December 5, 2011

8 The Tree of Life (2011)

Country: US
Director: Terrence Malick

Our Town, Meet Me in St. Louis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Michael Powell's A Matter of Life and Death, Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror. These are a few of the movies that flashed through my mind as I watched Terrence Malick's remarkable new film The Tree of Life, now out on DVD. Like its director, this is a picture which galvanizes those who see it, a love-it-or-hate-it film, one which has divided the jury at Cannes that awarded it the Palme d'Or, critics who have reviewed it, and audiences who saw it in its general release earlier this year. Some find it pretentious and dull, others brilliant and innovative. Nobody seems to have a mild reaction to the film, and nobody seems to respond to it with indifference. My own response is that this is the most ambitious, personal, and original work yet from one of the most important American filmmakers of the last forty years.

Malick is a very private man who doesn't give interviews, doesn't promote his movies, and has little to say about the artistic intentions of his films. We can, however, infer some things about his films from his working methods. He has made only five pictures in nearly forty years, so it is clear that he spends a great deal of time thinking about and preparing each project before filming even begins. On the DVD extras of Days of Heaven, Richard Gere comments that the screenplay he read when he agreed to make the film was a straightforward one, quite different from the film he finally saw, which he called an "impressionistic" version of the shooting script. David Thomson writes that he has read a script "very different" from the completed film of The Thin Red Line. Sean Penn, discussing The Tree of Life in the French newspaper Le Figaro, calls the film's script "the most magnificent one that I've ever read" but notes how different the tone of the film is from that of the screenplay. This kind of comment makes me believe that Malick's movies most likely begin as conventional screenplays and may even be filmed that way. We do know that he can spend several years at the editing stage, transforming the footage he has shot into the final film. We also know that his films have certain things in common—the use of voice-over narration to comment on and explain the action, repeated shots of nature interwoven into the narrative (he seems especially fascinated with rivers and with shots of the sky seen looking up through treetops), multiple points of view, a fragmented narrative line—that seem more likely to emerge in the editing room than to find their origin in the screenplay.

In The Tree of Life, Malick takes all those stylistic mannerisms we have come to associate with his previous films and amplifies them. To these he adds a pair of new elements that take the film in a direction different from anything he has done before. Each of his earlier films seemed to have an even more fragmented plot than the last one, but still each told its story chronologically. In The Tree of Life, he takes this last holdover from conventional film storytelling and smashes it to bits. And he takes the mystical strain that seemed to become more pronounced with each new film and makes it the central element. His aim here is to chronicle one man's search for meaning in life as he tries to place the pattern of his own life's story in no less than the history of the universe.

The man is Jack O'Brien, who is played as an adult by Sean Penn and as a child by Hunter McCracken. The plot of the film is a straightforward one. When Jack learns that his father has died, the news triggers a swirling collage of memories of growing up in Texas in the 1950s, memories that revolve around his family and in particular the often troubled relationship between him and his father. Like the central character in all of Malick's films, Jack, even as a child, is what might be called a meta-observer, someone who seems to live inside life while simultaneously observing it from the outside. From his earliest memories, Jack has been torn between two ways of viewing the world, which he calls the way of Nature and the way of Grace. He identifies each of these with one of his parents—the way of Nature, with its need to understand and control the world, with his father, and the way of Grace, with its unquestioning acceptance of life's events, with his mother. These are dialectically opposed principles analogous to the yin and yang of Asian philosophy. Is it any surprise that Malick was a philosophy major in college and later taught philosophy briefly at MIT?

If the combination in one movie of this simple plot, complicated storytelling technique, and heady philosophical underpinning were not enough to challenge viewers, Malick bookends the main part of the movie with two sequences that will further alienate those not already responsive to his approach. At the beginning, he shows in largely abstract images nothing less than the birth of the universe in the Big Bang, the formation of the Earth, the evolution of life on Earth, and finally Jack's own conception and birth. With little to latch onto emotionally during this long section, which amounts to an overture to the main part of the film, it is perhaps understandable that some viewers will become impatient or even put off.

