In the opening moments of Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life, Mrs. O’Brien (played by the beautiful Jessica Chastain) meditates on the meaning of life. “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life,” she recalls. “The way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. 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. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes.”
Sequences flow by with all the abandon of a dream. A guitar stands, pale and chilly in a dewy morning light. Brothers stand, wiping condensation from their faces as a palette of tall grasses sway about them. Somewhere in the cavern of sound, beyond sight, a mother is shrieking, shrieking, shrieking as a father kneels, head bowed, unable to stand. A child is dead. No son or daughter ever grows beyond childhood in the eyes of their mother, their father. Not in the case of death. In that moment, they are an infant, their feet small, the sunlight playing on the creases of their feet.
“That poor boy,” Mr. O’Brien says. He considers how he treated his son, recalling with painful accuracy true moments of small cruelty. He recalls how he would criticize his son for how he turned pages of music. He stares somewhere we cannot see. The tears glisten but cannot flow. They, too, are benumbed beyond movement, glassing his eyes. “That poor boy.”
Though elliptical, frustrating, and seemingly enigmatic beyond understanding, The Tree of Life may easily be boiled down to this monologue. Like a tapestry of thought, the film moves through memory, space and time with nary a pause. Yet with Mrs. O’Brien’s meditations in hand, we may at last be privvy to the message the film offers us. It’s a message many will walk away from. Make no mistake. The Tree of Life is a starkly religious film.
“Brother,” an adult Jack, played by Sean Penn, muses. “Mother. It was they who led me to your door.” To whose door? The answer is too apparent, too seemingly simple, to be digested or accepted upon a first viewing. Like The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life is a film that adheres to a strict sense of prerequisites. It demands that we treat it as a meditation, rather than a film. It is unbound by the standard rules of cinema. It sheds them without hesitation. It leaves us to follow or abandon at will.
Much has been made of the twenty minute Creation sequence to be found early on in the film. Featuring vast plumes of cosmic dust, strangely coherent dinosaurs and a ballet of cells, we see something we did not expect. Startling, strangely out of place, and at first inexplicable, reflection shows us that the Creation sequence is the closest thing Mrs. O’Brien may ever have for an answer to her question. “God,” she pleads. “Why? Where were you?”
It’s no accident that the film opens with a quote from the Book of Job 38:4, 7 – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
More than any other film, The Tree of Life opens a doorway to another person’s life. Rather than come to understand Jack through regular narrative, we share his memories and find them rather similar to our own. Jack’s secret moments are our secret moments. His fears are our fears, his love, our love. This is a relationship of trust that most films could only fantasize about.
Our childhood is particularly resonant. Our attention is held by important things – light cast from a mirror or glass, quivering on the wall like a mercury stain. A leaf somersaults along the sidewalk in an invisible current of wind. The world is a place of light and wind and crickets and a moon swaddled by long, blue clouds. We remember certain things. Trying to walk with dad. A ball rumbling agreeably along under a table, our first book. The sound of a chair rocking against the old wooden planks of our house. Dad reaches down and pats us on the shoulder, a neighbor shows us how to mime. A curtain billows in the wind, a chair moves of its own accord. The world is a magical, shimmering place.
At one point we fall and hurt our foot. Mother helps us. She takes care of us. She holds us and takes our wound in her hand and makes all our pain go away. Later, a butterfly lands in her outstretched palm. Her hands, recognizable to us, dance delightedly on either side of a mirror. Our mother is so beautiful. So beautiful she could fly.
Other things are not so pleasant. Such as our brother, who, when he comes, steals mother’s attention from us. He is a bumbling, unpredictable, shocking and altogether unwelcome addition to our world. Yet he is undeniably there, and some thing retain their potency. Bubbles, for instance. Things happen beyond the scope of our vision that we don’t fully understand, such as our friend the mime having what appears to be a seizure. Dad plants a tree. He helps us to pour the water. Mother smiles down at us. She’s still beautiful. “You’ll be grown before that tree is tall,” she says.
But growing up is hard. Our adolescence, shown later, is marked by hard changes, and uncomfortable reckonings. Darkness begins to creep into the world as our childhood begins to fade. Our relationship with mother and father grows uncomfortable. New feelings flit below the surface of the world, new epiphanies both unfamiliar to us and frightening. Dad begins to change, demanding things from us we don’t understand. He draws invisible lines in the world with sticks, lines that denote forbidden things. We learn that reflections cast in water are far less reliable than ones cast in a mirror. “That’s where God lives,” mother says to us, pointing at the sky. She kisses us on the head. One by one, she turns out the lights.
The Tree of Life is a film unlike any other. Uncompromising in every sense of the word, staggeringly ambitious, achingly personal and honest, it is perhaps the most ambiguous and beautiful film I have ever watched. It’s not perfect. The ending leaves a little too much to question, and feels a little too well groomed. The acting is so genuine throughout the vast majority of the film that the few moments which are scripted feel just that – scripted. While this viewer appreciated the Creation sequence, the film would not have lost much had it been removed or at least truncated.
Yet despite these flaws The Tree of Life still stands far above the vast majority of its peers. It, like Malick’s other films, is a demanding film, one that warrants repeat viewings. I feel that I say this about nearly every Malick film, and I’ve concluded that I do, and that’s alright. Terrence Malick is a difficult filmmaker. This is not my favorite of Malick’s films – that honor goes to The Thin Red Line, but it is a close second. I am reminded of a sequence, over a third of the way through The Tree of Life, where a young Jack tries to pray, but doesn’t quite see the point.
As someone who grew up Catholic, I understood and loved this scene perhaps better than any other in the film. Watching The Tree of Life, or any other Malick film, can be like trying to pray as a child. It’s a lot trickier than it seems. Most people give it up. Some don’t. And those of us that don’t swear they saw something more than emptiness beyond that veil of darkness hiding behind our eyes. And that’s precisely what The Tree of Life is. It’s an homage, a tribute and a memorial to that which lies beyond the veil. I hope you give it a chance, and that when you do you are rewarded. I hope you see something magical. I truly, truly do.
The Bottom Line: Like trying to pray as a child, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a frustrating, perhaps rewarding and ultimately beautiful experience.
Overall Score: 9.6/10