The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life Monday, March 26th,
7:15 at the Byrd Theater (Tonight only)
Playing tonight over at the Byrd (just after the mayhem of French Film Festival) is a controversial American classic that’s definitely worth seeing. The film is Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life, which first debuted in 2011, but whose inception stretches back to 1979, before Malick’s twenty-year, self-imposed exile from the public eye. And as you’d expect from a film conceived out of decades of private, personal contemplation, it’s made of a whole different substance and atmosphere than the corporate movies being pumped out by Hollywood studios these days. It is both a family drama and a cosmic epic - ambitious and visually stunning.The family drama plays out through the whole middle of the film, but is bracketed by the more cosmic and metaphysical bits near the beginning and end.
The Tree of life tends to be a polarizing film, but not in a transgressive or political way, rather it’s a movie whose whole structure and emotional tone seem to split audiences right down the middle: you either love it or you hate it. Some come away viewing it as muddled and plotless: meandering, sentimental, emotionally-over-wrought. Others see it as a powerful meditation on life, death and suffering. I would say strike this film off your list if: A - You go to the movies primarily to have mindless fun, B - You like clear, obvious answers to everything in a story, or: C – You can’t imagine tolerating a family drama - or at least one that starts out by depicting the genesis of life on earth - and then ends with its characters wandering rapturously out onto a mystical beach somewhere between heaven, Corpus Christi and Nirvana.
No one questions Malick’s considerable ability to weave beautiful sights and sounds together. He has always valued cinematographic effect over slavish adherence to the script, notoriously slashing the roles of actors as he sees fit, sometimes leaving entire parts on the cutting room floor. Early in his career he made a reputation for films that conveyed the sprit of the American heartland, first with Badlands in 1973, and then Days of Heaven in 1978.
While its tendency for philosophical meditation through visual poetry shares more in common with much of European cinema, The Tree of Life is a distinctly American film, deeply rooted in a sense of character and place that’s unique to our own continent. In this way it takes after Days of Heaven and Badlands before it. But the vast spaces of these earlier films are replaced with the south central landscape of Texas, scattered with oak and sycamore, gravel roads and post War homes. Most of the film is set in the 50's, in Smithville, Texas, and while we could call it a suburb, this place has a lot more visual grit and rural ethos than some of the glossy, constrained places we now use that name for. This is where we are transplanted into the family life of the O’Brians, and where a domestic plot unfolds itself to us through a series of impressions, memories, and internal dialogues, along with a handsomely structured series of visual montages.
We view the O’Brian house through Jack, the eldest son, both as a child and an adult. The grown Jack, brooding and cynical, is played by Sean Penn. Penn spends little time on screen, but exerts a powerful presence throughout the length of the movie as he reflects on his childhood. The environment of glass-and-steel skyscrapers he now inhabits forms a sharp contrast with the more rural Smithville of his past.
Much of grown Jack’s dialogue in the film is internal: Mother? Brother? It was they who brought me to you...How did I lose you? Wandered, forgot you?
He seems to be searching for something missing in himself or meditating on events in his past. Sometimes he seems to be praying, but if so, his prayers are more confrontational and doubtful than pious. In his own mind, at least, he must find something he lost with his deceased brother.
But we end up spending much more time with the child Jack, starting with his birth.
Malick depicts Jack’s emergence from the womb with a series of rich visual symbols, and as the infant grows into his more conscious state of toddlerhood, we get an exultant, bucolic vision of the world unfolding before his eyes; one full of sunlight shining through trees, quiet spaces, soft breezes and an ever-expanding sense of adventure. Radiating at the center of it all is his mother (Jessica Chastain), who seems to embody everything good in the world. She is capable but child-like; playful, full of emotion, exuberant, gentle and indulgent toward her three boys. Jack returns her adoration, and at one point we hear the rapt whispering of his internal voice, “Mother…make me good…brave.”
