The Tree of Life
This is the second part in my three-part exploration of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It should be noted that this part does indeed include numerous spoilers. Part I can be read here.
Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has garnered unique attention by film critics, who have produced some of their most thought provoking writing on any film in some time. In a way, Malick’s film has reaffirmed the need for criticism, as the film, whether a masterpiece or a disaster, is a film that demands interpretation, philosophical musings, and cinematic theories to be explored.
Less of a look at whether The Tree of Life should be considered a successful work (though that will be explored slightly), I instead have taken a handful of critics who have written thoughtful on the meaning of the film instead. The goal of this is not to come to any sort of a conclusion, but simply expand on some of the different pillars of thought that seem to be towering over other critics as they debate this intensely personal as well as cosmological film.
The God Complex
Malick begins The Tree of Life with an image that is indecipherable, and many critics have gone on to explore what this image means. Shaped like some sort of nebula, or the beginning atoms smashing together, it could represent anything. It repeats three times in the film: twice to set up the film’s other opening prologues (the Sean Penn-centered section and the beginning of time section), and then at the film’s close.
David Edelstein, critic for New York Magazine, argues for the spiritual side of the image:
“What is that image that launches each of the film’s sections? It appears to be the cosmos in its infancy, yet the shape is angelic, with an opening that could well be meant as a portal to heaven.”
The image, whatever it may be, as Mr. Edelstein argues, does have some heavenly and spiritual purpose to it, as does the film as a whole. While Malick’s obsession with nature has often had both critics and scholars refer to the director as a cinematic successor to Heidegger (Malick translated one of his works when doing his PhD in philosophy at Oxford), his films have also had a Christian theology behind them. But in The Tree of Life, Malick directly confronts our Heavenly Creator, citing the Book of Job at his prologue, though never showing any direct proof of a divine creator except in the images we see. Edelstein continues:
“It’s better to think of The Tree of Life as a Transcendentalist church pageant in which the players whisper questions to the Almighty after the death of a son and brother (“Where were You?” “How did I lose You?”)—followed by nothing less than the birth of the universe, the beginning of cellular life, some dinosaurs, and then children swimming into the Garden of Eden that is Waco.”
Certainly, Mr. Edelstein is right when considering the Christian side to Malick’s work here, but there is something also condescending in his prose about how the director approaches his subject, calling it a “pageant” as if it is some sort of self-absorbed work. He’s right to a certain part, but Manohla Dargis, critic for the New York Times, defends such honesty:
“The issue isn’t merely that Mr. Malick visually connects the impregnated planet, as it were, and the expectant woman, an association that sets a Mother Earth motif in motion. It’s also in the seriousness and sincerity with which he makes this connection: The film is an affirmation of Mr. Malick’s belief in the power of cinematic images to express the sublime (the cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki) and, perhaps, of his faith in the audience to meet him with equivalent seriousness. It also serves as a reminder of how few contemporary filmmakers engage questions of life and death, God and soul, and risk such questioning without the crutch of an obvious story.”
Ms. Dargis’ main point rings true for the film. It’s easy to write off The Tree of Life as its soul searching attitude raises the stakes of the characters, who are more or less metaphors for different sides of spirituality, as well as the expectation of the audience to impossible proportions’. And The Tree of Life can’t reach any conclusion that will be satisfying, as answers to what it all means—grace, nature, anger, lust, love, suffering—could never be answered in a two and a half our film, which may be why Malick begins and closes with that wondrous image of what may be the beginning or end of life. This is where I’d like to respond to FilmJourney.Com critic Robert Koehler’s argument on the film, who states:
While Malick’s early films, including Badlands and Days of Heaven, combined an awareness of class conflict and the inevitable clashes of human desire with a fascination with nature that bordered on Pantheism, The Tree of Life dives headlong into a world view that can be summed up in the Beatles lyric, “All you need is love.”
