Friday, June 3, 2011

The Tree of Life

When I was a story analyst at Zoetrope Studios in Hollywood in 1981, a fellow reader walked into our dusty old bungalow one morning raving about a movie he'd seen over the weekend.  "It had about ten lines of dialogue," he enthused in amazement.  The film was George Miller's The Road Warrior, from a script by Miller and Terry Hayes.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is also a film with virtually no dialogue, save for whispered thoughts and entreaties.  Its form is almost purely filmic, its images creating a Joycean stream-of-consciousness to which you can't help but surrender.  The affective power of the movie is such that the surrender is ultimately effortless:  the accretion of images, the cries and whispers, the impeccable depictions of time and place and family ties--these generate in us the Negative Capability to ignore the confusion, the lapses in continuity, the corniness of the afterlife as a literal walk on the beach.

The film is both specific and universal:  it appears to draw on Malick's memories of his childhood in Texas in the 1950s, a father (Brad Pitt) who represents "the way of nature" or self-interest, and a mother (Jessica Chastain)  who embodies "the way of grace," or love.  (I was reminded of Yeats's lines, "The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work,/And if it take the second must refuse/A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.")  

Eldest son Jack, played by the wonderful Hunter McCracken as a boy and a superb Sean Penn as a middle-aged man, embodies one of Malick's themes:  "Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me."  The family is a microcosm of creation:  man, woman, birth, death, infinity (thank you, "Ben Casey"), but also love and hate.  (And I might add that, as psychoanalyst James Grotstein once pointed out in a lecture, the opposite of love is not hate--it's indifference.)  

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott admiringly pointed out that Malick's film is like "Wordsworth's 'Intimations of Immortality' transported to the world of 'Leave It to Beaver.'" Malick also gives us his version of Wordsworth's "The Prelude,"  an impressionistic depiction of the creation of the universe--which, as critic Joe Morgenstern has noted, hasn't been done like this since Stanley Kubrick's 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  This prelude ends with the virtually virgin birth of Jack to a filmy white clad Chastain, without one stain of blood. (She really does seem like Mary, born free of original sin.)  

Sean Penn is mourning (presumably, the death of his 19-year-old brother R.L., although how do we reconcile the fact that the now middle-aged Jack is only a couple of years older than R.L.?) and remembering this story, a world of acting in his soulful eyes.  Fittingly, in this movie unabashedly about the existence of God, Jack is an architect, and the buildings in which he rides up and down are towers of glass reaching up into the sky.  On paper it seems a heavy-handed metaphor for Jack's grasping for answers.  In experience it is not.

This is as good a time as any to give kudos to Jack Fisk for his impeccable and stunning production design, also a source of exasperation in terms of continuity--how did Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien end up with an impressive mid-century modern home (where Mrs. O'Brien learns of R.L.'s death) filled with iconic furniture--or is this more about producer Brad Pitt's taste in design?  Or Malick's editing out some story points? 

Ultimately, these lapses (or disregard for continuity and logic--is Malick playing God with us?) are what may keep The Tree of Life from being a masterpiece.  But in a postlapsarian world, it doesn't really matter, because the film gets us to stop reaching after fact and reason, and allows us to be moved to the point of speechlessness.  At the end of the film there was a collective hush in the theater, as if we were in church.  And we were, witnessing Genesis according to Terrence Malick.


  1. How many dimensions does it take to describe the universe? Malicks film feels more like a lesson is physics than theology, albeit more compelling than that which can be told from a university lectern with its rich imagery.

    Straight out of the Kubrick playbook but with more humanity than Stanley was able to tap into. Through "stream of consciousness" whispers we connect to the tragic elements in each character, to that which is in ourselves. As for the continuity issues, perhaps he was relying on another theory... random chaos.

    Nice Review Sharon!

  2. Great review Sharon. Genesis as written by Malick indeed. The depiction of trees as a sort of dual metaphor, branches and leaves growing up and outward to represent what we show the outside world but also roots growing deep and always hidden to represent our secrets, both family and personal. I was struck by how many scenes of digging and uprooting, burial and exhumation there are in this film: the tree being planted, the weeds being dug up, the stolen nightgown buried and then thrown into the river, the trinkets and memorabilia wrapped in a cloth and buried in the yard when they move away.

    I got the impression that in the decade or so that we don't see; the years between their being uprooted from their home and the time of the son's death, that Mr. Murphy has hit it big with one of his patents, thus the fancy glass mid-century home that we see at the beginning of the film.

    Overall, I thought it was gorgeous and elegaic, a visual poem.