“The Tree of Life” - Terrence Malick (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011) is another edition in the sparse, but eternally fascinating, oeuvre of writer-director Terrence Malick.  As he has with his other feature films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005), Malick  has again managed to create a work that presents a lush, physical context and at the same time evokes something other-worldly, ethereal, cosmic.

Malick is fascinating in his own right [1].  He studied philosophy at Harvard and was graduated  summa cum laude in 1965; then he went on to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.  He returned to the US without completing his doctorate, but he did publish a philosophical work during this period, a translation of Martin Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (The Essence of Reasons) in 1969.  His new professional pursuit, though, was now filmmaking, and his first directorial feature, Badlands (1973) was an astonishingly masterful production – it still stands as probably his greatest work.   Famously protective of his privacy and determinedly unswerving in his efforts to realize his  cinematic vision his way, Malick has managed to direct only four further films since that stunning debut.  Each of those films, though, has carried the stamp of profundity, the work of a cinematic poet-philosopher.  And Malick, himself, has gradually emerged as perhaps the ultimate American auteur, evoking comparisons to the likes of Robert Bresson or Carl Dreyer on the other side of the Atlantic.
Though each of Malick’s films is a unique work, they all share the curious property of being both sensuous and cerebral at the same time.  It’s not surprising then that the reactions to his films has been varied, and The Tree of Life is no exception. Nevertheless, the film has earned big-time plaudits from the critical community – it won the Palme D’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and a US Oscar nomination for Best Feature Film.  Malick, himself, also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

The most challenging, and to me the least satisfying, aspect of The Tree of Life concerns its narrative structure.  Most films give the viewer the necessary raw material to construct a comprehensible narrative in his or her own mind.  This is how we understand event sequences over time – we structure them into narratives understandable to us and store them in our memories.  For example, if I were to make a trip to the corner drugstore and then report back to you what happened, I wouldn’t tell you every detail that I experienced.  Instead, I would fashion a story of what happened and tell it to you – and my memory of that event would essentially be in story form, too.  For me, The Tree of Life doesn’t quite give you enough narrative material to sustain its progression over the course of the film.  As a consequence the film seems to wander aimlessly at times, sometimes reiterating what has been said before.

The story that is presented concerns events surrounding the O’Brien family living in a small Texas town some fifty years ago.  The O’Briens have three sons, Jack, “R.L.”, and Steve,  evidently born in the 1940s. There will also be scenes from the 1960s, briefly depicting the O’Brien’s miseries upon learning of R.L.’s tragic death at the age of 19, and scenes from the present day, depicting Jack as a successful architect in a big city.  But the bulk of what is shown concerns events during the 1950s, when Jack and R. L. are about thirteen and eleven years of age.  These events seem to be drawn from Malick’s own life experiences, since he grew up in a small Texas town during those same years, and his own younger brother died tragically in 1968. 

There is an intensely emotional feeling to most of these scenes, but the perspective taken on many of the events that are shown is sometimes vague and confusing.  The cinematography features many very wide-angle shots, combined with numerous moving camera and hand-held tracking shots.  All of these give the viewer a sense of intense subjectivity and immersion, but from whose perspective?  Sometimes it may be from the perspective of the mother, or of the baby, or the teenage Jack.  Or is it an attempt to put us, the viewers into the perspective of a very close-up unseen spiritual observer?

Early on there is a voiceover narration from Mrs. O’Brien, and it seems as though the once again Malick will have the story told from the point of view of a woman observer, as was the case in Badlands and Days of Heaven.  But later the focalization shifts to include that of Mr. O’Brien.  Finally the focalization is clearly that of Jack, and one is motivated to reconfigure all that has come before as the reminiscences of the adult Jack concerning events during his childhood.  In fact all the events could indeed be viewed as the reflective reminiscences of the adult Jack during a single day.  This reminds me somewhat of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a film whose teasing narrative structure seems to have been the whole point of its exercise.  But here in The Tree of Life there doesn’t seem to be any real purpose to such narrative reconfiguring. 

In fact what Malick is giving the viewer is not an overlying narrative, not even some mini-narrative sequences or episodes, but just some striking “moments” that have disturbingly remained in Jack’s memory for many years.  Thus this film does not offer a story, but merely the small bits and pieces that might go into making up a story.  The older Jack evidently still doesn’t have a coherent story to tell about some emotion-laden events from his past.  They just linger in his memory and trouble him – and we viewers struggle along with Jack to make sense of them.  Both Jack and the viewer are trying to build a story that can make sense out of the riddles of Jack’s life.

So the film turns out to be not so much a story that moves in some direction but a contemplative reflection on the meaning of life. What is this universe that we live in?  What drives it?  There are early visuals in the film that depict the vast world as blindly driven by natural forces.  The world is a wild, seemingly soulless place, and we see powerful forces at work at all levels – from the cosmic to the minuscule.  The phenomena shown may be evolving according to physical laws, but they are mysterious and mindless.  Later we see organic process, but here again the prehistoric organisms are driven by natural forces to survive.  The cinematography of these shots was supervised by Douglas Trumbull, who more than thirty years earlier had supervised  similarly cosmic images of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  These images  are thus a cinematic homage to 2001 and are likely to evoke in the mind of viewers who have seen that film thoughts concerning the meaning what lies beyond our horizons. 

