By Don Simpson | June 3, 2011
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan
I am still attempting to digest The Tree of Life a week after seeing the press screening, making some sense of it all and figuring out exactly what writer-director Terrence Malick is trying to communicate (or maybe I am just having a difficult time getting beyond the CGI dinosaurs). When it comes down to it, The Tree of Life‘s cup runneth over with metaphoric imagery and references to Judeo-Christian scriptures (primarily the Book of Job) and I am desperately trying to wrap my head around it all.
There are essentially three distinct yet intertwined segments of The Tree of Life that play like movements in a symphony: The O’Brien family in the 1950s; Jack O’Brien, the eldest son, 30 years later; and what I loosely refer to as “dawn of time” imagery.
Malick dedicates a majority of the film’s screen time to the O’Brien family and their idyllic Texas home. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) have three sons: Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan). On the surface, their household appears to be as perfect as Leave It to Beaver. Mr. O’Brien has a good, secure job as an engineer (with several patents under his name) and he plays the pipe organ at church on Sundays while Mrs. O’Brien has the middle-class privilege of cleaning the house and raising the boys. The O’Brien family resides in a beautiful and spacious home with fresh air and daylight gushing through the open windows. It is the quintessential life for a white middle-class American family, but once you peel away the top layer — the facade of suburban tranquility and happiness — an ugly underbelly of a family ruled by the dictatorial iron fist of Mr. O’Brien is revealed. Mrs. O’Brien is rendered voiceless in the household and the three sons live in a constant state of fear of their father.
Thirty years later, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) resides in an aesthetically cold and sterile home and works in an aesthetically cold and sterile architecture office in Houston, Texas. The uninviting nature of both postmodern environments work in purposeful juxtaposition to the comforting openness of Jack’s modernist childhood home. Jack does not say or do much (Penn has approximately 15 minutes of screen time and very little on screen dialogue despite his second billing), other than recollect his past. It is the 30th anniversary of R.L.’s death (we are told that R.L. was 19-years old when he died, yet the timeline is so fractured that it is difficult to know for certain), and that event still renders Jack a listless zombie. (Note: Malick’s youngest brother, an aspiring guitarist, committed suicide in the late 1960s.)
Jack struggles to make peace with his youth, particularly his relationship with his father and his brother’s premature death. Jack recalls several moments that still haunt him to this day, such as when he: tied a frog to a rocket; threw rocks through a window of a neighbor’s shed; broke into a neighbor’s house; shot R.L.’s finger with a BB gun; talked back to his mother; and prayed that God would kill his father. The Tree of Life is intended to be Jack’s own meditations on his childhood all the while contemplating God’s existence and the meaning of life. Jack perceives himself as the bad son and R.L. as the good (the righteous) son — so why did God take R.L.’s life? Or, as Job often pondered: Why do the righteous suffer?
The “dawn of time” imagery showcases a psychedelic fantasia of bizarre cosmological phenomena a la the “The Dawn of Man” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” chapters of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. First, the Big Bang; then, primordial ooze and molten magma; next, unicellular organisms evolve into multi-cellular organisms…and eventually there are a couple of dinosaurs. In theory, these visual head-trips represent Jack’s contemplation of the universe (thus revealing the triviality of his selfish concerns). In reality, these scenes are more likely to just conjure up inquiries into “what was Malick on?” while he imagined all of this. While I certainly appreciate Malick’s audacity in including the highly unconventional trippy-dippy “dawn of time” segments, he must have known that most audiences will not “get” the message(s) that these images are intended to convey. (Heck, he looses me with the hovering aura of celestial light that appears throughout the film.)
The final coda brings all three segments of the film together, well sort of. We witness the earth’s demise and then a bevy of lost souls (including the O’Brien family) wandering along a beach to an endless echo of “amen” from “Berlioz: 10. Agnus Dei [Requiem, Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts)]” as conducted by Sir Colin Davis and performed by Wandsworth School Boys Choir, London Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra.
Malick has historically kept his affinity for metaphorical imagery somewhat in check, but his cerebral tendencies run rampantly wild within The Tree of Life. I have absolutely no complaints with the deliberately obtuse nature of Malick’s choices in imagery; in fact, it is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (who earned a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for Malick’s The New World) unabashed eye candy that is the strongest element of The Tree of Life. Lubezki adroitly conveys Malick’s transcendentally dreamy vision. Several scenes play out with no spoken dialogue — just sporadic lines of voice-over and a heavy dose of classical music (Bach, Holst, Goreckí, Mahler), so the images are left shouldering the burden of meaning. For that reason alone, The Tree of Life will certainly be one of my favorite visual films of 2011.
Three subjects that are readily discussed in Malick’s other films — Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World — are also quite prominent in The Tree of Life: humankind’s constant struggle with nature; the inherent violence found within all humans; and the tug-of-war of gender roles. Yet in The Tree of Life Malick wraps these three subjects into a greater discussion on the battle between the way of nature (the selfish pursuit of earthly ambitions) and the way of grace (living a life of love and compassion for all).
Malick truly hits his stride when focusing on the subconscious conflict that occurs during childhood — when young personalities are being shaped into their adult equivalent — between the forces of good and evil. Children are prone to make poor choices during childhood, and sometimes those choices (like several of Jack’s) continue to haunt one’s memories long into adulthood. The adult Jack would never purposefully shoot his brother’s finger with a BB gun or tie a frog to a rocket, yet the adult Jack still feels guilty for the poor choices he made as a child. Like his father, Jack dishonored nature and never noticed “the glory”; he chose a selfish and violent path, rather than following his mother’s path of love.
An over-reliance on voiceovers has always been Malick’s one weakness and The Tree of Life seems to rely even more heavily upon voiceovers than his other four films. Understandably, Malick utilizes whispery and ethereal voice-overs to place the audience inside Jack’s mind as he regurgitates his childhood memories and waxes existentially (Malick is a disciple of Martin Heidegger), but Malick is simultaneously synopsizing the Book of Job for us, and this is enough to clear the seats of any atheists in the audience. There will certainly be accusations that The Tree of Life is a shameless proselytising of Judeo-Christian doctrine, but I interpret The Tree of Life as being quite the opposite.
The title of the film references a non-denominational symbol that spans the breadth of religion, science, philosophy and mythology. Jack (like Malick) was raised as a Christian, so it only makes sense that Jack (and Malick) would turn to the Old Testament when attempting to come to terms with his brother’s death; Job — a character who directly challenges God — is chosen to convey Jack’s (and Malick’s) theological quandary. Jack (and Malick) doubts the existence of God, but at the same time he chooses to address God directly, challenging him (as Job did) to answer his accusations and questions. Andy Partridge took a similar tactic in his lyrics for XTC’s “Dear God” (“The wars you bring, the babes you drown, those lost at sea and never found… The hurt I see helps to compound that Father, Son and the Holy Ghost is just somebody’s unholy hoax; and if you’re up there, you’d perceive that my heart’s here upon my sleeve; if there is one thing I don’t believe in, it’s you.”)
The Tree of Life reportedly received a conflicting chorus of boos and applause after its world premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Nonetheless, Malick’s film received the Palme d’Or, but the infamously reclusive director was nowhere to be found.