“The New World” - Terrence Malick (2005)

The New World (2005) is writer-director Terrence Malick’s account of the legendary encounter between explorer Captain John Smith and the American Indian (Native American) girl Pocahontas when the first permanent English settlement in America was established in 1607.   Americans are well familiar with the main outline of the oft-told story, one of the key elements of  American folklore – how Smith was captured by native Indians and about to be executed until Pocahontas pleaded with her chieftain father to spare Smith’s life.  Pocahontas was then befriended by the colonists and later traveled to England at the invitation of the King and Queen.  This seems like the material taken from a romantic fantasy, but is actually part of the historical record.  Nevertheless, over the many years since that time, romanticized elaborations and exaggerations of the original story have appeared, including a recent Disney animated feature film (1995).  But one would not expect such exaggerations from Malick.  On the basis his previous film, The Thin Red Line” (1998), which vividly showed the harrowing experiences of the World War II campaign on Guadalcanal Island, the viewing audience likely expected on this occasion to see an intensely realistic account of these events surrounding the Smith-Pocahontas story.  Indeed, Malick is famous for his painstaking attention to creating a convincing immersive atmosphere, and he seems to have spared no expense this time in his efforts to recreate the circumstances of that particular time and place.  However, strict historical accuracy is not always adhered to in this film, either – there is no clear historical evidence that Smith and Pocahontas had a romantic relationship, and the timing of Smith’s departure from Jamestown has been altered by Malick in order to fit his own narrative designs.  But one must always keep in mind that Malick’s focus is not so much on providing a thorough and objective historical account as it is on invoking the genuine psychological experiences of what it was like for the participants to live through those narrated events.  This was certainly the case in The New World, and it is what makes the film an exceptionally rewarding viewing experience.

Malick’s cinematic storytelling style is unique; his emphasis on the immediacy of consciousness and psychological experience gives the narration an entirely different tempo from that which is typically associated with an objective  historical account. The major events in what would be a conventional historical account of the Smith-Pocahontas story, such as the near-execution of Smith or the subsequent “kidnapping” (taking hostage) of Pocahontas by the settlers are only briefly and cursorily covered.  What is emphasized in Malick’s account, instead, is the psychological atmosphere that was invoked by such events and which dominates the feelings and perceptions of the participants in the aftermath.  The “new world” referred to in the title is not so much the newly discovered North American land mass as it is the new mental landscapes that emerged in the minds of both Smith and Pocahontas as a result of their respective encounters with the exotic other.

