The Tree of Life


Jessica Chastain in the Tree of Life. Also pictured: a panentheistic god

It’s not the most obvious reference point from which to start thinking about The Tree of Life and how it fits into Terrence Malick’s filmography, but I keep coming back to what John Peel said about The Fall: always different, always the same. Malick has worked in the same distinctive mode at least since 1978’s Days of Heaven. He builds sequences from fragmentary and extended moments rather than from dramatically discrete scenes. He forages for indelible images in the margins of his setups, turning the restless eye of the steadicam into a participant in the story. More and more, he prefers non-expository voiceover to dialogue. He has returned to similar themes repeatedly throughout his career, but the specific narrative strategy of each film is distinct. He is always different, always the same.

Compared to the rest of the mature Malick, The Tree of Life appears at first blush to be cutting us some slack. There’s one character standing front and centre: Jack, played by Hunter McCracken as a child in a 1960s Texas suburb and by Sean Penn as a present-day adult. The film also appears to give primary character status (and a Malickian breathy voiceover) to Jack’s disciplinarian father, played by Brad Pitt, and to Jessica Chastain’s nurturing, flighty mother. This approach seems to contrast particularly with The Thin Red Line, where Malick used the subjective viewpoints of soldiers living and dead alongside a free-floating, quasi-objective perspective, and then radically blurred the lines between viewpoints by dissociating the images from the voiceover. The form of The Thin Red Line did as much work as the narrative in describing the pantheistic metaphysics that appear to underlie the film. But in The Tree of Life, at least initially, the viewer feels assured that this is the story of a child’s growth into manhood, and how his relationship with his parents helped make him who he is.

As the film progresses, though, the apparently simple terrain gets less sure underfoot. It’s not at all certain, for instance, that Jack’s parents were really as they appear. Rather, they may be imagined avatars of Jack’s present-day psychological and metaphysical conflict: embodiments of his thoughts and memories that slide over each other and collide, degrade, bleed into fantasy. (At one point Jack’s mother dances in the air like an enraptured angel. This doesn’t feel like a concrete acknowledgement of the existence of the supernatural, as it would in The Tree of Life’s Palme d’Or predecessor, Apichatpong Weerasithekul’s Uncle Boonmee; rather it feels like a manifestation of an oneiric fugue state.) Instead of going broad, as he did in The Thin Red Line, Malick goes deep into Jack’s point of view, and not just into his contemporaneous point of view, but into his memory. Although there are superficial similarities between the unreliability of Jack’s narrative point of view, and that of Linda’s in Days of Heaven, Malick’s deep dive into his conception of Jack’s psyche is not something we’ve seen before from him.

'Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?'

Which brings us to the Big Bang, the forging of the sun and the planets, the origin of life on earth, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Obviously. If the collage of childhood memories that opens the film invites comparison with Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Malick’s headlong rush here into the cosmic inevitably brings to mind Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This section of the film (lushly visualised in collaboration with 2001’s visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull) will bring many viewers up short, and cause sceptics to snort, and compare Malick’s lack of discipline to that of “Charlie Kaufman” in Adaptation, who at one point can’t figure out a way of beginning his screenplay without starting at the dawn of time. But there’s another way of looking at it: just as the voice-overs in Malick’s films are not necessarily the actual thoughts of the characters – and may not be thoughts they are even capable of putting into words – so  Jack’s flashback to a world before life can be read as a metaphorical expression of a deeply buried aspect of his anxieties.

The film opens with an epigraph from the Book of Job – ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ – and with Pitt and Chastain receiving the news that one of their sons has died. So, is the film a theodicy: a treatise on the problem of evil? Is the explicit invocation of the scripture conclusive evidence that the metaphysics of The Tree of Life are straightforwardly Christian? Certainly, some critics have taken this view, seeing the film’s final sequence (in which Jack is reunited with his parents, his dead brother, and other figures from his past on a heavenly strand of white sand) as unforgivable new age Christian kitsch. I’m not so sure – Malicks’s turn into the cosmic rubs up against the Christian strand that threads through Jack’s recollections, and could be said to contradict it, or at least put it in perspective. And, reflecting that sense, so often prevalent in Malick, that everything is everything: how different is the veil of ineffability that separates Job from God to that which separates parents from children, women from men, one human soul from another, every human soul from itself? For an atheist, the problem of evil is not that God lets it happen, it’s that we can’t understand ourselves and others well enough to know why it happens. And the heart of The Tree of Life is that the evil that works to despoil the transient edens of childhood, nature, love (the serpent in Eden, seen in Linda’s book of bible stories in Days of Heaven, makes a reappearance here as Kaa in an illustrated edition of The Jungle Book) can manifest in the biggest of ways and the smallest. Your child could be killed in a war; you and all the other dinosaurs could be wiped out by an asteroid hitting the earth. But also you could hurt the people you love without knowing why, you could just not grow up to be the man you thought you would be.

On a first viewing, The Tree of Life feels to me like Malick’s response to what a Christian might think of as mankind’s fallen nature, and what a non-believer like me might think of as the painful gap between the transcendence we can imagine and our inherent imperfectability. Finally, it becomes impossible to resist an autobiographical reading of the film – for me the ending isn’t heaven, but a reprise of the ending of Fellini’s – with Jack now an avatar of Malick, turning dreaming into an act of remembrance, forgiveness and prayer; and Malick now an avatar of Jack, turning remembrance, forgiveness and prayer into art. On a mundane level, I should note that I can’t disagree with the consensus that this sequence is probably the least of Malick’s career: visually unmoored from the real world, it feels flimsy in comparison to what came before it. But still, in a culture where unexamined cynicism is a too-common default, I can’t fault Malick for not cursing the darkness but lighting a candle. Or planting a tree.

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2 thoughts on “The Tree of Life

  1. Well, that’s the first thing I’ve read on the subject that’s genuinely left me keen to see Tree of Life. It’s refreshing to read a piece concentrating on the ideas rather than the technique.

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