Also In these early moments of the film, Jack’s mother is heard in voiceover speaking about how she was taught that there are two fundamental ways to live: the way of nature and the way of grace.  The way of nature is that of the selfish agent, who must struggle to survive in a dog-eat-dog world.  Living according to the way of nature, one sees everything from a sense of personal gain.  Living according to the way of grace, however, is different: one doesn’t protest when one is wronged or mistreated.  Those early shots of the cosmos and the world of natural phenomena  suggest that most of the universe seems to be governed by the way of nature; there is no sense of grace to this kind of world.  But Jack’s mother has taught her children that the way of grace is still the better way to be.

We soon see that in Jack’s mind, his father embodies the way of nature, and his mother embodies the way of grace.  This is not to suggest that Jack’s father is just a beast; in fact we see that Jack’s father sincerely wants the best for his son and wants to prepare him to succeed in a world that rewards only winners.  The bulk of the film then goes on to represent Jack’s continuing struggles trying to reconcile these two ways of being: that of nature and that of grace.

The teenage Jack seems instinctively to walk according to the way of nature, but he does see the grace in his mother, and he sees it in his brother, R.L., too.  He is moved by this grace and drawn to it, but on the other hand he also sees them both as weak and exploitable in a world that is driven by natural urges.  While R.L. spontaneously seem to live according to way of grace, Jack’s instincts are in the direction of selfishness and the way of nature.  Although emotionally he rejects his father’s aggressiveness and even sometimes hates him, he is in fact more naturally the image of his father.

When Jack is shown in later life working as an architect, he is living in a world of human-built artifice.  The skyscraper-filled cityscape, all mirrors and right angles, is a testament to man’s hubris towards his natural environment.  This contrasts with the more natural and green, small-town environment of Jack’s youth that reflected at least the hybrid perspective of both nature and grace.  It seems that the adult Jack’s life came to be immersed in the say of nature (his mother had evidently passed away prior to the scenes showing Jack in the present era).

This moody depiction of Jack’s inner struggles, even though it lacks narrative progression, is moving and deeply felt.  The youthful Jack’s teenage experiences, which are the object of the older Jack’s reminiscences, are common and well-known to all of us – we can fit them into our own, personal narrative structures.  In fact these deeply felt vignettes of routine growing-up experiences are the key to what ultimately makes the film a rewarding experience.

The acting performances in The Tree of Life are generally subtle and effective.  The film advertising headlines the presence of Brad Pitt, who plays the father, and Sean Penn, who plays  the older Jack, and while their performances are adequate, their roles are relatively undemanding and do not carry the crucial emotional load.  The performances that really lift the film are those of Jessica Chastain, as Mrs. O’Brien, and Hunter McCracken, as the teenage Jack.  How central McCracken’s role was is reflected in the fact that the producers apparently undertook the mind-boggling task of interviewing some ten thousand Texan boys in order to cast the roles of the O’Brien children.  Their efforts clearly paid off, however, because both McCracken, as well as Laramie Eppler, who played R.L., are natural and intuitive embodiments of what they are meant to represent.  In fact McCracken, as the teenage Jack, even looks like a youthful version of Sean Penn, the adult Jack.

However, as the film moves along, there doesn’t seem to be any real progression or resolution to Jack’s dilemma between the way of nature and the way of grace, and the film continually swings back and forth between “nature” and “grace” sympathies.  There doesn’t seem to be any final alternative for Jack other than for him to embrace the dilemma as an unresolvable contradiction.  Finally he seems moved in the end to accept everything, both his mother and his father, into a larger framework of love and resignation.  In this connection there is a dreamy, visionary image near the end of the film showing Mrs. O’Brien together with two other women: a childhood version of herself and another, mysterious unearthly woman who occasionally appears elsewhere in the film as an icon of Jack’s longing.  What this shot means is something for you to decide.  Is this Jack’s vision or his mother’s?  Is this the longed-for state of grace?

Returning to the early narration when Jack’s mother talks about the way of nature and the way of grace, she explains that the way of nature always attends to the selfish perspective in order to satisfy desires.  Presumably from this perspective even altruistic acts are only to be performed because one will be expected to reap some future reward from such beneficence.  In fact conventional religions cater to this thinking by promising their followers that rewards for good deeds will assuredly come to them in the afterlife.  Our economic and psychological models of the human mind all tend to represent all human behaviour from the perspective of some anticipated rewards – if even that reward is at some benign cognitive level that might lead one to provide assistance to the needy.  So all of those conventional models of human behaviour can be understood according to the way of nature.  But is Jack's mother any different?  Even she concludes that “they taught us that noone who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end”.  Surely those words of hers are promising a final reward somewhere down the line – some sort of payoff that ensures that the ending won't be bad.  This seems to be still in line with the way-of-nature's selfish accounting rules.  So is Jack’s mother just saying that living according to the way of grace is simply a relatively benign form of living according to the way of nature?  Is everything to be understood in terms of various flavors of the way of nature?   I am not sure about Malick’s answer to that question, but I say no.  The way of grace is the right path to choose, not for reward but because it is the only way to be true to one’s authentic self.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Solomons, Jason, "Terrence Malick: the Return of Cinema's Invisible Man", The Observer, 3 July 2011. 

1 comment:

Ed said...

You're making too much out of it. TREE OF LIFE actually follows a standard hero's journey arc - see the video at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html