Since the film is more about love and what it means to an individual than it is about history and society, the narrative of interest from this perspective can be seen to progress through three stages:
  • The idyll of Smith and Pocahontas
  • Smith and Pocahontas Separate
  • Pocahontas and John Rolfe
The Idyll of Smith and Pocahontas
At the beginning of the film, the English ships of the Jamestown Expedition land at the Virginia coast, with one of those onboard, Captain John Smith, already a prisoner and sentenced to death for attempted mutiny.  Upon arrival though, he is pardoned by the expedition’s Captain Newport and soon assigned to go upriver in search of trade with the local Indians, referred as “the naturals”.  Captain Smith is captured and again about to be executed, this time by order of Chief Powhatan, when he is saved at the last minute by the pleading of the chief’s teenage daughter (with whom Smith was not acquainted up to that point).  This girl we know, of course, to be the thirteen-year-old “Pocahontas”; although she is never called by this name in the film, and modern historians claim that Pocahontas was not her real name.  Smith, in voiceover, expresses his utter amazement at the innocence, compassion, and spontaneous vitality of the Indians that he encounters.  They seem to be graced by the “state of nature” and are unsullied by the greed and corruption common to his own experiences. 
While he is held by the Indians, Smith is given relative autonomy to interact with them, and although they do not share a common language, he is soon fascinated by Pocahontas, and he in turn becomes the object of her fascination.  Gradually and tentatively they interact and learn to converse.  This first, forty-plus minute section of the film showing their growing attachment is impressionistic and lyrical.  Each of the two is completely outside the conventions and expectations of the other, so their interactions are a continual process of discovery and delighted surprise.  Eventually Smith and Pocahontas are deliriously in love, but they are cautious about showing their feelings.
Smith and Pochontas Separate
On the condition that the English colonists return to where they came from in the spring, Smith is finally returned to the Jamestown settlement.  As soon as he arrives, he is struck by the stark contrast between the perceived purity of the Indian life and the squalor of the colony.  The colonists are mean-spirited, lazy, disorganized, and avaricious, constantly at odds with each other.  Perhaps influenced by stories of Spanish discoveries of gold in the New World, they spend much of their time looking for gold, rather than attending to needed chores.  Smith would prefer to return to Pocahontas, but he is pressed into command, since Captain Newport had returned to England for supplies.  During the winter the disarray among the colonists almost causes them to perish from starvation, but Pocahontas and a small party make a surprise visit to the colony and provide them with life-saving provisions. 
When spring comes and the colonists do not leave as Chief Powhatan ordered, the Indians attack the colonists, who defend themselves with the devastating lethality of their firearms.  Powhatan banishes Pocahontas from his local tribe for disloyalty, and the Jamestown colonists craftily arrange to acquire her as a hostage from her new Indian custodians as protection against future Powhatan attacks.  Back in Jamestown, she is reunited with Smith, but life in the colony is still in turmoil.  Smith is now distracted by the mundane (but compelling to him) concerns of survival and opportunity.  He loses track of his love for the teenage girl, which he dismisses in his mind as a fantasy that does not relate to the hard world that he lives in.  When a commission is proposed for him to lead another adventurous exploration, he leaves Jamestown and has Pocahontas informed that he drowned at sea.
Pocahontas and John Wolfe
Pocahontas is heartbroken and inconsolable over the loss of her love.  Although now living in the colony and wearing Western clothes, the depressed girl is virtually mute.  Another settler, John Rolfe, takes a fancy to her and patiently tries to befriend her and help her learn Western ways.  Pocahontas eventually marries Rolfe and gives birth to a son, but she and Rolfe both know that her heart still belongs to Smith.  Gradually Pocahontas warms to Rolfe and is resigned to the loss of Smith.   Later she visits England at the invitation of the Kind and Queen, and there she learns that Smith is still alive and that he had left her voluntarily.  They finally meet privately, but their encounter this time, as awkward as those first meetings, is this time a sad expression of closure rather than of possibilities.  Pocahontas embraces her new life with Rolfe, but a fuller closure arrives shortly: on the return trip to America, Pocahontas has a short illness and dies in Rolfe’s arms.
Malick’s film is ultimately an excursion into the subjectivity of new love.  The focalization of the first section is on both Smith and Pocahontas as they come together and discover a new world about the other and about themselves.  Then as they begin to separate in the second section of the film, the focalization is shifted more to Smith’s sense of isolation and strife.  This is mirrored in the armed conflict that breaks out between the two communities.  In the third section, the new focalizing element of John Rolfe enters the story.  He is captivated by Pocahontas, but he is a gentleman who is patiently willing to accept even a compromised life with her.   Ultimately Pocahontas learns to embrace life (understood in her voiceovers as the “Earth Mother”) in its larger dimensions, which enables her to extend her loving gaze to a wider compass. 

The other striking theme besides love  in The New World concerns the profound clash between Western culture and the state of nature, as exemplified by “the naturals”.  The Western instinct to possess, dominate, and exploit is accentuated here and contrasted with the Indians’ more organic engagement with the world about them.  This thematic element was reminiscent of an even more exaggerated presentation of this clash in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).

The main characters in the film are well cast and delineated.  Colin Farrell, as Smith, has a physical, rough-and-ready physique, but here he is very much the cautious and inward-looking perceiver, almost to a point of self-obsession.  He hesitates, taking in all the strange things he encounters, before he takes action.  The viewer is given the feeling of a man trying to find his way in a “new world”.  But the irreversible action that he finally did take cost him dearly.  He acknowledge this when Pocahontas asks him during their final meeting whether he found his “Indies” (i.e. the riches of the Indies sought by the Crown and its explorers).  He responds quietly that he may have sailed right past them.  This notion of a paradise found and abandoned has been told many times and reminded me of Alejo Carpentier’s novel, Los Passos Perdidos (The Lost Steps). 

