Terrence Malick, 2011
Opening quote: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” (Job 38:4, 7)
Image one: a formless warm light in a dark void. Voiceover: “Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door.”
Image two: A young girl gazes in rapt wonder at the natural world. Voiceover: “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of 'nature' and the way of 'Grace'. You have to choose which one to follow.”
So opens Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE, a film that moviegoers generally seem to like, even if (judging by online responses) they don’t fully comprehended it. For some, the film is transcendent. Others cringe. Reviewers and critics have been largely positive. Some place it near the top of the cinematic canon, but for others it’s tosh: cliché-ridden new-age posturing. At the risk of seeming to have a bob each way, I empathise with both, but I certainly wouldn’t liken The Tree of Life to the Emperor’s new breeches. The film has more currency than that, even if its ultimate value belongs to its creator.
For many years Malick’s reputation rested on two impressive films: Badlands (1973, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) and Days of Heaven (1978, acclaimed for its cinematic qualities, but marred by what some saw as a certain studied vanity in one or two of the performances). He then vanished from view, purportedly to work on a screenplay about the origins of life (which, as it happens, served as the basis for The Tree of Life). After 20 years in the wilderness, he returned in triumph with The Thin Red Line (1998), ostensibly a war film, but in essence a philosophical meditation on the dualistic nature of humankind: the battle between the material and the spiritual, our capacity for selflessness, compassion and creativity vs. our propensity for unbridled hatred and destruction. Few films open with an image as thematically eloquent as that of a crocodile slipping ominously into dark and murky waters, a powerfully evocative image of a conscience-free natural killing machine that set the tone for the ruminations to follow.
The Tree of Life is a continuation of Malick’s enquiry into what it means to be human, but with an emphasis on what it means to be American. In many respects it’s Malick’s equivalent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974), a highly personal cinematic work of art that reflects its director’s philosophical, cultural, and socio-political concerns. In Malick’s mirror, love shines through all things, even in the very darkest recesses. Nothing is as compellingly knowable as the fact of death, and while it may have been inadvertent The Tree of Life offers an opportunity to ponder what love might look like without it. More overtly, the film juxtaposes American Christian spirituality on one hand with American materialism (from the individual pursuit of happiness to the Military Industrial Complex and Imperialist Expansionism) on the other. Malick suggests that it’s all up for grabs (if not irrevocably compromised) in post-9/11 America.
The Christian sensibility that informs every one of its 140 minutes testifies to Malick’s personal philosophy, making it ideally suited to people who are open to philosophical, metaphysical or theological discourse. In many ways the opening minutes tell you all you need to know. First and foremost, this is an American film. Malick’s themes may be universal, but their meaning and value are firmly located within an American context. The Tree of Life is full of spiritual motifs, subtexts and thematic transitions, from intimate moments to grand expressions of birth, death and rebirth, a portrait of life as a journey hampered and enhanced in equal measure by the perpetual tussle between Nature and Grace, embodied in the film by Brad Pitt as ‘father/Nature’ and Jessica Chastain as ‘mother/Grace’.
The Tree of Life is a director’s piece. It’s not about actors or performances, although on that level the children all-but steal the film. The adults perform with great skill and conviction, but they are essentially ciphers serving the thematic thrust of the film. The central narrative concerns the tensions between a domineering father (Pitt) and his sons, particularly the eldest boy, Jack, played by impressive young newcomer, Hunter McCracken. Sean Penn plays the older Jack, a middle-aged man overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and worthlessness, and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. The father’s overbearing nature breeds resentment and unhappiness among his children, an authoritarianism that stems in part from his personal failings and insecurities, but also a genuine desire to prepare his family for the dog-eat-dog world he believes they will encounter. As the father’s world collapses, so does his self-esteem, conscience, and what remains of his faith. As in many films before it, this aspect of the film depicts the ageless necessity for successive generations to reconcile the broken legacy they inherit, but there is political subtext to be discerned here too.
Malick doesn’t pretend that the questions and tensions he grapples with are anything new – indeed, they are as old as Adam. How we deal with them, he implies, is everything. Perhaps the biggest question he asks is, if God exists (however one rationalises such a concept), what are we to Him (or It)? Hence the opening quote (one of The Deity’s infamously rhetorical questions), intended to remind humankind of their place in the scheme of things. One thing that most likely irritates those who dislike the film is that its director assumes to know the answers to the questions he poses, thereby risking a rhetorical experience for his audience.