But if in dramatic terms this sequence is largely of intellectual rather than emotional appeal, it is conceptually necessary to establish the subject of the film. The Tree of Life is not just about the events in Jack's life. It is about his lifelong attempts to understand the forces that drive the universe and where his own life fits into the overall scheme of the cosmos. Like Job, who is referred to at several points in the film, Jack feels compelled to know why things happen, specifically why bad things happen. He is essentially looking for answers to questions that have no answers. Yet right up to the very end that does not stop him from asking and searching, so great is his need to know.

Jack's dreamlike vision at the end, a passage that serves as the film's coda, is as challenging as the opening sequence, a vision of life and death which suggests that the universe and everyone in it exists in a kind of continuum in which the individual is both the creator and a participant. I know this all sounds very paradoxical and metaphysical, and it is. But consider how difficult it must be to convey such abstractions through concrete events and images in a narrative, even one as fragmented and impressionistic as this one, and it becomes clear what a tremendously ambitious task Malick has set for himself. The amazing thing is that he manages to pull it off without becoming lost in narrative chaos, and without losing that spirit of wonder which drives the artist to seek order where none is apparent. Could that conflict between Nature and Grace be another way of stating the artist's dilemma between close but detached observation of life and the need to impose some kind of order to make sense of those observations?

All of this may seem quite conceptual and metaphysical, and if that were all there was to The Tree of Life, then it would be a cold and sterile movie indeed. But it's not. This is a deeply absorbing film on the emotional level, and the reason for that is the richness and the authenticity of both the characters and the visual details in the film.

One of the risks of Malick's approach to his subject is that the people in the movie could easily become schematic and unconvincing. But they don't. Instead they are fully realized individuals sympathetically inhabited by actors wholly attuned to Malick's view of their identities, problems, and relationships to one another. Brad Pitt, who also co-produced the film, plays Jack's father. Pitt plays this complicated man with commendable restraint—no star turn here—managing to find a balance between his likable and unlikable qualities, and between his sometimes loving, sometimes overly stern and authoritarian treatment of Jack. Jessica Chastain plays Jack's mother, a nurturing woman whose love for her children is constant and invariable, a gentle woman who accepts Jack's strengths and weaknesses without judgment or his father's constant attempts to mold his personality. She may not be as sharply delineated a character as Jack's father, but I think that is deliberate, for to Jack she is both a real person and an ideal. Chastain finds just the right note to center her character then maintains it throughout the film.

Sean Penn conveys all the shock, pain, and confusion of the adult Jack. It's an emotionally raw performance, numb on the surface but with a core of almost palpable despair, one of his most intense and focused performances since Dead Man Walking. But the real discovery here is young Hunter McCracken, who plays Jack as a boy. He manages to create an impression of solitude, bewilderment, and a driving need to understand the world that so exactly matches the personality of the adult Jack that it is easy to see how the boy became the man. If Penn gives the film its brains and Chastain its heart, young McCracken gives the film its soul. It's one of the great child characters in the movies and one of the great child performances.

Besides its fully realized characters, the other thing that keeps The Tree of Life from becoming an arid conceptual treatise is the astounding level of realistic visual detail in the film. From the cold, impersonal cityscape where Jack works and the equally bleak ultra-modern apartment where he lives, to the small Texas town and traditional neighborhood where he grew up, each setting is carefully chosen to create an emotional mood. Those childhood settings in particular had my mind reeling. Everything about Jack's childhood, right down to the dishes the family eats from and the food they eat, is absolutely authentic. If you grew up during this time and in a place similar to this, as I did, then time and again you will experience an instant shock of recognition.

This is not the academic authenticity found in well-researched period movies, or even the studied authenticity of Mad Men, where the set decorators consult mail-order catalogues and magazines of the time, but real, remembered authenticity. Such literal visual details should dispel any doubt about the autobiographical origins of this film. (A glance at a biography of Malick confirms that many of the details in the movie duplicate those of his own life.) As well as Malick's own memory of his childhood environment, credit for the extraordinary look of the film should also go to the production designer, Jack Fisk, who has worked with Malick on all of his pictures, beginning with his first, Badlands, in 1973.