As his younger brothers arrive, the fissures in Jack’s little arcadia begin to show. His mother’s attention is now divided. The center of Jack’s world can no longer treat him as though he were the center of hers. In addition to this, Mr. O’Brian’s idea of parenthood is very different from his wife’s. He is a strict and exacting disciplinarian, delineating boundaries, doling out duties, demanding respect. He rides his boys obsessively about tending the yard, instructs them in fist fighting, boasts of his 27 registered patents.
He tells them: “You can’t say ‘I can’t’...You say, ‘I’m having trouble. I’m not done yet!’” And more ominously: “Wrong people go hungry, die, wrong people get loved, the world lives by trickery. If you wanna succeed you can’t be too good.”
The exuberance of toddlerhood expands into the frantic energy of boyhood. Wrestling on the lawn, climbing trees, hide-and-seek until sundown: all these make up the stuff of childhood for the O’Brian boys. There is still the tender presence of their mother, the world of sunlight and protected innocence. But lurking beneath everything, and increasingly rearing its head, is a more menacing world: cruel, violent and deadly. This is the world their father seeks to prepare them for but instead comes to epitomize though his egotistical, near sociopathic behavior.
Early on we come to see that Jack’s mother and father embody two sides of a conflict, not a clash between two persons, but between two diametrically opposed ways of being: one which Malick lays out from the very beginning of the film through the voice of Mrs. O’Brian. “There are two ways through life, the way of nature, and the way of grace,” she tells us. “Grace doesn’t try to please itself, accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries…. Nature…only wants to please itself, and 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, when love is smiling though all things.”
Mr. O’Brian (Brad Pitt), is not quite so sure of all this: “Your mother is naive. It takes a fierce will to get ahead in this world, if you’re good, people take advantage of you, don’t let anyone tell you there’s anything you can’t do. “
Jack is a composite of both parents, (“Mother, father, you always fight inside me.”) But he takes more after his father as the story unfolds. The film becomes a series of challenges, a kind of gauntlet where Jack is constantly posed with this dilemma: will he choose Nature or Grace? And while mother and father serve as archetypes for this bipolar dilemma, both are subject to the powerful pull of each side. Mrs. O’Brian must deal with crushing doubts about the essential goodness of the world in the face of tragedy, while Mr. O’Brian becomes painfully aware of his own shortcomings. Suffering eventually pulls him in the direction of grace and goodness but threatens to push her away from her childlike faith in both.
Once again, Malick is a master of seemingly script-less film making, as he slowly takes Jack deeper and deeper into the dark side of this conflict.
What makes this film so engrossing isn’t the fact that we’re presented with a dilemma between good and evil. Most films do that. Rather it’s the texture and fabric of the world Malick builds for us, the backdrop which forms the tension between both good and evil, nature and grace. He is a master of framing his characters in a particular place and time and then capturing the subtle, transitory inflections between them. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a film that represents the emotional ebb-and-flow of family life in quite the same way that The Tree of Life does. Familial affection is tinged with narcissism. Happiness enters Jack’s life unannounced, only to be thwarted by disappointment and anger. Rather than getting one-dimensional children, we experience Jack and his brothers as sensitive and shrewd, cruel and full of wonder, all without one hitch in the transition between each aspect of their personalities.
While Malick poses deep philosophical and theological questions, he is no theologian. He understands the limitations of the medium of film; its inability to provide clear or obvious answers. His power to convince us lies in his capacity to construct metaphors, both in sound and sight, out of the everyday world around us. He seeks to convince us of the goodness of grace by, “all the world…shining around” us and, “love…smiling though all things.” This by itself might sound Pollyannaish, but he manages to steer clear of the saccharine, hallmark-card-positivity that so much cinema these days has fallen into. He avoids this trap by his realism - his convincing depictions of both evil and suffering, and by his constant insistence that choosing the good is no mere matter of simple platitudes.
If you have the chance, try and catch this film on the big screen tonight. It’s only playing one night, and it'll only cost you four bucks!
Miles Hall is a painter and art educator. He teaches Drawing, Painting, Design and Art History at VCU, Virginia State, and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond