Let’s just get a few things out of the way before we begin. The Tree of Life is ambitious. Very few films have aspired to embrace the complex ideas and daring formal expression found in Terrence Malick’s fifth film. As a warning to the uninitiated, The Tree of Life is not your average Brad Pitt film. Pitt is excellent in it, but this is not Oceans Eleven or Burn After Reading. The Tree of Life is probably closer to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a movie that was compared to the work of Terrence Malick. Audience members have been known to walk out of the The Tree of Life and demand their money back. The Tree of Life does have a lot of seemingly incongruous elements at play; it explores the vast reaches of the universe and it also offers an intimate look at a 1950s family in Waco, Texas. At times, The Tree of Life is rich in period detail, courtesy of art director Jack Fisk; at other times it offers us surrealism and (possibly) outright fantasy. The narrative is not rooted in causality at all, but in how people are situated with in the grand design of cosmos. To this end, The Tree of Life does demand your patience. If you aren’t willing to give it that, then you might as well buy a ticket to something else. Woody Allen has a new movie out. Also, there’s Horrible Bosses.
If, like me, you’re familiar with Malick’s previous four movies, The Tree of Life will seem like a natural, if extreme progression. He’s been moving away from standard narrative conventions with each film, and here he leaves it all behind…almost. Though there are definite narrative underpinnings, ellipsis is the dominate tone, and it would be better to approach The Tree of Life as a sort of visual/aural poetry rather than a standard narrative film. There is a point, but it won’t be found in any dramatic conclusions or emotional catharsis.
If you’ve never seen a Terrence Malick film before, you’ll probably want to stop yourself now. Go rent the Criterion Blu-rays of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. If you make it through those, you’ll be ready for The Tree of Life. Better yet, you should have seen all of his films prior to this one.
Now to the movie itself. Have you seen The Tree of Life?
Do you want to?
Turn back now. Spoilers ahead.
It seems almost ridiculous to say it, but The Tree of Life attempts nothing short of expressing what it is to be alive in this world. Malick wants to embrace the entire spectrum of our existence through his own, both emotionally and cosmically. He wants us to walk away with a sense of amazement, not at his film so much as the very fact that we are here today, in this universe, with everything around us as it is. In Malick’s world, we are to take hold of both the joy and pain of living, allowing ourselves the freedom to see all the beauty that the world has for us.
If all of that sounds silly or overwrought, that’s because it is. The questions and ideas that Malick wants to explore are so beyond the reach of our understanding that even the slightest attempt to explore them will be inadequate. The Tree of Life is indeed inadequate, both in its imagery and some of its conclusions, but it is also commendable, because it is sincere in its asking. There is no irony or cynicism here; nothing to placate the coolness of the American psyche. With the exception of Badlands (his first film), Malick has been unwilling to let popular culture enter into his worldview, and that trend continues with The Tree of Life. Malick doesn’t relate his ideas to class or national histories either; there can be no socio-political reading of The Tree of Life. This is pure philosophy, theology, and autobiography.
How one reacts to The Tree of Life will depend in part on whether or not you believe that this type of movie should be made at all. Some detractors might suggest that no one should even attempt to stuff these cosmic questions into a two hour and eighteen minute movie. If you are one of those people, you will find The Tree of Life a muddled, half-baked pile of nonsense (which it kind of is). Stay away from it. If you can accept that Malick is trying to go well beyond his reach, then The Tree of Life can be a rewarding, if exasperating, experience.
No matter how you approach The Tree of Life, it would be easy to see the film as a structural mess. It bounces between the present, the past, the distant past, and somewhere totally outside of time at seemingly random spots. Some have complained that the different parts don’t relate well to one another and that the film does not work as a coherent whole. In narrative terms these complaints are fair enough, but the movie is not designed to explore characters or causality, and neither is it meant to give emotional gratification through conflict or closure. That’s not to say that the narrative strains don’t matter, but that they are secondary. Because of this, there are at least a few helpful ways of looking at The Tree of Life. We’ll look at The Tree of Life’s narrative structure as a point of entry, and then we will look at some of the dialectical components of the film that coincide with its narrative concerns. Finally, we will end with a brief evaluation of the film as a whole.
Finally, I want to humbly state that I do not think my observations are particularly original. Much has already been written about The Tree of Lifealready by writers far better than me. At the end of this article, I will offer links to a few other articles that have influenced my train of thought.