Besides the conclusion of Mr. Koehler’s statement being a little malicious, I think he is confusing the takeaway of the film with the rest of it. The film clearly does not seem to be heading toward a hugs and kisses conclusion as we watch the young boys grapple with puberty, and to say that the way of grace over the way of nature is right also misses the urges within Jack that spark him toward violence, due to his lack of facing nature. Neither way discounts love though, and we see it in different forms through Mr. and Mrs. O’Brian. The conclusion is thus one of confusion, but togetherness in that confusion. We are swept into the cosmos and leave without any understanding of the big questions, and maybe the disappointment of the film’s climatic scenes, in which the characters take solace with each other instead of the Almighty, is the point that Malick wants to make.
Within the Cosmos
A few critics have managed to tackle The Tree of Life without foregrounding the film in its explicit theology, instead exploring the stronger cultural and personal narratives of the film, which have provided some of the most interesting criticism on the film. A.O. Scott, chief film critic of the New York Times, writes beautifully about the film’s nostalgia for the period:
“The particulars of these people — Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and their three sons — and of the place they inhabit are drawn from Mr. Malick’s own biography, but they also have an almost archetypal cultural resonance. This is small-town America in the ’50s: Dad’s crew cut, Mom’s apron, the kids playing kick the can in the summer dusk. To some extent this tableau — words can hardly do justice to the honeyed sunlight streaming through kitchen windows and refracted through the spray of garden hoses, or to the loose-limbed rhythms of children at play — offers an idealized glimpse of a lost Eden. But it would be a mistake simply to bask in (or to sneer at) Mr. Malick’s nostalgia for the vanished world of his Eisenhower-era childhood.”
As much as The Tree of Life is a film about searching for the soul of the universe, whatever spirit that may be, it is also a film about childhood experience in a way few films ever acknowledge childhood as a period of strange wonderment and discovery. Part of this is owed in fact to the way that Malick can capture the world around him, where every ray of light hits perfectly on each blade of grass. However, there is more than that in the way that Malick chooses his experiences to tell. The moments are almost miniscule sometimes—a fight at the dinner table, a visit to a colored neighborhood, simply rolling through the grass—but Malick makes it feel like each moment is allowing these kids to grow. His revisionist side (Mr. Scott places the film alongside Malick’s last two films as a work that reveals the true nature of both genre and cultural memory) allows him to show why we are what we are, which is the impetus of the narrative as Jack revisits his childhood to discover his place in this time. New Yorker critic Richard Brody has also acknowledged this particular historical revisionism in its political measures:
“I can hear echoes asking: What about those in Malick’s nineteen-fifties-era Texas whose pursuit of happiness was being thwarted rather than fostered? They’re in the film, too; we see them in “The Tree of Life,” the movie’s protagonist notices them, and Malick’s images of the excluded and the shunned share with viewers a shudder of guilty responsibility…The movie is filled with inequities of all sorts—racial, economic, gender-based, generational—but not with redress or with specific policy proposals. Rather, it seeks the essence of the American ideal, suggests that it is a sort of peculiarly science-based spiritual subjectivity—a kind of inner freedom that is derived from outer freedom—and asks whether the sophisticated modern society that results from it also menaces it.”
Mr. Brody, instead of responding to the film’s religious side, views the film’s faith as not a direct call toward God but as a historical note on our observations of the American dream of the 1950s. No doubt the film takes place in Waco, Texas, a place where decades later a strong faith in spirit would lead to a massacre. Additionally (and in only a single scene), Malick shows a truck spraying DDT across the suburban neighborhood, as the young children scream and dance in the gas. That spirit of innocence to any educated viewer could surely be replaced by an early death years later, and Malick’s image of the have and the have-nots is what drives Mr. O’Brian, an inventor who has never seen a dollar of his patents and a good worker who was fired despite never missing a day of work. For that to be the trigger to leave Waco seems to be a callback that the Eden of Jack’s image of the world has faded from existence, and the beautiful childhood is spattered in its bad patches of grass (Mr. O’Brian is obsessed with rooting out all the weeds, but he never seems to get them all).
