THE TREE OF LIFE
If you were to look for another artist to compare Terrence Malick to, it would surely be J.D. Salinger Malick shuns the public eye so much that he has it contractually stipulated that he will not promote his films and no images of him can be used for publicity purposes. It is not even known why he removed himself from filmmaking for twenty years (although vast cost overruns due to Malicks shooting methods and an editing schedule that dragged out for two years on Days of Heaven, which made Malick unpopular with the studios, is speculated as being the cause). Malick made his triumphant return with the war film The Thin Red Line (1998), followed by the Pocahontas-John Smith story The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life. All of these are works that have received stunning reviews. The Tree of Life is purportedly something that Terrence Malick nurtured for three decades, all the way back to a project named Q that he touted not long after Days of Heaven, which would have told the story of the origins of life on Earth and later became the basis of The Voyage of Time (2016). The Tree of Life won the Palme dOr after premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Terrence Malicks films are myths. Almost all of them play out as though they are variants of the Garden of Eden and the Fall from Grace. They are less dramatic narratives than they are montages of scenes with people drifting through a rapturous world of beauty and nature. His characters are innocents, Adam and Eve in Eden before the notion of First Sin ever entered be it killers on the run lost in the desert in Badlands; the contrast of soldiers amid the lushness of nature at Guadalcanal as war rages in The Thin Red Line; the untapped, virgin wilderness of the newly discovered America in The New World; two people in love in To the Wonder (2012). Original Sin and resulting loss of innocence exists in terms of the darkening of this world (the brutality of war, the law eventually catching up to arrest Richard Gere and Martin Sheen that culminates both Days of Heaven and Badlands, the falling out of love in To the Wonder, the writer drifting through Hollywood in Knight of Cups (2015) searching for his past).
The Tree of Life is almost Terrence Malicks 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It is not a film that fully, easily sits as being fantasy and certainly not science-fiction as some people initially pegged it as being. You can maybe draw comparisons to Darren Aronofskys The Fountain (2006) a tree features as a central symbol in both films, while both have a story that is stretched out across multiple eras and is concerned with a mystical respect for nature and the meaning of it all. Perhaps more than 2001, the creation sequence most resembles the Rite of Spring episode in Disneys Fantasia (1940). The talking point of The Tree of Life is the 20 minute section not too far in that goes from Jessica Chastains whispered voiceover asking why this can be allowed to happen, that then moves out to a series of montages of starscapes and nebulae. This travels from the beginning of Creation where we watch the formation of planets out of primordial images of fire and turbulence, before moving down to the Earth, seeing the formation of simple cellular lifeforms, their merging into more complex beings, the arrival of the first land creatures then several scenes with the dinosaurs before Malick cuts back to space and shows the meteor strike that eliminated the dinosaurs. Like 2001, this section is spread out across several epochs and is not clearly narratively connected to the rest of the story. It is guess work trying to figure out how this slots into the meaning of everything else. The meaning I take comes from Jessica Chastains voiceover at the start of the sequence, a prayer that seems to go out to the entirety of creation, asking how in this exquisitely beautiful and Edenic world, pain and suffering can be allowed to enter peoples lives.
The Tree of Life may well be the best film made yet about the enduring myth of the Lost American Childhood. You get the impression that what we are seeing is taken from Terrence Malicks own childhood. The film takes place in Waco, Texas during the 1950s Malick was born in Illinois, the oldest of three brothers, but grew up in Waco, before the family moved to Austin where his father was a petroleum company executive. During the 1950s, Malick would have been the same age as the child protagonist here. You expect that the central characters often sternly traditional raising, his rebellion against this, and his desire to reconnect with that sense of lost innocence in later life is the quest that has driven much of Terrence Malicks psyche and work. The death of the brother frames events in the film and is echoed by Malicks life where his younger brother Larry committed suicide in 1968 while in his twenties after failing in his studies of classical guitar.
The Tree of Life is a frustrating film in attempting to get a fix on it. (Not unlike 2001 either). It is not a film that has clearcut things to it like a narrative where everything is spelt out, even a clearcut resolution. Far more so than his other films, Terrence Malick leaves things for us to guess. The plot is exasperatingly elusive; the entire film only takes place in Malicks montages. The dialogue that one hears throughout comes less from the things that are written for the characters as conversation than it does in the whispered voiceovers that almost seem like eavesdroppings of peoples inner thoughts. Here and in his other films, Malick creates montages of scenes of intimacy quiet, idyllic moments of poetry or scenes that seem like nostalgic drifts through artefacts of memory (his films always evoke bygone eras). The Tree of Life is almost entirely filled with these images of mother Jessica Chastain with the children tracing the patterns on a china plate, playing with goldfish, the parents gardening, the family playing together and spraying one another with a hose. These montages gradually darken the playful innocence becomes boys making mischief, fearfully and then gleefully throwing stones through a shed window, tying a frog to a skyrocket, Hunter McCracken daring Laramie Eppler to place his finger over the end of an air rifle.