Narrative Structure – The Tree of Life as a Liturgical Wake
The narrative structure of The Tree of Life may seem very loose, but it Is organized with some distinct purposes in mind. It’s important, then, to track exactly where Malick goes. A plot outline will be offered here, so that we can better understand the film. Even if you’ve already seen the film, I suggest that you read through this just to reorient yourself with the narrative progression.
Before we get any image at all in The Tree of Life, Malick presents us with an extract from the book of Job. This is part of God’s response to Job when he questions the fairness of his predicament. It should guide the way in which we think about Malick’s intentions as the film progresses. Though the film does not offer a Job stand-in or a total devastation on the level of what Job experienced, Malick is getting us ready to think in terms of a call-response structure similar to the Book of Job, an idea we’ll touch on in more depth later. In The Tree of Life, as in real life, God does not always answer, but questions continue to be asked.
After the quote, we see a soft light against a black background, indistinguishable in form but shifting in shape. It almost looks like something we might see in a Hubble Telescope photograph. This light will appear again throughout the film, both in its singular state as we have here, and as a part scenes involving humans. The film then moves on to what we will later learn are memories that the mother had of growing up accompanied by her voice over.
Once we get past these first two things, we are treated to tiny flashes of the O’Brien (a name we learn only in the film’s credits) family as they receive the news that one of their sons has died. We never know how he died, we just know that he’s gone. From the period detail of these scenes, we can guess that this news is received sometime in the 60s. The mother and father are seen grieving. We also see Jack, the oldest son, somewhere in his late 40s or early 50s as he mourns his brother’s death. Lyrical voice over from the mother and the brother accompany these images. Their voices will be heard over the film throughout; the father’s voice will come later. There are only a few snippets of diagetic conversation up to this point and they don’t really offer much in terms of narrative development. Malick never gives us any explicit exposition detailing which of the three brothers has died, but from the visual accompaniment, it seems most likely that it was R.L., the youngest brother, who is prominently featured in later sections. On a first viewing, it can be difficult to determine who we are looking at and in what time period. Some of these early sections seem to play in elder Jack’s dream state or subconscious. Malick doesn’t offer any easily read guideposts to help out.
The film’s most dramatic narrative turn takes place after these grieving scenes. Suddenly, through a voice over, we are sent into the far reaches of the universe. As we will learn later, there is a definite dialectical reason for this abrupt change in pace, but for now we will only note that Malick gives us a brief history of time, using an evolutionary model. We see the stars and the planets; we watch the first life forms move around; we see dinosaurs, and finally we move up into the creation of a human being, Jack of the O’Brien family. The micro-macro dynamic is shown here in its most obvious way, but it is implicit in the rest of the film, as it is in almost all of Malick’s work.
The bulk of the film begins after the history of time section, as Malick traces the O’Brien family’s from Jack’s birth to their departure from Waco. There’s no standard voice over to tell us, but this section seems to take the form of a lucid memory from Jack’s perspective. Event-wise, not a whole lot happens in this family section. If there’s any narrative tension here, it is a triangular tension between the father, the mother, and Jack. Brad Pitt portrays the father figure as an autocratic yet loving man who works to instill self-sufficiency in his children. He harps on his boys for what seems to be small things, but in the cultural context of the 1950s were probably fairly normal. It is clear that the father loves his sons, but it is a tough love. This love is juxtaposed with that of the mother, whose parenting is far more relaxed. She is never the disciplinarian, always the fun one. This contrast constitutes the central narrative theme of the film and links back to some of the earliest voice overs.
The family memory section ends when Mr. O’Brien is transferred to a new position and the family moves from Waco. We are then transported into the film’s most abstract section. Both young and old versions of the O’Brien family meet together in the desert and other barren landscapes, where they hug, hold hands, and walk together. Taken out of context, this final section has a new-age feel to it that borders on the absurd. The film ends with the mother (in voice over) giving her son over to God.
While it may not seem terribly obvious on a first viewing (it wasn’t to me), the film is built around the death of R.L. Each movement of the film represents a part of the grieving and questioning process. Through the many voice overs, there is a liturgical call/response structure that determines how the narrative will progress. Questions and pleas determine what we will see and when we see it. This accounts for the free-flowing form of the film’s structure. It might be helpful, then, to see The Tree of Life as a sort of long form prayer, an idea that has been suggested by a number of people, including Roger Ebert. We travel to distant places, double back into memories, and are taken to metaphysical planes of existence beyond memory, but all of these things are embedded into the context of the loss of a family member. Keeping this in mind is important for understanding everything in the film.
