Terrence Malick: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s fifth film as director is perhaps his most ambitious and unorthodox while paradoxically also being his most beautifully, intimate and intensely personal. For the Malick enthusiast, the arrival of The Tree of Life, delayed for over a year in the editing process, is the event of the cinematic calendar, if at the beginning of the 2011 I’d been told I could only watch one film, I would have chosen The Tree of Life without hesitation. Malick is a divisive figure, those who love his work do so unquestioningly, perhaps even to a fault, and those who do not reserve some of the most bitter resentment for him, perhaps also to a fault. It is no surprise then that many have fawned over it and fallen victim to hyperbole and many more have been left disappointed expecting perhaps the hand of God to reach out of the cinema screen and touch them on the shoulder. While my expectations weren’t quite that high (if scientists had discovered a way to resurrect Andrei Tarkovsky and he had made an eighth film then perhaps they would be) but I was never the less immediately enamoured with The Tree of Life and in less than six months I’ve viewed this masterpiece three times, twice in the cinema and once on DVD. Whilst I adored it on the first two occasions I became absolutely entranced by it on the third, when I was not being constantly disturbed by the rattling of sweet wrappers or murmurings from the back row (anticipation of any film does of course lend itself to increased agitation at such activities which will inevitably break ones concentration). In the privacy of my own home I could finally relax into the film with the lights off and the volume turned up and truly watch the film rather than the event. Or perhaps the miracle of the third viewing is the same with all of Malick’s later films; it really does take more than one sitting to truly appreciate his films worth, to get used to his editing style and his distinctive voice and immerse oneself completely in the world he has conjured. Given that many, myself included, consider Malick to be the greatest living filmmaker and believe The Thin Red Line and The New World to be the two most important films of the last two decades; Malick had a lot to live up to and it would be a challenge for anyone to live up to such a standard. Malick has proved himself equal to the task in my eye and this represents a glorious addition to his oeuvre.

The Tree of Life sets up its theme with the first line of narration from Mrs. O’Brien, the mother of three young boys who we’ll come to follow through the films narrative. “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.” Thus a battle ensues within our protagonist Jack played by Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn, Finnegan Williams and Michael Koeth in varying ages (it should be pointed out that McCracken’s performance is simply superb as are all of the younger actors featured in this film). The battle is between these two ways, on the one side is his mother, brought to life by the enchanting Jessica Chastain who appears more as an angel on Earth than an Irish mother of three, mother represents grace while father Mr. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt in a career best, who represents nature. Jack as a boy struggles to reconcile the two as he finds himself becoming increasingly aggressive, transgressing the laws of man and causing destruction and pain. From his beginnings, playing with his brothers, enjoying the magic of story time, imagining his mother flying in their garden, being entranced by a play of lights and a bed sheet or falling in love for the first time with a girl in class; to breaking into a house and stealing a nightgown, ruining his brothers art work and breaking windows of a derelict building. This battle is tied loosely to faith and Jack’s belief in a God who can cause so much pain. An early scene sees Jack aged two shielded by his mother from the sight of a man having an epileptic fit, but later as he reaches the beginnings of adolescence, he witnesses another boy tragically drowning. Jack asks God in his inner monologue: “Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When you aren't.” The way of nature reacts to the world around it, is prompted into action and violence by crimes and inequality, the way of grace does not; Mrs. O’Brien’s voiceover states: “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.” According to Mrs. O’Brien no one who loves grace ever comes to a bad end, but she has her life turned upside down by the death of her second son R.L at just nineteen years old (played with a haunting smile by Laramie Eppler). For the father, who believes that no one ever got anywhere by being too good, he finds his view of the world crushed by events; he aggressively dominates his family, operates within double standards as the boys soon identify; telling them not to put their elbows on the table when he does it all the time; teaching them to stand up for themselves then excoriating young R.L when he does exactly that in one of the films most memorable scenes, R.L is forced from the dinner table for telling his father to be quiet, Mr. O’Brien then failing to see the seeds of rebellion he has sown and blaming it all on their mother, accusing her of turning them against him. Within Mr. O’Brien is a deeper conflict perhaps, he wanted to be an organist but he let himself get sidetracked, he has patents for all manner of devices but can’t sell any of them, everything Mr. O’Brien turns his hand to he fails at and he can’t seem to recognize that fact. Through his arc he comes to learn that the only thing he ever did that was worth while was raise his boys; while Jack as an older man reflects on how he became lost in the wake of his father’s behaviour and bullied R.L like his father had bullied him; R.L taking the abuse and thus Jack and R.L reflect their parents, the battle between grace and nature continuing into the next generation.