Terrence Malick has a very non-traditional means of shooting a film he essentially abandons a script and allows his cast to improvise scenes in-field. He will film hundreds of hours of footage and frequently discards subplots and entire character threads here you gain the impression that Fiona Shaws grandmother had far more scenes that she did, given the employment of such a name actor, but she only appears in about two scenes. Similarly there seem frequent plot strands where details are missing one of the kids turns up with a patch of his hair burned where you get the impression that this was an accident with the fireworks the other kids were playing with. Other plot aspects that would be crucial in a far more conventional mainstream film are absent. Brad Pitts father is upset by losing his job and says I have dishonoured everything but what he means by this whether it is his business decisions or his eruption into violence against the children and how this impinges on the collapse of his business is not clear. Even when it comes to the events that start the film off the death of the brother we are given no details. We never learn how they died, or even for that matter which brother was killed. It is only clear, for instance, on finding that they share the same name on the end credits that we realise that Sean Penns adult character is meant to be the grown-up version of Hunter McCracken. There are also odd touches of surrealism one moment where Jessica Chastain momentarily takes to the air and twirls around under the tree, another where for some reason we see a body in a glass coffin in the woods like something out of Snow White that seem to belong to another film altogether.
Even the performances from the name actors in the film Brad Pitt, Sean Penn seem to eschew big acting fireworks and be subordinate to the director Pitt, for instance, is good but never opens up with a big scene that he shows his Acting off (in fact, I ended up admiring the performance from the then unknown Jessica Chastain (whose profile rose meteorically with this film) more so than I did either of these known names). Eventually you give up hoping that these aspects will fall into place and go with the sheer visual splendour of the intimacy of a childhood that Terrence Malick evokes. The poetry of the film weaves a spell that soon enchants you. What results is surely the only mainstream-released film of the year that doesnt seem to clearly be about anything but still has far more to say than all of the other films released at the multiplex this year run end to end.
The debate that seems to play throughout the film is the one laid down in one of the earliest voiceovers There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which way to follow. Later this is embodied by the polarities represented by mother Jessica Chastains peaceful non-violent means and father Brad Pitts association with authority, industry and the great American dream of self-determination, which is seen is akin to the forces of nature ie. evolution and Darwinian survival of the fittest. The Tree of Life seems to be a work that looks upon the beauty of Creation and asks fundamental questions such as how can pain be allowed to enter a perfect world? How does sin enter a world of innocence? The scenes toward the end where we see the idyllic world the children have grown up in sullied by first Brad Pitts flare-up of temper and then Hunter McCracken looking on life around him and rhetorically asking God Why should I be good if you arent? is a startling moment of character change that strikes considerably.
The film reaches a puzzling ending where almost all of the characters both their older and younger selves meet on a beach. This we take to be something happening on a surrealistic level where it becomes apparent that this is some type of Christian reuniting in the afterlife. The odd thing about The Tree of Life is that with its questions and allegories about sin, grace, innocence and hope in the resurrection, even the opening quote from The Book of Job, it may well be the most overtly Christian and religious film of the year yet at the same time, one that will almost certainly go over the heads of and be celebrated by mainstream critics as opposed to the church masses that flocked to and made The Passion of the Christ (2004) a hit a few years ago.
The Tree of Life was nominated for a host of critical awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director for Terrence Malick at the 2011 Academy Awards.
Since his return to filmmaking, Terrence Malick has as of the 2010s burst into an explosion of hyperactivity as though determined to make up for his long absence. His next film was To the Wonder (2012), which, along with The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups (2015), forms a loose trio of autobiographical films, followed by Song to Song (2017). Malick returned to matters concerning the life and death of the universe with the documentary Voyage of Time (2016).
(Winner for Best Film in this sites Top 10 Films of 2011 list. Winner for Best Director (Terrence Malick), Nominee for Best Actress (Jessica Chastain) and Best Cinematography at this sites Best of 2011 Awards).