Autobiography and Religion
The inscrutable Terrence Malick hasn’t given an interview since around the release of Days of Heaven in 1978, so we can only speculate about certain elements of his life history and his religious orientation. A few autobiographical points are worth mentioning, though, because they appear in veiled form in The Tree of Life. Given Malick’s extremely private nature, he would probably prefer that we not make these connections, but we can interpret the film as an intimate portrait of his memories. If we look at the film this way, then it becomes something of a memoir/confession.
Some basic biographical details should suffice here to link Terrence Malick to his film counterpart, Jack.
Like Jack, Malick spent his formative years in Waco, Texas. He later moved with his family to Bartlesville, OK, a detail alluded to at the end of the childhood memory section. Malick, like Jack, had a brother (R.L. in the film) who played classical guitar and eventually killed himself because he felt he wasn’t a good enough player (he broke his hands before taking his life). Malick’s father, like Mr. O’Brien, had a laundry list of patents, was an adept musician, and worked at an oil refinery. What little we know of Malick’s adult life isn’t pertinent to a discussion of The Tree of Life, at least in terms of an autobiographical reading.
The rumor is that Malick is a devout Episcopalian. Though we don’t want to be too dogmatic about using that rumor as an interpretive guidepost, it may be useful in understanding that The Tree of Life does come from a Judeo-Christian viewpoint. Later, we’ll see how Christian thought plays out in The Tree of Life.
Though it is not necessary to understand The Tree of Life as having autobiographical dimensions, it is a valid, if limited, way to approach the film.
Dialectical Structure – Nature v. Grace
Voice over is nothing new in Terrence Malick’s world. In Badlands and Days of Heaven, he employed a first-person narration style voice over, using one character that addressed the audience directly, providing story information and lyrical ruminations. With The Thin Red Line, he started using voice over in more indirect ways, as a collective voice; different voices would appear and disappear throughout the film, offering thoughts, questions and interior monologues, but never imparting story information. The voice overs weren’t directed at the audience; instead they would float over the images on the screen. You couldn’t always tell who was speaking and it rarely mattered anyway. In The Tree of Life, three main characters speak, and, as in The Thin Red Line, they do not address the audience directly; instead they come up as interior monologues and prayers. Unlike The Thin Red Line, we are aware of who is speaking and each voice has distinct things to say, mainly because two of the main roles are played by highly recognizable actors in Pitt and Penn. As in every Malick film, voice over is the key to understanding. It’s easy to see the voice over as a crutch or a pretentious device employed only to give the sense of poetry or artiness, but this would be the easy way to look at Malick’s work. Because Malick does not structure his voice over in standard ways, it’s important to pay close attention to what is said, by whom, and when it is said.
At the outset, in the first section of the mother’s memory, we are given a basic way to read the film’s worldview – Nature v. Grace. The mother defines these terms for us as states of being, or ways of living. Nature and Grace are therefore laws or principles that can be followed or chosen. The mother defines these opposing forces this way: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” and, “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy…” And finally, “You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”
There are two ways to approach this dialectic proposition. It is either a true dialectic that must be followed and recognized throughout the film, or a false notion that might be debunked or bent throughout the film. The Nature v. Grace idea obliquely links back to Judeo-Christian concepts of sin as a natural state of being and grace as a provision of God, who might be the major unseen character of the film. The mother seems to have chosen the path of Grace; Malick presents her, both literally and figuratively, as an angel, a quality marked by playfulness and passivity. The father, conversely, is supposed to represent Nature. He explicitly advises a set of principles for his children that focus on getting ahead in the world, carving out your own space, and learning to fight.
These two forces fight within Jack. In one of his earliest voice overs, he states, “Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside me.” When tied to the Nature v. Grace dialectic, the reference moves beyond merely wrestling with the natures of his respective parents, but with cosmic principles. For Jack, the ideal is in his mother, but the reality of his own self is in his father. He works as an adolescent to fight Nature, at one point referencing the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15 when he says, “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.” The reality that the film depicts is a state of constant wrestling between these two opposites; a state that may never end, that defines our very humanity. This idea fits well with Christian concepts of original sin, where Christians must live with a sinful nature (Nature in Malick’s world) but fight it with the grace of God (Grace in Malick’s world). The idea, the mother tells us, comes from the nuns who taught her when she was young. This is the closest Malick gets to attaching this concept to any religious system. The concept is a bit muddy, and it’s never really fleshed out any further than that early voice over, but we may guess that Mrs. O’Brien imparted this concept onto her children and that Jack reads his world through this prism.