Whether or not the prehistory section (a depiction of the origins of life with a brief but thematically pertinent scene among dinosaurs) was necessary, The Tree of Life is one of the bravest American films of recent years, if only for holding a mirror to America, offering an invitation to the nation to reflect on where it has been, where it’s at, and where it’s going. The underlying tone is one of regret, loss, shame, emptiness and disillusion, yet it is far from a hopeless vision, even if (as the final section suggests) ultimate Reconciliation and Wholeness is the reserve of the Afterlife – the “real” Land of The Free and Hope for The Hopeless, where the Promises of God come to fruition. The implication is that the Hope of the Faithful is to live in the knowledge of the Grace to come, as if Oneness is Reality now, wherein lies the Transformative Power of Faith, the Courage to weather ‘the rain that falls on the just and the unjust’, and the Wisdom to reconcile Love in a world given to Enmity.
Yes, it’s all rather heady capital-letter stuff, ideas that are deeply steeped in Christian doctrinal theology. Some might find the 'intimacy' of the Christian content hard to deal with, and even those open to it might struggle with Malick’s poetic/philosophic abstractions. At the screening I attended the audience barely contained their derision during the ‘formation of life’ sequence, and the dinosaurs only made it worse. Thankfully they didn’t have to wait long before Brad came along with something resembling a coherent narrative to settle things down.
“Grace doesn’t try to please itself,” Malick tells us, going on to show how it suffers indignities and injustices because, by its very Purity, it is compelled to do so. Nature, on the other hand, “only wants to please itself”. The Tree of Life may depict the Higher Calling of Grace, but it’s more aligned with Nature in that it essentially seeks to please. I couldn’t help sense that Malick expected me to be impressed by his film, to leave the theatre in awe of its mysteries and profundity. Despite the metaphysics, I’m not sure that The Tree of Life has the requisite rigour to warrant the greatness many claim for it, yet I’m compelled to defend the film, not for what it aspires to be so much as what it is. For greatness, grab a copy of Tarkovsky's Mirror, but be prepared to spend time with it.
It would be easy to say, as some have, that the film is a sort of 2001, A Space Odyssey for the new millennium, and there could be some truth in that. Malick’s aspiration is nothing if not spelled out in capital letters, and the influence of (and references to) Stanley Kubrick abound. If the images aren’t enough to signal big themes and grand intentions, the music certainly alerts us to an ambition to approximate the Finger Print of the Universe. The dinosaur sequence is a case in point. I wonder how many people (those who weren’t busy scoffing) realised that the intention of this section is to convey the birth of empathy in a brutal, survivalist world. Rather than kill the smaller and vulnerable dinosaur, the larger creature hesitates, pulls back, and goes on its way, but not before stopping to register something new in the air, something new in its soul in fact – not that it is fully aware of that yet. It's the inverse to the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence in Kubrick’s 2001, where the black monolith signals or inspires an advance in human evolution, namely to fashion a weapon from a bone which famously match-cuts to a space station some millions of years later. In Malick’s version the advance is Inexplicable, and entirely spiritual.
God exists in Malick’s mirror, and Creation is an evolutionary process designed to affirm Love – against the odds. The Tree of Life suggests that without compassion and empathy we are little more than dinosaurs bound to go the way of all flesh. It’s through our willingness to listen to the near-inaudible Whisper of Grace that we rise above (if only sporadically in our otherwise comfortably preoccupied lives) our inherently brutish nature: the dinosaur within. Malick implies that it’s about coming to terms with ‘Father’: the legacy of parents, upbringing, conditioning, aspirations, etc., and the Father that is existence itself, that which perpetually calls us to reconcile ourselves with ourselves. In this sense, Malick addresses the political and the personal, wherein reconciliation is a socio-political necessity: America must reconcile itself with itself. The Tree of Life is, therefore, a film about growing up: choosing to look into the mirror and confront what’s there.
While he skirts perilously close to Hallmark sentiment at times, particularly the recurring images of sunlight through trees and the ever-wafting fluidity of the camera (suggesting an Omniscient presence), Malick’s visual language abounds with moments as simultaneously inconsequential and profoundly mysterious as a leaf in the wind. Even the most casual image carries the suggestion of deeper metaphoric substance. The problem is that Malick is very fond of his visual motifs, which he too often milks for their implicit wonder. The result is a film that teeters on the edge of visual cliché.
The ending may be a white middleclass protestant vision of Eternal Oneness, but the point is clear. The Tree of Life is a testament of faith, a film about striving to overcome brokenness and move to a place of acceptance, humility, forgiveness, reconciliation and growth. It may not be the best film ever made, but it’s certainly a sincere and searching one, which might be why some regard it so highly – because they recognise and are affected by its central purpose. Those who dismiss it for its supposed pretention and high-mindedness are unlikely to tolerate its central message: that life offers the potential to transcend nature and engage with, perhaps be transformed by, something resembling Grace — if we let it.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader