In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week… we’re taking on number 79: The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick. As always, there will be spoilers.
I’ve been looking forward to revisiting Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. I remember seeing the film for the first time when it came out in 2011, and feeling a mix of existential unrest and hypnosis as I succumbed to its flow. I remember not knowing anything about Malick, and feeling a bit of confusion and bit of delight as we bounced from Sean Penn in a skyscraper, to Jessica Chastain running through billowing sheets on a clothesline, to dinosaurs on a creek, and the cosmos alight with fury. If someone were to ask me what this movie is about I’m not sure I’d have a straightforward answer. I learned earlier in this project when I watched Malick’s other contribution, Days of Heaven, he is uniquely skilled at creating a structure that explores the micro-dramas playing out on a familial level alongside the grand macro-dramas playing out in the larger world, usually without catching our eyes or hearts with nearly as much vigor.
The Tree of Life is a non-linear story loosely centered around a Texas family that we see follow over a vast span of time. The O’Brien’s come to know their own personal tragedy when one of the three sons in the family is killed. We see Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receive the telegram, we see Mr. O’Brien receive the call, and we see traces of the aftermath as the heartbreak sends the family reeling. There is an interlude where we break to see stunning visuals and symphonic overtones of the beauty of the galaxy and the majesty of chemical reactions. On Earth, our natural landscapes and wonders are allowed to flourish and show off with roaring payoffs. Waterfalls and dense forests, ocean waves build and crash.
And then — there are dinosaurs. A plesiosaurus appears on the beach with a massive wound, Malick cuts to blood in sea, and then a shot of hammerhead sharks circling. Another dinosaur sleeps peacefully on the end of a creek when a raptor discovers and investigates it before bounding off without further damage.
As someone who has written many words railing against an exaggerated amount of praise for special effects alone, I think this film demonstrates how much can be done with timeless effects that rely less on CGI and more on visceral realism.
What these spacescapes and landscapes and prehistoric turmoils communicate is context around the O’Brien’s tragedy — it is tragic when a nineteen year old dies unexpectedly, but when viewed against the meteorite that crashed through the sky and extinguished a class of alpha predators, or the random beauty and serenity of the milky way harboring all known life, the tragedy can be viewed properly within the scale it belongs.
This is not meant to minimize the emotion of the middle O’Brien boy’s death. It is meant to show that life (and I don’t think this is what Malick wants us to walk away thinking) is easy come easy go. Our existence is precarious, and life is a fickle accident that arrives and vanishes according to its own rhythm. Stanley Kubrick took a similar tactic in 2001: A Space Odyssey which shows the evolution of humanity — but instead of examining human emotion as a ship within the bottle, he trains his sights on what could happen when we shatter the bottle. This is commendable, and as I’ve said preached loudly, I’m a big 2001 fan, however it doesn’t pack the guttural emotional punch that Malick sets up and executes over the course of narrative. Kubrick trains his lens on dehumanization as a result of technical advancement — Malick takes that seed and dives into the human experience as it exists within the larger natural texture of the universe. (NOTE: I thought this was a keen observation on my part, the similarities between Tree of Life and 2001, but apparently Malick persuaded the special effects designer who made 2001 to come out of retirement and work on the film, so not all that keen as it turns out.)
As we settle in with the O’Brien family, traces of the grand scale of the universe remain vibrant enough to capture our attention. There is the persistent humming of the crickets and the wind blowing through the curtains, among countless other examples. These details may have been there but less apparent if it weren’t for the sequencing that Malick creates — he mesmerizes us with roar and scale of the natural world so that are sense are more attuned these elements as the family dramas begin to come into sharper focus. The narrative structure is abstract but the themes are overt. The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38.4, 7)
The story of Job helps cast a light on the central conflict in the story between the son, Jack, and his father, Mr. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt. O’Brien is the epitome of a classic tough love father — there are countless examples of him ensuring his dominance over the sons is established. He chases these acts of masculine reproach with demands for proclamations of love and affection from his sons. Mrs. O’Brien on the other hand, is an image of love and compassion, she lives in fear of her husband and provoking his outbursts.
Over the course of the film we watch the pious father continue to tithe every Friday, to assert that anything can be accomplished with hard work, and to covet the property and power of his neighbors. He believes, like Job, he should be blessed for his loyalty. And yet he is continually tested and on the losing side of lucky draws.
This struggle between the power of will versus the forces of nature is one of the central threads in the film — how much can be overcome with effort and devotion, and how much must be accepted as fate?
This question takes another form in confrontation between Nature and Grace, in this case the father is nature and the mother is grace — the embodiment of love over aggression, of forgiveness, and understanding. This is the old testament / new testament dichotomy that takes hold of Jack and that will forever tug and pull at his instincts. He expresses this sentiment directly in voice over: “Mother, Father. Always you wrestle inside me; Always you will.”
Jack’s disillusionment with his father’s strict disciplinarianism (that is at times abusive) begins when his friend drowns, and the first evidence that he is not all knowing and omnipotent is revealed. There are other standalone scenes that highlight their Oedipal relationship, for instance when Jack whispers “you’d like to kill me” and then later screams in the face of his father as his mother looks on “she only loves ME”. There is a struggle for the heart of Mrs. O’Brien, with Jack constantly feeling threatened by his father, and at times, by his brothers.
As Jack ages he continues to act out in the ways that many humans do who experience society within a natural landscape — there are traces of puritanical sexual shame when he sees a silk nightgown and steals it, there is the tendency of humanity to assert dominance over other creatures when Jack and some friends strap a frog to a firework, and there is a moment where Jack fires a BB into his brother’s finger, fracturing their bond and trust. Some of this is normal lashing out in adolescence and some of it is the result of his nature, and the opposing nurturing styles of his mother and father. Early in the film we see Sean Penn (adult Jack) on the phone with his father, ironically calling him dad, apologizing for saying something insensitive in reference to his brother, an indication that this wrestling of instincts indeed persists into his adulthood.
Jack grows up to be an architect and works in a high skyscraper of glass, concrete, and steel. There are manicured trees methodically placed around the campus but from the tall floors we can see how much effort has been made to remove any need to step outdoors. There is a faint whisper of “follow me” and suddenly we see Jack alone in a beautiful, natural, landscape. He’s eventually met by his mother and brothers in what feels like a departure ceremony for the lost boy, and again our senses are consumed by overwhelming visual and audio sensations of chemical reactions and cosmic collisions of elements.
What Malick achieved in Tree of Life can’t be overstated. Not only does he worm into our consciousness and present standalone moments of great evocative feeling, he also presents the familial alongside the magnificent with equal significance, or insignificance, depending on the vantage point. This film made me want to call my parents, and this film makes me want to run into a vast abandoned isolated nature and listen to rain fall or birds chirp. I think Tree of Life is a work of a genius because it speaks the language of the viewer, as long as we’re patient and graceful enough to accept its message.