves.

I imagine that Malick is giving us the essence of his own father, filtered through mature love and pity. Harsh and defeated as O’Brien is – harsh enough that his son whispers “I wish you would die. I wish you were gone” – he holds his children in a binding embrace and often asks for their kisses. He is also given the saving grace of music, his devotion to Bach, Brahms, and Toscanini echoing constantly on the soundtrack. But the ruling trait of this man is insecurity, and at one moment he stops Jack to ask, “Do you love your father?” eliciting a deadpan “yessir.” The power over objects granted to him is authority, rage, paternity, rule-making, and unpredictability. O’Brien is the film’s Jehovah.

As a counter, his wife, known as Mrs. O’Brien, is given the power of mercy and forgiveness. With her flowing red hair, milky skin, and far-seeing gaze, Jessica Chastain portrays a woman at once debased by being a Fifties hausfrau with no say in the big decisions and a Virgin Mary opening her arms to all God’s children. It’s hard to see this character outside our first encounter, when she receives a telegram telling her that her middle son has died. Shock, numbness, defeat, and pitiful shrieks come from her. We will return to happier times. When loosed from her husband’s oppressive control after he departs on business to China, this woman is playful and sensuous.

Jessica Chastain as Mrs O'Brien, with Laramie Eppler and Hunter McCracken

Jack sees her as Mom, but he catches a glimpse of her body outlined in a sun dress and of her flesh exposed as she naps. The suppressed erotic becomes a strong, guilty current of memory for him. It’s no surprise when he breaks into a neighbor’s house and rummages furtively through a woman’s underthings, stealing a peignoir to sniff and hold up in sexual longing before he throws it into the river and runs away, his face streaming with ashamed tears. In Mrs. O’Brien’s presence, objects are infused with tenderness; she is life lived under grace. When her son dies, grace is snatched away, and she no longer wants to live; she wants only to join her lost boy wherever the journey of mortality ends.

The third person who has power over objects is Jack himself, as a boy. His is the power to imagine, giving everyday things a magical potential. Malick is telling us his own inner story as a germinating artist, and here he is most like Agee, dispensing with the universalism of Emerson’s transcendence and Melville’s all-consuming damnation. This is one kid seeing through one pair of eyes. The unruly ease and looseness of a boy’s behavior is one of the most touching things that Malick’s camera captures. Like other boys his age, Jack sets off firecrackers, experiments with cruelty to animals, explores the fields and forests, gets into fights, is shocked by death, sniffs tentatively around girls, and above all, disobeys.

As a personal parable, Jack’s is about disobedience and the fruit that falls from that tree. It wasn’t wrong to bring up Wordsworth, not in the Immortality Ode but in the phrase, “The Child is father of the Man.” The artist’s peculiar fate is to submit to the process of forming a self, moving through all the stages of childhood like anyone else, but observing everything at the same time. This double attention is like calmly watching yourself drown (which drowning victims are said to do). Jack the man sees what happened to Jack the boy. If he could he would change a great deal: the searing memory of his parents violenlty arguing, the hatred he bore his father, the inability to save his mother, the unkindness he showed to the golden-haired little brother before he went on to die and thus never offer forgiveness.

Malick chose a non-actor, Hunter McCracken, to play himself running wild in Waco fifty years ago, and one is reminded of Jean-Pierre Leaud in another rebellious coming-of-age movie, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows – both boys wear a crew cut, a pinched expression, and a passive gaze behind which lies a storm of emotions. The tree of life is this boy’s to climb; he will only get a proper view of God from the top, but the penalty is painful self-knowledge. Job is helplessly caught in an Old Testament wager between God and the Devil. A woman like Jack’s mother is helplessly caught in the Christian demand for faith even when your life seems like total suffering. Jack settles for neither, was formed by both, and therefore undergoes the film’s crisis of belief, standing in for the rest of us who see ourselves in a similar predicament.

Malick has a solution, not as a thinker but as a filmmaker. The aesthetic beauty of his five films stands for salvation; it makes an offer that nothing firmer can be elicited from an elusive, invisible deity. The argument from design holds that a beautiful world implies a beautiful creator. Sin can account for life’s imperfection. Nothing mortal can account for its perfection. In the most wrenching moment of the film, after O’Brien has failed to make something of himself in worldly terms, he castigates himself for wasting so much life on getting ahead and “missing the glory.” This is the closest that Malick comes to delivering a homily.

In the final sequence, Sean Penn walks through a wooden door frame that stands alone in a rocky desert. We enter a dream space, or a place of salvation, where his family is reunited in the guise of their perfect selves, their souls. Father and mother rejoice. The dead son is embraced. Jack forgives and is forgiven. The soundtrack is solemnly religious (eerie strains of the Berlioz Requiem), the visuals are of a beach limned in the palest water and sand. Malick’s invention of a montage that reaches for essence through aesthetics pays off in our deeply moved response.

Not everyone agrees. Some find the whole scheme impenetrable, obscurantist, pretentious, reactionary. There were boos at Cannes and ridicule about the gospel according to baby boomers. I understand. Painting such a vast canvas in order to reaffirm that “beauty is truth, and truth beauty” could seem anticlimactic. But since when is Keats a letdown?

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1 Response

  1. An excellent review, which has had the effect of brightening my own more mixed response to the film.

    I think what people find unnerving about the film is that we are used to “serious” Hollywood filmmakers hooking their philosophical and personal preoccupations onto a genre. Even Kubrick, that other most enigmatic of directors, almost always did this, as did Malick in The Thin Red Line. Even 2001, the film The Tree of Life most resembles, is recognizable as sci-fi. Malick is even more unnerving because his film superficially resembles, at least in the Waco sequences, a fifties coming of age drama. But the family is so abstract — Chastain and Pitt seem not to occupy the same space-time — and as you say, that beautifully photographed suburban street is more the site of Sean Penn’s haunting and incomplete memories than any kind of golden age utopia.

    In literature, language gives the writer the ability to shade time, point of view and narrative in extremely subtle and resonant ways. Unlike the viewer of a film, a reader can “choose their own adventure” to the extent that they can speed up, slow down, reread and, inevitably, read the words in their own voice. The Tree of Life is Malick’s most undisguised attempt to bring this to the cinema, but he’s limited by the fact that we have to sit in a theatre for 138 minutes to experience it.

    It comes as a welcome surprise that there is space for a film “product” which simultaneously takes on the Bible and the stream of consciousness novel with total seriousness, but my problem is how do you confront the voice inside you which says that the film is moving, rich and important, but also, a least sometimes, pretentious (not the worst of sins), repetitive and close to self-parody? Malick is much looser than Kubrick, which is no bad thing, but why not fifty more shots of Chastain frolicking in the sun? Why not ten fewer?

    The answer most likely has to do with point of view. Human thoughts are often repetitive and incomplete. The characters in Waco are not quite able to join God or nature due to the limitations of the way they and we and Malick and the Hubble Telescope are able to imagine (and Malick’s characteristic voice-overs are fascinating — are they as lapidary as they seem?).

    As always with Malick, there’s no choice but to see it again and again.