The Tree of Life has three strains going through the film as discussed before, and deciding where we, as spectators stand, is one of the most difficult things to interpret in the film. How do we have access to the knowledge of the beginning of the Earth, and of the interactions of dinosaurs? Mubi and Roger Ebert Presents critic Ignaty Veshnevetsky, provides some thought on this issue:
“Looking at just this first reel of the film, it becomes obvious that if The Tree of Life is set anywhere, it isn’t in Waco or in [Sean] Penn’s memory, but in a constructed collective dream-state, in a sub-conscious with no conscious, where the disparate memories of individuals, animals and the landscape itself are repurposed like B-roll footage.”
Mr. Veshnevetsky is perhaps correct to put this film as into what he calls the “collective dream-state,” as that may be where all of Malick’s films lay. His narrators in Badlands and Days of Heaven seem to be both omnipotent to the events they discuss, though not yet at an age of which they can understand them. Such unique shifts in point of view are especially fundamental to The Thin Red Line, where voiceover narration shifts dramatically between characters without warning.
So while Sean Penn plays the Malick stand-in, and seems to be looking back on these events, his memory disjointed and confused, feeding what seems to be both memory and imagination, it seems that we are invested in the world, and God seems to play a character too, calling and responding to certain decrees with his own transformation of the cinematic perspective (if any filmmaker today has a God complex, it is most certainly Malick). Chris Wisniewski, a critic for Reverse Shot, also comments on this unique approach, though grounds it in the point of view of Jack:
“As narrative cinema, The Tree of Life can be seen as an experiment in radical subjectivity: Malick doesn’t just show us Jack’s point-of-view; he immerses us within his conflict of spirit—through his kaleidoscopic and elliptical depiction of Jack’s early life, Malick retraces the moments of Jack’s spiritual and moral ‘becoming.’”
Some of this could make sense, as Jack could imagine all these things in his head, including the painful beach epilogue where everyone hugs and becomes a family under the eyes of the all watching God. But it also brings up the issue of why Jack is our protagonist looking back, and what has caused these memories. Surely, the film would make more sense if set in the late 1960s as the film begins with the death of Jack’s brother, which seems to be where the torment began. For Malick to have his stand-in wait thirty years to have an epiphany to force his mind to return to this time (as well as his mother’s childhood; not to mention the origin of all of time), seems to be a stretch without something missing (further adding to the fact that the sequences with Penn seem to be missing some key ingredient, despite the luscious cinematography that Malick finds in the architecture).
And thus we come to the big issues at hand: Did The Tree of Life need to overreach its grasp beyond Waco and to the edges of the universe? Guy Lodge, a critic for Incontention.com surmises a point on this:
“It’s the first of Malick’s films to feel like the product of more than one purposeful creative urge; his first to preferentially separate its thematic concerns from its narrative ones, such as they are…His most open-armed and structurally undisciplined film to date, it might yet prove his least rewarding.”
Mr. Lodge hits the nail on the head, as what we see beyond the edges of Texas feels like a different film all together (in fact, Malick has apparently planned a nature documentary entitled Voyage of Time that the universal sequences are apparently a part of). A sign of compassion between two dinosaurs might hint at the same philosophical concerns as the showdown between nature and grace, but such issues could also take place at Guadalcanal or the founding of Jamestown. There is a brilliant film in The Tree of Life, though I agree that as a work of art, it is certainly Malick’s least successful film to date, though it brings up much to discuss in terms of God, the American dream, and cinematic subjectivity.
And not all films worthy of discussion must be masterpieces (and some of the best essays on cinema often concern the most trash-worthy flicks). What I have attempted to do here is not only highlight issues and ideas raised in The Tree of Life but also create an appreciation of how sharp the film critic community has become. Their words have help produce many of my ideas here, and hopefully, like all great criticism, it is only the beginning of a discussion, instead of the final point.