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A Second Look at Terrance Malik's "The Tree of Life" - Analyzing a film full of grace
Turns out I’m terrible at this whole “taking a day off” thing.
I fully intended to use Monday to recharge my batteries after five days spent watching and writing about movies; I’ve got another huge round of festival-going starting Wednesday, and I figured I needed some down-time away from my craft. I’m an idiot. How did I expect to “relax” after five straight days immersed in film? Try as I might, I just felt restless. Classes distracted me for a little while, but only until 11:00 AM, as my Mondays are very light. I then caught up on some TV shows I had missed last week, which amused me for a little while, but ultimately failed to hold my interest. I moved to my laptop, intending to work on an upcoming project, but to no avail. Words just wouldn’t come out. I thought about doing some reading for class. That didn’t sound good at all, and I couldn’t force myself to do it. I took a short walk, but it was very cold, so I came back inside.
In the back of my mind, I had an idea of what to do to snap out of this directionless trance. As I wrote my review of “Melancholia” on Thursday evening, still shaking and nauseous from the experience, a film floated into my head I hadn’t thought of in months – Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” I hadn’t enjoyed the film when I saw it in June. In my original review, I called it “one of the most indulgent films ever made, with roughly the same level of regard for the audience as Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch.”” If you know how much I hate “Sucker Punch,” you’ll understand that this is one of the nastier bits of criticism I have ever handed out. But nevertheless, “The Tree of Life” had worked its way into my head as I wrote about “Melancholia.” It’s not surprising, I suppose. Each aims to shape meaning out of this crazy experience we call life, and do so from two polar opposite standpoints. “Melancholia” sees ultimate significance at the end of all things, whereas “The Tree of Life” explains our existence by going back to the very beginning, to the moment of creation.
Ever since the film flitted back into my brain, I’ve had the urge to give it another try, even though I found my first viewing rather tortuous. I can safely say I’ve never had the urge to watch I film I didn’t enjoy a second time, but “The Tree of Life” called to me in a way I can’t properly describe. So last night, as I reflected on the Monday I had largely wasted in my aimlessness, I decided to watch the film. I knew I had to, even if I didn’t know why. I booted up my PlayStation, rented the movie, turned off the lights, and wondering if I was crazy for doing so, sat back to watch “The Tree of Life” again.
I am so, so glad I did. And after the jump, I’d like to tell you why, to give you perspective on why a movie I initially dismissed will probably rank fairly high when I make my top-ten list at the end of 2011. Continue after the jump...
Terrence Malik’s “The Tree of Life” is a film of incomparable ambition. Roger Ebert said it best when he wrote that it “…[attempts] no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.” It is so ambitious, in fact, that I would argue no version of this film could even come close to being perfect. It is destined to be flawed, bound to be messy in spots; its subject is so broad that many if not most viewers will undoubtedly reject it, because no two human beings view life in the same exact way. If you empathize with the emotions and the experiences Malik relates and are on board with the way he illustrates them, you will love the film wholeheartedly. If not, the film will be torturous, and I would blame no viewer for having a negative reaction.
One thing is clear, however: “The Tree of Life” is an astoundingly constructed film. The sheer number of images Malik captures, all of them uniformly gorgeous and awe-inspiring, is simply unparalleled. He edits them all together in a flowing, stream-of-consciousness style that does not often make logical sense but feels wholly natural if you are on Malik’s wavelength, along for the journey wherever it may take you. The first time I watched the film, I wasn’t on this wavelength, and though I appreciated the visuals, I couldn’t stand the presentation. I had gone to review the film, to sit in a dark theater with a crowd full of people, using the standard set of mental processes I employ when critiquing a film. That was the wrong mindset to be in. The trance of my wandering Monday was a far more appropriate mood. “The Tree of Life” is not a film one reviews, because it is not an experience one can succinctly sum up on page to those unfamiliar with the material. Even looking at Ebert’s take, it doesn’t read like a review, but a series of reactions, of thoughts, not critical of the film’s successes or failures, but mindful of the viewer’s emotional take-away. That’s how I want to examine the film this time, to start at the beginning and explore where the film took me.