This by itself would make for a compelling film, made particularly interesting by the autobiographical elements; Waco Texas where the film is set is indeed Malick’s home. Malick also had two younger brothers; Larry Malick, was a musician and apparently committed suicide at a similar age; its hard to resist the possibility that these often very powerful images of Jack’s early family life are in fact images from Malick’s childhood. But Malick lifts The Tree of Life above a mere biopic, transgresses the boundaries of contemporary conventional cinema and creates a spectacularly ambitious work of art. The events are never lingered on, as with The New World and The Thin Red Line, the film races through events and paints a rather more impressive picture through tiny strokes of the brush, so that only when the film is over do we see the entire picture. The opening forty minutes of the film in particular are when Malick is operating at the height of his powers, they represent his best work and the finest sequences of cinema since Tarkovsky’s Mirror; we fleet back and forth through time, witnessing first the reactions to Jack’s death, Mrs. O’Brien’s agonizing scream of grief heard twice in the distance over abstracted images; we do not discover the causes or see the event; we see the young boys playing as we will through the rest of the film and flash forward to older Jack’s now soulless existence in an unnamed skyscraper bound business; Jack then wonders through a subconscious wasteland, a door that leads to nowhere, following the younger version of himself and questioning how his mother ever coped with R.L’s death. All of this captured by Emmanuel Lubezki’s dexterous, luminous and balletic lens; the image of upside down shadows of the three boys playing on the road by there house being the films most unforgettable image. Scored by Alaxandre Desplat, but the real musical credit, as with The New World has to go to Malick for his selection of some of the greatest pieces of 20th Century classical music, the opening accompanied by Tavener’s Funeral Canticle is exceptionally haunting, the memory of Mrs. O’Brien taking a flight in small aircraft to the sorrowful tones of Gorecki’s symphony No. 3 or a later use of Preisner’s Requiem for my Friend (itself a tribute to the great filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski). Malick then detours away from our protagonists for what will for some be the most indulgent twenty minutes of any film ever produced, but for others will contextualize the film in the grandest of scopes only to bring forth profundity in the smallest of details. We return to the birth of the universe, and through a spectacular series of visual effects shots courtesy of Douglas Trumbull, who famously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey, we witness the formation of galaxies, stars born out of nebular, the birth of the solar system, the construction of the heavens in the nights skies and the beginning of life on Earth, through the age of the dinosaurs and their eventual destruction and back to this time, our time. Malick then effortlessly flows from the birth of the universe into the birth of Jack and his first years of existence, learning the ways of the world through a startling series of images which effortlessly conjure the magic of discovery in childhood. Mother points to the sky and tells Jack “That’s where God lives”, indeed through the birth of the universe we see how her God or anyone else’s God or Gods or the random chaos of existence has brought about this arena within which this eternal conflict is played out.
The now infamous dinosaur sequence has caused division, partially because, unlike the birth of the universe, the visual effects do not entirely hold true and will sadly date the film in years to come in ways that shall not befall any of Malick’s other films; but also because some have found it a leap from the page too far. How does any of this relate to the more domestic struggle between parents and children in the suburbs? Malick is taking a perceived truth to its ultimate conclusion, a philosophical division within life that he has explored to a lesser extent in all of his previous films, that there are those who flow with river and those who swim against it. All are punished, but those who flow find a grace in the world that is their own while those who swim against are often the architects of their own destruction and pain. The image of a river is key, as a dinosaur lies injured only to be confronted by carnivore who treads on the injured dinosaurs head and considers whether to eat it before eventually deciding not to and escaping into the forest. An act of mercy? A moment of grace? The wounded animal is not assisted, it will still probably die, but such is the way of grace, the way of nature would have seen it predated upon by the stronger and more able, but this does not occur. It is the same battle that we see in the home of the O’Brien’s and it expands throughout the rest of time to the death of the universe as depicted in the films final ten minutes and even older Jack’s subconscious representation of the afterlife, a dreamy beach scene where everyone wanders aimlessly but utterly at peace. Is the struggle pointless? Is life about acceptance, about finding grace? It can be summed up by Mrs. O’Brien’s dialogue, in particular this one single line: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” In philosophical terms it is a battle between Schopenhauer and Heidegger, broadly the great pessimist and the great optimist of philosophy respectively. Schopenhauer believing that human desires will never be satisfied, that success only breeds boredom from which life will become an endless series of desires that man struggles to succeed within but will never truly be happy (read nature). Heidegger believing that we find ourselves “always already” in a world that has forever existed, that we concentrate too much on how the world works and should recognize that we are but tiny fragments of the world we find ourselves in and humans should just ‘be’ (read grace). “The only way to be happy is to love” would seem to be Malick’s way through this terrain; his take on existence as born out of these polar opposites.

The Tree of Life is easily tied in to The Thin Red Line and The New World as a “later Malick film”; his free flowing editing style negating the traditional scene transitions and instead bridging the scenes together into extended and often breathless sequences accompanied by near constant musical accompaniment. Production began in 2008 a very long period for a films gestation, but Malick like those now great filmmakers he followed, is and always has been a perfectionist, Mr. O’Brien tells young Jack: “Toscanini once recorded apiece sixty five times. You know what he said when he finished? ‘It could be better.’ Think about it.” Perhaps Malick has more of Mr. O’Brien within him than Mrs. O’Brien. Perhaps he too is struggling with the way of nature; producing such films must be so taxing on his body and soul. But within all of his works there is love, even Badlands sees its protagonists limp through the wilderness and find love in their den in the woods. Malick’s filmography is this struggle, the most important question of all, how do we find happiness in this life? From the beginnings of time to the end of existence, is there anything that merits a greater pondering?

M.Dawson