Dialectical Structure – The Book of Job
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (NRSV 38:4,7)
This epigraph opens The Tree of Life. Job, of course, has been devastated for reasons that he can’t understand. Large portions of The Book of Job consist of Job defending himself in the face of this tragedy, citing his righteousness and wondering where exactly is God is in his predicament. After hearing bogus explanations from his friends and after being rebuked by another, God himself answers Job “out of the whirlwind”. The verses that Malick omits might be as significant as those he includes, “Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its [the foundation of the Earth] measurements – surely you know! (Job 38:5) God’s sarcasm indicates clearly that Job doesn’t know anything at all, and that his position in the world is infinitesimal. Malick inverts this call/response structure in The Tree of Life when Mrs. O’Brien asks God (presumably) where he was (is). The response of the film is to show us the furthest reaches of the galaxy and the creation of the universe. God’s response, then, is, “I was here, over everything.”
The structure of the film, as discussed before, is organized in a call/response pattern that follows the frustrations of Job with the brutal but true answer form God. If The Tree of Life means to do nothing else, it wants to situate mankind in the grand scheme of cosmic reality, just as God does at the end of the book. We are small but we are real, and our perception of reality is the only one that we will ever have, validating ourselves and invalidating at the same time. The questions we ask, along with members of the O’Brien family, are not exactly answerable. Who are we? What are we made of? Where is God? Is God there at all? The Tree of Life asks those questions through the prism of a young Terrence Malick and then unanswers them through its sheer magnitude of vision. Though they may never be answered to satisfaction, there is value in the asking.
If God was over the creation of the world in Malick’s film, he is also to be found in its present. Malick’s camera, more than in any other film, seems to swirl around his characters; gliding sideways along them, following them down hallways and adjusting its gaze above them often. This constant, restless movements suggests a presence around the characters. Given the larger context of the film, I’d venture to say that this presence is God, who is not exactly next to these characters but rather he surrounds them at all times.
Attempting to evaluate The Tree of Life is no easy task. After two viewings, I feel I am only beginning to grasp exactly what Malick is getting at (something that should be evidenced by the thinness of this article). The first viewing was a bewildering experience, leaving me both astounded at horribly disappointed. There seem to be dozens of threads running through the film, and it can be difficult to get a hold of even one or two of those the first time around. The imagery that Malick uses is at times so obscure that it would take some very specialized knowledge to interpret all of it correctly. The film really needs a Norton annotated edition. Whatever else, dismissing it as nonsense after only one viewing just won’t cut it. This is a movie that demands to be dealt with, for better or worse.
Despite the density of content and the myriad possibilities for interpretation (and there are plenty of things I haven’t even touched on here), I’ve come to believe that The Tree of Life is an experience meant to be felt. Not felt in the common ways of emotional reaction to standard narrative and cinematic devices, but felt in that it puts us in our place in the world – small but big within ourselves, alone but part of a transhistorical tapestry. We should see ourselves through Malick (even if we can’t exactly identify him) and through the world itself. We should look at the heavens and be amazed. If it leaves us uncomfortable or dissatisfied, perhaps it is because the answers it gives, like the answers that we’ve been trying to give throughout the whole history of man, are not always satisfying or comfortable. Perhaps Malick’s evocation of the afterlife or alternate consciousness seems cornball because our imaginations can’t stretch far enough to grasp something like that, and when we try it comes off as false.
Or maybe Malick hasn’t thought through his imagery enough. Maybe an image of a Harlequin mask floating in water (an image that blips on the screen briefly at one point) is deeply personal to Malick but absurd and meaningless to most anyone else.
It can be difficult to tell if the film film is successful in its aims, or even if we truly understand its aims, but The Tree of Life is the sort of grand statement that we don’t often see at the movies, multiplex or art house. It is a bold and towering attempt to dig into the most impenetrable subject known to man – the riddle of our existence – and can be admired for its audacity alone.
Over at The Niles Files, you’ll find the most detailed examination of The Tree of Life, including some insights into Malick’s more obscure imagery and his use of music. The Niles Files also provides thoughtful explorations of Malick’s other films. At the end of the Niles Files article, you’ll find a more thorough list for further reading.
Over at the mubi.com notebook, Ignatiy Vishnevstsky finds himself polarized by Malick’s film. This article adequately describes my initial reaction to The Tree of Life.
Also on mubi.com, this time in the forums, you can find a detailed reaction among the knowledgeable participants there. I’m directing you to page 6 of the discussion, because everything before that is in anticipation of the release and contains no discussion of the actual movie.
Roger Ebert’s journal article, “A Prayer Beneath the Tree of Life” is better than his standard review. Elsewhere Ebert ruminates on the personal connections he found in Malick’s depiction of childhood life in a small town.