It begins with the Mother, played by Jessica Chastain, narrating the Malick’s thesis statement over a series of introductory images: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. 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 when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes.”
These words give us all the tools we need to analyze the film. It establishes the film’s spirituality, the direct address to the deified “you” that will continue throughout, the dichotomy inherent in Grace, and the struggle to overcome nature and accept the difficult, rewarding path of grace. Mother says she will be true to ‘you,’ whatever comes. She knows she will be tested. Perhaps she already has been. In either case, the narrative will follow characters as they struggle to find and maintain faith, while the imagery will show us where the grace our characters search for lies.
In the opening scenes, the Mother learns that one of her children has died at age 19. She is mortified; the Father, played by Brad Pitt, expresses his grief in smaller, subtler ways, but he too is heartbroken. In the future, the oldest son, played by Sean Penn, wanders through life pondering his past, still mourning the death of his brother. All three ask questions. “Was I false to you?” asks Penn. “Where were you?”
As if prompted by these words, the film then jumps into an elaborate, extended look at the creation of the Universe. It traces the same story as the “Rite of Spring” segment of “Fantasia,” amusingly enough, from the big bang to the Earth’s fiery birth to the rise and death of the dinosaurs and beyond. Along with Lars Von Trier’s breathtaking vision of the world’s end at the start of “Melancholia,” it is the most visually lush and awe-inspiring piece of filmmaking one will see this year (2011 has been good for cataclysmic cosmic events, I guess). These beautiful images express the infinite complexities and vastness of our world so powerfully that without dialogue, Malick expresses the answer to the question: “Where were you?” The question can be rewritten as “Where is God?” As we watch the birth of the cosmos, we realize: He lives inside of everything. He built this world for us so that we may live in a world of grace.
In essence, the creation sequence is God’s introduction into the movie, an elaborate screen entrance indicating that Malick sees God’s presence all around us, embodied in the places we live and the lives we lead. For the rest of the film, characters will struggle with faith. When bad things happen, they will ask where God is, ponder how they may find him. As the audience, having been privy to the creation sequence, we know that God is all around these people, embodied in every blade of grass and every tree, and the cinematography never lets us forget that information. When the characters are happy and content, they seem to be aware of this as well, if not fully cognizant of it, embracing and reveling in the beauty of nature.
If I were a film professor, “The Tree of Life” would be my go-to pick to illustrate the power of cinematography. Film is a visual medium, and few movies have ever embraced that fact like “Life.” Each and every shot is a carefully constructed work of art, capturing the pure, unfiltered splendor of everyday life within the confines of the frame, making the audience aware of what incredible gifts the characters are surrounded by but so often unaware of. The beauty on display often cannot be explained; I can’t express why it moves me, but it does. The images are edited together in a stream-of-consciousness style, and when one tries to break down their order or meaning logically, one comes up empty handed. It is pure experience, and if you let yourself go, you will be swept up in the beauty, understanding the story and message on an instinctual, ethereal level. I feel like a fool for having written, the other night, that “The Descendants” has the best cinematography of 2011. I had forgotten about “The Tree of Life.” It features not just the most controlled, precise, and visually powerful images of 2011, but uses the cinematic medium to its fullest advantage.
After creation, the film returns to the O’Brien family, the characters of the introductory portion. Set in the fifties, we begin with the birth of Sean Penn’s character, Jack, moving on through his infant and toddler years as his mother cherishes him and later has other children. This period of life is illustrated through montage, using music and imagery to say so much. It is my favorite portion of the film because of the way it illustrates motherhood, framed through the eyes of a child. Young Jack sees his mother as a practically mystical figure, a God in his eyes who gives him everything, who cares for him and loves him, and when she has to divide that attention with other children, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. His God is no longer personal; he has to share her with others, but as he learns to do so, he sees even deeper layers of grace in his mother.
I see so much of my mother in Jessica Chastain’s performance. Her enthusiasm for life, her playfulness, her kindness, her unfathomably warm smile that assures safety in no uncertain terms, and most importantly, her love: unquestionable, unwavering, etched in every line of her face and expressed in every action. The way Chastain is framed through the eyes of her young children is exactly how I remember my mother when my brother and I were little. Malick understands the blinding beauty of motherhood, of having a female presence to nurture and to love and to make a child feel like the most important thing in the world. Those who have experience this kind of love will always be marked by it. I know I am. I never though I would watch an actress in a movie so completely embody the things I love and treasure about my mother, but this is the gift I found in “The Tree of Life.” To me, it is the most gorgeous segment in a film of limitless beauty.
As Jack and his brothers grow, their relationship with their mother matures, as is natural. We never see their teenage years, but I can extrapolate, imagining the evolving but no less diminished impact their mother will continue to have. The film instead begins exploring fatherhood. This section is far more challenging, because fathers are complex. Loving one’s mother isn’t just easy, it’s automatic, but embracing a father is a journey. “The Tree of Life” presents a specific, 1950s view of fathers, but I believe the core tenants of the message are universal. Our fathers see our mothers differently than we do; they don’t idolize or deify her as a child does, but treat her as an equal; they divert our mother’s attention, which is simply inconceivable.
Most importantly, fathers are less interested in shielding us from the harshness of the world, if not intentionally. Mothers protect, but fathers wear their baggage on their sleeves. In “The Tree of Life,” Mr. O’Brien’s frustration over his failing career and dying ambitions manifests itself through moments of physical abuse and constant verbal demands, as was typical in the fifties. My Dad was and is very different than that, but I absolutely relate to the idea of seeing the darkness of the world embodied in our fathers. If our mothers introduce us to the kindness and compassion of our world, then our fathers give us our first glimpses into the darker realities of life. This is what happens here, and young Jack doesn’t so much hate his father, I think, as he hates the implications his father embodies, the idea that life can be harsh and unforgiving. The only moments in the film that really, truly bother me are the ones where Jack wishes his father would die. The dialogue is far too on-the-nose in a movie that revels in subtlety, robbing the situation of the required nuance.
But the point is nevertheless well made, and Malick still takes plenty of time to show all the wonderful things about fathers, how the love they provide is just as essential as that of a mother’s, if different. Brad Pitt is fantastic in the role, keeping hold of Mr. O’Brien’s humanity at all times; even when his children and wife don’t understand him, we do. The funny thing is, I was right there with the kids the first time I saw “Tree of Life.” I hated the father. I thought he was so despicable that the film’s core message was undermined. This is one of the reasons why it’s essential to see “Tree of Life” twice: you pick up on so many new details, and for me, I saw so much nuance in this character that wasn’t there before. I sympathized for the father this time, even if I didn’t condone many of his actions. Mr. O’Brien desperately wants to be a good dad, to make the kids love him as much as their mother does, but he simply doesn’t know how (all of which Pitt expresses in silent, reserved glances). He raises his kids the way he was raised, which means he simply isn’t wired to be the most loving person in the room.
These are harsh truths the film deals with. “The Tree of Life” is a celebration of life’s infinite beauty, but it recognizes that beauty can come in dark and uncomfortable moments. If bad things didn’t happen, after all, we would never learn and become better. In the second half, the film becomes dark; a bit too much at times, I believe, but again, I was swept up by the nature of the message, that grace is there in both the best and worst times of our lives. The modulation towards darker content is signaled by a scene where Jack sees some criminals being arrested; he asks his mom if that can happen to anyone. She tries to shield him from this, but we know she can’t forever, and slowly, Jack begins to learn that as well. In a later scene, one of Jack’s friends dies, and he comprehends the finite nature of life. Horrified, he suddenly realizes that even his mother could one day pass on, and sees her in a beautiful glass tomb in the forest. His innocence is broken. What could more fundamentally alter our perceptions of life and of God than discovering that not even our mothers are eternal?
Jack begins questioning God. “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” he asks, and begins to rebel. The bad thing Jack does – breaking into a neighbor’s house – is probably different than the bad thing you or I have done, but we all have done something wrong in our lives, and the experience is scarring in every case. The worst thing Jack does is hurt his brother. When he does so, he is torn apart, and comes to learn that being a brother, especially an older brother, means being there for your sibling in a profound way, protecting and loving them no matter what. As with so many other messages, Malick expresses this wordlessly, but I was hugely moved by the scene. I remember how I came to learn my role as big brother; I’m not proud of how I sometimes treated my little brother when we were much younger, but when I realized what part I needed to play in his life, I like to think I began to make up for my mistakes. I will always continue to try, and Jack clearly will as well. It’s why adult Jack is so torn up, decades after his brother’s death; he can no longer be there for his brother, can no longer execute his sworn sibling duty.
Near the end of the film, Mr. O’Brien loses his job and is humbled. “I lived in shame,” he says. “I dishonored it all and ignored the glory.” Throughout the film, he is shown to be the most devoutly religious member of the family, yet the worst things happen to him. But there is meaning in the unpredictable ways of grace, and Mr. O’Brien’s humbling makes him closer to his children. He even has a moment of clarity, I think, where he comes to this conclusion as well.
“Father…Mother…you always wrestle inside me…” Adult Jack thinks as we move back to the future.
“The only way to be happy is to love,” he hears his mother say. “Unless you love, your life will flash by.” That’s who she is, summed up in two sentences. That’s what motherhood is. The desire to love and the need to be strong wrestles inside Jack. It’s part of life’s journey; it’s what makes him human.
In the final section of the film, adult Jack guides the audience to Malick’s vision of the afterlife, set on a beach; the meaning of the watery sounds we have heard throughout the film are made clear. They are waves; the symbolism is not hard to understand. There, Jack sees his Mother as he remembers her from his childhood, beautiful and ethereal, a gift if there ever was one; he meets his Dad as an equal, with an understanding they did not have in life. Jack has carried his brother with him all these years, and as such, the child appears, and Jack is able to deliver him back to his mother.
This last part should infuriate me, I wrote in my notes. It did in theatres, as it is the most image-driven, esoteric, and impenetrable portion of the movie. It should bother me. Instead, I was enthralled. It is filmmaking at its purest, gorgeous images driven by sound, not meant to narrate, but to evoke.
“I give him to you. I give you my son,” Mother says.
These are the last words of the film. As it fades to black, I tear up. I scribble in my notes the first thing that comes to mind – “I just feel whole and content watching this movie.” That about sums it up.
It’s still not a perfect film. I outlined some nitpicks above, but one problem I didn’t mention is the music. The film is often over-scored, trying to force emotions already created through visuals into the soundtrack. The music is credited to brilliant composer Alexandre Desplat, but Malick only used a small portion of Desplat’s music, instead opting for classical pieces in many scenes, and those pieces are the ones that rubbed me the wrong way. Desplat’s original, largely unused score is available on CD and iTunes, and I highly recommend it; it’s one of his best works, and I wish Malick had used it instead; it is a subtler, more meaningful complement to the imagery.
Comparing “The Tree of Life” to the film that inspired me to watch it again, “Melancholia” is the superior film. Both have an incredible profundity and execution of vision, but “Melancholia” is a more powerful and unified whole. Nevertheless, “Tree of Life” is incredible, and though I am not as religious as the film is, I think it represents the beliefs of my life more than “Melancholia.” It is almost unbelievable to me that in the span of one year we were blessed with two films that, taken together, express a nearly complete spectrum of views on life and where we find meaning. The beginning, and the end, and both tackle a bit of the middle. They would make an interesting double feature, though the number of emotions one would feel watching them back-to-back would probably be clinically unhealthy.
Film Rating: A
"The Tree of Life" is currently available on Blu-Ray combo pack (but not standalone DVD) and digital delivery platforms such as iTunes, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network.