Q’Orianka Kilcher, as “Pocahontas”, was only fourteen at the time of the filming, and she gives a compelling performance as an exotic and not very shy native woman.  The intimate scenes between her and Farrell are sensitively handled.  Christian Bale, as Rolfe, offers a profound contrast to the inwardness of Smith.  Here we see a well-meaning man whose mental landscape is settled within the scope of conventional culture.  We see everything from all three points of view, and we can empathize with all of them.
Despite the meticulousness of Malick’s mise-en-scene, though there were elements that I found a bit disturbing.  Alterations in the timing of Smith’s departure from Jamestown are acceptable for narrative reasons, and they don’t really call into question the authenticity of the setting. But it seemed to me that Pocahontas’s skill in learning English was too rapidly acquired – especially the English as mumbled by Farrell here.  In addition Farrell’s many tattoos don’t belong in this setting.  Although there was tattooing in pre-Christian Europe, it was not part of 17th century European culture.  Tattooing became popular among European sailors after visiting the Americas and Polynesia in the 18th and 19th centuries, but in this film Smith already had his tattoos on arrival to America.

In addition Malick’s use of the prelude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold as background music on the soundtrack was probably inadvisable.  Werner Herzog had used the same music in a similar fashion for his Nosferatu the Vampyr” (1979).  While Herzog didn’t establish ownership to that usage, the presence of the same music here was distracting to me. 

But despite these small misgivings, one must give Malick his due in terms of what has been accomplished.  As is his wont, Malick has offered a viewing experience that is expressed not as a linear narrative but as an impressionistic collage of little moments, all of which are left to the viewer to assemble into something meaningful in her or his mind.  What is assembled is not so much an understanding but a feeling.  How Malick achieves this result is somewhat mysterious, but the film includes his usual subjective tracking shots, as well as many interspersed upward shots gazing at the sky through treetops.  All of these things give a feeling of one’s existential immersion in an environment that is only partially understood.  One has the feeling that there is always more than what you see right in front of you – something behind you or just out of sight that is unknown and mysterious.  To Pocahontas this the voice of the Earth Mother.  To others it is the mystery of love.
★★★★

“The Thin Red Line” - Terrence Malick (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998), a film written and directed by Terrence Malick, is based on the James Jones’s World War II novel covering a pivotal US Army assault (the Battle of Mount Austen) against Japanese forces on Guadalcanal Island.  The title is taken from a Rudyard Kipling poem that celebrates the heroic “thin red line” of foot soldiers.  Although it is called one of the great anti-war films, The Thin Red Line seems to be less of a direct polemic specifically against war and more of a melancholy rumination about the inscrutable violence inherent in life itself.  Early on in the film, a rhetorical query is presented in voice-over:
“What is this war at the heart of nature?  Why does nature vie with itself?”
This seems to be an intrinsic aspect to many of the films by Malick, who is America’s cinematic philosopher-auteur.  Malick, who majored in philosophy and translated one of Martin Heidegger’s philosophical treatises into English, has only made five films in the last thirty-eight years [1].  But each one has a contemplative tone and mood that evokes profound questions and feelings about life and the universe.  Despite their philosophical overtones, however, each of Malick’s films has been a polished, big-budget production featuring some of the finest cinematic craftsmanship that Hollywood has to offer.  To a certain extent one might say that Malick has employed the most advanced movie-making techniques in his arsenal in order to present his philosophical perspective in a way that goes beyond verbal expression.  Perhaps for this reason many of the top dramatic talents in Hollywood have been willing to drop everything in order to have the chance to appear in one of Malick’s rare film productions.  The Thin Red Line was anticipated with particularly keen interest in the film community, because there had been a twenty-year hiatus between its production and that of his previous work, Days of Heaven (1978).  Actually Malick had been working on a film treatment of the novel since 1989, but it took some time for him to congeal his ideas and assemble the production team [2]. 

The James Jones novel covers the Guadalcanal military action from the perspective a number of soldiers who participated in the fighting, and Malick does the same.  Since I have not read the Jones novel, I will not attempt to distinguish the specific narrative contributions of Jones and Malick, and I will simply refer to the general narrative aspects of the film as presented.  In the film there are a considerable number of characters presented who have a significant presence, but there are nine of them that seemed particularly important to me:
  • Lt. Colonel Gordon Tall (played by Nick Nolte)
  • Pvt. Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel)
  • Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn)
  • Capt. Elilas Staros (Elias Koteas)
  • Pvt. Jack Bell (Ben Chaplin)
  • Corporal Geoffrey Fife (Adrien Brody)
  • Sgt. William Keck (Woody Harrelson)
  • Capt. Gaff (John Cusack)
  • Pfc. Don Doll (Dash Mihok)
Of these characters, the first six of them are centers of focalization in the story and from time to time have their thoughts presented in voice-over on the soundtrack.  This is sometimes confusing, because the viewer is not always sure to which character the voice-over on the track should be attributed.

The overall plot features five narrative sections or “acts”.  Time is not evenly distributed across these acts, though – much of the film running time takes place in Act 2, with Acts 1, 3, 4, and 5 being comparatively brief.
1.  The Coming To Guadalcanal. 
The film begins not in a military setting, but with idyllic scenes of Melanesian natives on another island.  Pvt. Witt has gone AWOL from C Company to be with these natives and escape the drudgery of military life.  He is soon captured and arrested by Sgt. Welsh, who does him out of the brig but on condition that he be assigned to stretcher-bearer duty.  Witt seems to be the primary focalization figure and narrative voice of the film, the one asking, “what is this war at the heart of nature”.  But Witt’s perspective is enigmatic: although he initially goes AWOL, he later seeks to rejoin his company and take part in military action – why?  His desire to share the life-and-death experiences of war with his comrades seems to be part of his quest to discover what lies at the violent heart of nature.
Early on in this section, the viewer is presented with two opposing perspectives about life, respectively embodied by Pvt. Witt and Sgt. Welsh. 
  • Witt is moved by what he sees to be the lyric harmony of the Melanesian natives that he had observed when had run away to the island.  He feels that he has seen some sort of “spark” – that there is some mystical, spiritual magic about life, and he wants to find the source of this magic.
  • Welsh, on the other hand, is cynical and sees life as a never-ending struggle against exploitation from others.  Welsh’s view is the purely selfish perspective. 
These two contrasting perspectives also underlaid the philosophical tone of Malick’s later work, The Tree of Life, and were there expressed as the “way of nature” and the “way of grace”.  The “way of grace” was that of compassion, love, and surrender, and this corresponds to what Pvt. Witt seeks in the The Thin Red Line.  The “way of nature” was the animalistic fight for survival here espoused by Sgt. Welsh. 
At the end of this section, the ship transporting the nervous soldiers of Company C’s battalion arrives at Guadalcanal, and as the soldiers charge up the beach and into the forest thickets, they are relieved not to face enemy fire.  They march into the interior, where Company C will take up its assigned task.

2.  The Assault on the Hilltop Bunker.
The second act is the film’s longest and most dramatic segment.  (For some critics this is the only redeeming part of the film, and they feel the film should have ended with the close of this act.)  Company C has been ordered to take out a Japanese machine-gun bunker atop Hill 210.  Very quickly it becomes evident that this is virtually a suicidal mission, since the Japanese can gun down any soldier making a charge up the hill.  On top of this is the fact that the weary soldiers who have climbed up part of the hill to their current position are now exhausted  from a lack of drinking water. They are further traumatized when they see Sgt. Keck make a simple mistake with a hand grenade and blow himself up.  There is now another highly dramatic character clash between another two opposing perspectives – this time military perspectives, those of Lt. Col. Tall and Capt. Sartos.
  • Lt. Col. Tall is an aging and  frustrated career officer who feels he desperately needs to command an heroic and dangerous assault in order to gain his sought-after promotion.  Heavy casualties are an expected part of this proposed scenario.
  • Sartos is a humane and reasonable man who is unwilling to sacrifice the lives of his men in a pointless and suicidal charge.
This section of the film is packed with action, featuring harrowing firefighting scenes that capture the chaotic horror of imminent death.  The lasting imagery and main theme here is the intense fear and in-your-face carnage that overwhelms the participants.  Some of them break down completely, others go literally mad.   One of the soldiers, Pvt. Bell, only manages to maintain his sanity by continually focusing on his intense love for his wife back home.  One gets the feeling that maybe that perhaps these scenes get closer to what being in a war is really like.  Eventually Sartos is relieved of his command, the hilltop bunker is captured, and Company C, now headed by Capt. Gaff, is successful in taking the hill. 
3.  The aftermath of the battle.
After the successful hilltop assault, the soldiers rampage through the Japanese camp, killing indiscriminately.  Some of the soldiers take out their nerves by brutalizing the miserable, emaciated Japanese soldiers they find and treating them as if they were farm animals to be slaughtered.  When the dust settles, the soldiers are given a week-long leave to celebrate their victory.  Many of them quickly get drunk, and there are various exchanges between them that show how their war experiences have changed them.  Capt. Staros bids farewell to his men and returns home.  Pvt. Witt revisits the Melanesian village he had seen earlier, but instead of seeing the near-heavenly comradery of before, he sees only mean-spirited, venomous people at odds with each other.  Pvt. Bell receives a curt “Dear John” letter from his beloved wife informing him that she has fallen in love with another man and wants an immediate divorce.  C’est la vie.

4.  The River Detachment.
Abruptly, the scene now shifts to a short time later with Company C in action again.  This time they are wading down a shallow stream and are fearful that they are sitting ducks to an impending Japanese assault.  Pvt. Witt, Corporal Fife, and another soldier are sent out ahead on reconnaissance.  When they run into a large Japanese contingent, Witt sends Fife back to warn the others and sacrificially stays behind to hold off and delay the Japanese.  In a confusingly brief scene, Witt is eventually surrounded by the Japanese soldiers who shout something to him, perhaps demanding that he drop his weapon.  But Witt suicidally raises his rifle and is immediately riddled with bullets.

5.  Epilogue.The focalization now shifts back to Sgt. Welsh, as he cynically watches the newly arrived Capt. Bosch address his new troops with what Welsh takes to be the usual nonsense military rhetoric about brotherhood.  Later at the beach, the landing craft arrives to remove the troops, and the natural rhythm of life returns to the island.
There are two intriguing aspects to The Thin Red Line that distinguish it from other films and make it simultaneously both puzzling and memorable.  One of these aspects is the purely visual manner that Malick employs to create a sense of existential engulfment.  Although there are numerous camera closeups, the viewer always has the feeling that the soldiers are embedded, almost entombed, in a disturbing, alien environment.  The surrounding context is not suffocating; it is alive, even overwhelming.  When the soldiers in Act 2 are filmed in the tall grass, their natural environment seems both to isolate and expose them at the same time: they are vulnerable to attack from the outside, and yet they have difficulty getting their bearings concerning where they should go for safety.   This cinematic mood that Malick creates pervades the entire film and gives it an eery mood throughout.

A second puzzling yet compelling aspect of the film is its narrative.  Act 2 has the more or less conventional film narrative structure of a thrilling and bloody military mission.  But that’s just one segment of The Thin Red Line – there also Acts 1, 3, 4, and 5, which turn the viewer’s interest to things beyond that particular battle.  Taken together, these collected sections turn the film into an unresolved meditation about what is the driving force that animates nature.  This narrative complexity is compounded by the manner in which narrative voiceover is used in the film.  There are (at least) six characters featured in voiceover (Witt, Welsh, Tall, Sartos, Bell, and Fife) [3], and they represent conflicting  moods and perspectives to the film’s multivocal interior monologue.  At first it seems that Pvt. Witt represents the principal narrative voice, and so his position in the philosophical disputation with Sgt. Welsh appears to have a privileged status.  But with Witt’s death late in the piece, he disappears from the scene, and the final narrative voiceover in the film comes from Welsh.  Are we to conclude that Welsh’s pessimistic perspective came to dominate in the end and represents Malick’s conclusion?  Similarly in the Sartos-Tall dispute, the more humane Sartos is removed from the story, and only Tall’s ruthlessness remains at the end.  Again the voice of compassion is silenced.  Moreover, one of the most interesting and poignant voiceover themes is Pvt. Bell’s romantic dedication to his soulmate, which is an otherworldly obsession about the indestructibility of love that is as casually dismissed by fate in the end as was Witt’s quest for that vital spark of life. 
But as with all of Malick’s films, what lingers in the mind of the viewer at the end of The Thin Red Line is not the concluding tones of frustration and emptiness, which are almost always disappointing in his films, but the ineffable moods that are conjured up along the way.  These are fleetingly captured in brief, distracting images – sometimes of birds and wildlife, sometimes in momentary, quizzical expressions on faces.  They leave us with the same questions and aspirations that drove Pvt Witt to keep on looking.
★★★

Notes:
  1. The Thin Red Line was the third of the five film’s Malick has made so far. The others are Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The New World (2005), and The Tree of Life (2011).
  2.  Josh Young, “Days of Hell”, Entertainment Weekly, January 15, 1999, (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,274092,00.html – see the continuing pages of this article).
  3. Young’s article [2] says there are eight voiceover narrators.

Terrence Malick

About Terrence Malik:
Films of Terrence Malick:

Directors & Auteurs

Directors & Auteurs:

“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 processes, 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 of 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 seems 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.