Of all the scenes in The Tree of Life, the one that stays with me above all others is not one of the film's visionary, cosmic, or emotionally wrenching scenes, but one of its briefest and simplest. After the family plants a young tree in the back yard of their house, Jack's mother remarks, "You'll be grown up before this tree gets big." For me that simple statement somehow encapsulates all the mysteries of time and change, of life and death, of the vastness of the universe and the finiteness of an individual life, that the rest of the movie explores in such imaginative detail.

You might also be interested in:
The Cinematic New World of Terrence Malick
Brief Reviews: Days of Heaven (1978)


  1. Great Review! It's nice to see some new prose written on this piece. I'm actually looking forward to seeing this film again on the small screen. I had a bad experience in the theatre durking the one time I've seen it, with a poorly lit projection and a badly focused picture. I think the film will play well on a widescreen bluray just as well as the big screen, if not better. Plus it's so quiet at times that the whispers of the theatre are annoying. I'm not sure it's the most ambitous personal or whatever work from an American director in the last 40 years, but it's a brilliant film.

  2. I have only seen BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN but have been wanting to see this film. It disappeared quickly here where I live so I am glad to see its out on DVD. I acutally just purchased about a week or so ago a copy of THE THIN RED LINE when B & N was having a 50% off sale on the Criterion collection. Fantastic review here R.D. but that was to be expected.


  3. Jon, thanks for your comment. I found that this film often worked on me in almost subliminal ways. Little was explicitly spelled out, yet I never felt I was confused about what was happening. The ability to do this shows, I think, Malick's tremendous ability to handle narrative complexity. It reminded me of reading a novel by Virginia Woolf--you just have to surrender yourself to the author's style. So I can see how watching this at home could be an easier experience than watching it in a theater, where anything might distract you from total concentration. One clarification: I said that this was Malick's most ambitious, personal, and original film.

    John, I'm tremendously impressed by all of Malick's films. "Days of Heaven" is my favorite, though. I've seen "The Thin Red Line" only once and was entranced by the brilliance of the images and direction, but I did find its intellectual appeal outweighed its emotional appeal. But all of his films are worth rewatching, and I might have a warmer emotional response if I saw it again.

  4. This is an utterly brilliant essay R.D., on the film that I am thinking I will annoint as the Best of 2011 in my year-end list to be posted in a few weeks.

    Yes, the simpler scenes have a haunting and resounding power, and yes young Hunter McCracken is extraordinary, giving what I consider that best performance by a lead actor this year. You also provide some telling information about Malick's hermetic behavior and films that TREE OF LIFE reminded you of. The shape of The Tree of Life is more attuned to a symphony in music than it is to a story arc in literature. This is partly as a result of Malick wanting to express himself in “movements” where each evokes moods and textures, but are unquestionably tied to the larger whole of the work, where he intends everything to come full circle. Again recalling Kubrick, the director places music as the vital component to replace dialogue in enhancing his visuals with the proper aural accompaniment to bring his entrancing ideas to full fruition. Among other notable composers, Malick, echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey makes superlative use of Brahams, Gorecki, Berlioz, Bach, Holst and Mahler, which he apparently instructed Alexandre Desplat to incorporate into his own score. The sublime choral passages underline the film’s extraordinary second act, when Malick envisions the dawn of the universe include Zbigniew Preisner’s sublime “Lacrimosa” and give the film a spiritual undercurrent that oddly meshes with the astronomical truths that have always negated theological doctrine. After a planetarium-like showcase of the galaxies in flux, Malick moves back to earth and the prehistoric era, where he captures a cruel act that will later parallel the human clashes in his twentieth centry story. Further, the human fetus in the mother’s womb is a microcosm of evolution, where millions of years are compressed into a few months. There are subsequently long stretches of silence evinced in a visual holding pattern that will allow viewers to ponder the serious questions that are rarely posed in narrative films. In keeping with the central theme couched in the film’s title, Malick aims his camera up trunks to the loftiest branches and green leaves and beyond into the sky. Basically he takes up where he left off in The New World in bringing visual adornment to the the central symbol in all it’s awe-spiring and majestic beauty.

    In any event the main story is an abstract coming of age tale that centers around young Jack (Hunter McCracken), one of the three sons of Pitt and his lovely wife (Jessica Chastain) who is before long coming face-to-face with death, iniquity and deviant behavior. In brief vignettes Jack watches the neighbor’s boy drown, breaches his brother’s trust, and steals a dress from another home. But the overriding domestic discord is caused by Pitt’s inability to overcome his authoritarianism. He instructs his kids to address him as “Sir” and even to “Hit me!” in toughening them up for life’s inevitable cruel turns. It’s clear enough that Pitt is loving and well-intentioned, but that he was scarred in a career gone astray. His propensity at the keyboard suggest a missed opportunity, caused by armed forces intervention. Likewise, with any luck, he may have secured a patent for his “inventions.” The mother is less vividly drawn, and in fact is only an ideal for her kids, representing the symbol of motherhood that follows the old-fashioned rules of patriarchal authority. But in this household a volcano is ready to explode. It mirrors the harmony and discord that characterize the difficulties in families when emotions are held in check.

  5. continued.........

    Yet it’s clear enough that Malick’s overarching point is that mankind’s place in the general scheme is as miniscule as a blink of the eye in the billions of years since the Big Bang, and that feelings and memory are as fleeting as the onset of the next series of human events. Certainly one is reminded of the remembrances that are caught for a nano-second near the conclusion of Spielberg’s A.I Artifical Intelligence that are meant to last for all eternity.

    This is a magisterial work of cinema, and you've done magnificently in framing it.

  6. Not at a loss for words with this post R.D., (ha!) I will say that The Tree of Life will inspire serious debate among cineastes for decades to come. It’s one of those rare films that has you thinking days after with the same veracity that dominated your consciousness in the hours immediately following the experience. It’s a towering work by a towering artist, and it will likely exaserbate as many as it will enthrall. It’s a metaphorical voyage into the outer recesses of memory, faith and the infinite that requires far more than the logistics of order and logic. The Tree of Life is both elusive and accessible, vague and lucid, real and surreal. Its a film about the loss of faith and the renewel of belief. Malick has mustered up the audacity to survey the cycle of life and it’s origins, and we can only look on riveted and enthralled on a level one rarely experiences within the confines of a movie theatre.

  7. R.D. - I've been looking forward to THE TREE OF LIFE - more so now that I've read your review - which is eloquent beyond description.

    From what you write, it sounds as if Malick has broken into new territory with this film and in very interesting ways. I've seen and admired all of his earlier work and suspect TREE OF LIFE will please me much...

    Thank you for another beautiful piece, R.D.

  8. Sam, thank you for your comments. You clearly are a tremendous enthusiast of this film. I certainly agree about the way this film is not only an incredibly intense experience in the watching, but lingers on afterwards, inspiring not just great memories but continuing echoes of its themes and images. It's the rare kind of movie that it's hard to stop thinking about afterward. I'm glad you brought up a couple of things I wanted to discuss but just couldn't without losing my main focus. One of those is the impressive use of music. I certainly didn't recognize the music by name the way you did, but what I did recognize was how precisely selected it was and how greatly it enhanced the visual dimension of the film, especially the choral parts you mention, which can often seem cheesy and manipulative. The other thing you brought up was the father character played by Brad Pitt. I only had time to limn him briefly, so I'm glad you were able to flesh out this complex and often contradictory character. As a failed inventor and would-be musician, it made sense that he was a frustrated man who wanted to shape his sons, especially Jack, to be stronger, wiser, and more resilient than he was. He often chose what today appear clearly wrong-headed ways to accomplish this, but his attitudes were quite typical of the time and place and actually milder than some fathers of his age that I knew, and it was plain that he had real affection for his sons even if he was often overly controlling. You also mentioned how the spiritual element of the film seems to end in a state of peaceful acceptance by Jack in that visionary sequence at the end. All in all, Malick tries to do the impossible in this movie and comes amazingly close. It's an incredible balance of concept and heart, and I can't think of anyone else who could have conceived of such a movie and brought it off so well.

    Eve, I sure hope you like this film after the way I've described it. Another person's reaction to any given movie is always unpredictable and even more so with this director and especially this film. If you already like Malick, though, I think there's a good chance you'll see what he's getting at and appreciate the imagination and effort that went into trying to realize his vision on the screen.