Scaling The Tree of Life

There’s a pleasing irony to reading the many discussions of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life that refer to the movie as “unconventional.” The implication, naturally, is that we’re being given something so new in cinema that it’s revolutionary, when in fact, the movie that takes on the very foundations of the universe as part of its oblique narrative is not a sapling on the cutting edge of filmmaking technique, but something more akin to a giant redwood, with its roots thick in the origins of movie language.

The story is simplicity itself, something that is perhaps obscured for some by what appears to be its alien approach: Architect Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) experiences the anniversary of his brother’s untimely death with considerable anguish and difficulty, as seen through a series of reveries that puts him in touch with memories that connect him to impressions of the origins of life itself even as he is drawn back to recalling specific episodes from the days of his uneasy childhood in 1950s Texas.

His father (Brad Pitt) is a difficult man to love, as he is strict, demanding, and hard at work controlling his own personal demons. Once hoping to become a brilliant musician, he was instead “sidetracked” into a career as an engineer. Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) is the parent he and his two brothers find much easier to adore, as she is nurturing, forgiving, and generous.

Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is a boy we see growing to resent the treatment he receives from his father, even as he begins to suffer the consequences of it by becoming more and more like him every day. His father tells him “you can’t be too good” to succeed in the world, and as the boy appears to move towards embracing that advice against his own better judgment, he becomes still more aware of how the opposite nature of his mother continues to “wrestle inside” his heart.

Malick makes a concerted effort as the film unspools to break down some of the barriers of what we would normally think of as the natural progression of a story’s timeline, so that towards the end of the film, past, present, and future all appear to be engaging one another in gestures of deep recognition and awareness. Some viewers have interpreted the key scene where this happens as Malick’s vision of the “afterlife,” but there are sequences that follow that clearly indicate—at least to me—that it is instead the moment of spiritual catharsis that adult Jack’s memories and internal suffering have been building toward through the entire film.

If this story sounds very traditional, it should, because it is. It has to be, in order not to interfere with what I took to be Malick’s genuine purpose, which is to ask the viewer to not become “just” emotionally involved, but to thoughtfully interact with the religious and philosophical matters of his concern.

Opening with a Biblical quote pertaining to God’s response to Job (which we will read very easily as analogous to the experiences of every character), Malick then offers us an opening voiceover that is 100% the key to understanding everything that is to come:

There are two ways through life: the way of Nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. 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. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

To be just a little reductive, let’s just spell it out:

Nature = Brad Pitt, Jack’s Dad.

Grace = Jessica Chastain, Jack’s Mom.

Jack, as the adult child of these warring influences, struggles to choose the proper path that will help him to cope with the loss of his brother and his own complicated relationship with his father. And, as the Job quote at the outset makes abundantly clear, this dialogue is one that is taking place between the characters (through not just Penn, but through Pitt, Chastain, and McCracken) and their concepts of God, which is how what some viewers are calling the “Discovery Channel” footage is then brought into play.

That footage mostly takes shape in an extended sequence that includes the Big Bang, the heaving of volcanoes, the evolution of cells, and yes, the appearance of dinosaurs.

We’re therefore meant to extend the nature vs. grace argument through Jack’s parents and to our own difficulties with the central paradox involved in the concept of a Supreme Being who appears to be both all-loving and indifferently cruel. In The Tree of Life, that being is fairly well defined through the specific tenets of Christianity, but not so rigidly that the ideas involved cannot be appreciated by those of different—or even no—allegiances to doctrinaire faith.

Jack’s parents are his creator(s). Within him, the paths of “nature” and “grace” (as Malick defines them) are jockeying for the lead position in his heart. They both exert their force of influence over him. How can these ways of being exist in a balance that makes any sense? Placing yourself in the mind of a child, you might ask why you are burdened with making the choice, when to go down one path—which might be appealing in many ways—appears to involve a rejection and betrayal of the other, which appears just as often to be crucial to your survival and peace of mind.

Then, placing yourself in the mind of a parent, you may ask which path must I choose in order to guide my children to safety and greatness? Must it be one or the other? Could it, should it, must it be both? Is there a secret to discovering which path a divine Creator has set out upon, if such a thing is conceivable in that very prosaic manner—or could He-She-It be asking the very same questions at all times…then, later, and now?

Malick’s film uses the simplest of stories as the vehicle carrying the largest of inquiries. Constantly, the characters are demanding—sometimes literally, sometimes through suggestion and symbols—How? Why? Answer me.

Movies of this type—and they are rare, indeed, in the modern-day marketplace—lend themselves to critiques that aim to be as grand and sweeping as the film. This is to be expected, and it’s not entirely objectionable, because respectful responses to a film should be adequate to its ambitions. The only error, I think, is in the suggestion that the gateway to appreciating (or rejecting) this sort of work lies in the mastery of complexities that are hidden from all but the most erudite of minds. And this mistake is partly to be located in estimations of the film as innovative in its construction.

Forgetting about all the highfalutin’ philosophizin’ for a moment, we must understand that the basic physical assembly of the movie has been completed using ideas as “old as the hills,” as they say.

Or, at least, as old as the movies.

Light on synchronous dialogue (as in, you know…conversations between one character and another) and much heavier on voiceovers, music, and surprising compositions and editing, this movie comes to us as a meditation on the nature of God (or “existence,” take your pick) crafted very much by way of what the “film literate” would refer to as montage. And, more specifically, montage as Sergei Eisenstein thought of it.

The director of Battleship Potemkin was crucial to forming the earliest theories about what cinematic language could achieve in communicating with the audience. In his view, there were actually tiers of higher and lower practice in cutting together different images on film, sort of like the distinctions between “high” and “low” art. As you approached a loftier design on editing, you disregarded rules of space, as well as continuity of time or action, to move towards a more abstract and intellectual level of connection.

To simplify things a bit, this is to say that the filmmaker embracing a more “lowly” level of montage, in the Eisenstein view, would be more concerned with activating our baser emotions—an accusation some movie fans would level, for example, at directors like Steven Spielberg. At the “higher” level, we’d be talking about films like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which to most people is less emotionally accessible (as people often find Kubrick to be in general) than intellectually challenging.

Let’s keep in mind, this would be Eisenstein talking, not me, when it comes to things like adjudicating what’s “higher” and “lower” on the scale of filmmaking art. My point is drawn just to illustrate that Malick’s narrative techniques here aren’t the stuff of surprising movements like the French New Wave, they’re more like the stuff of 1920s Soviet cinema. But yes—you can safely purchase a ticket to The Tree of Life, watch it, enjoy it, appreciate it, or hate it unreservedly and not have to worry about being exposed to Marxist dialectics. You can be a devout Christian and find much to relate to. You can also be an agnostic.

As I near the end of my own response to the film, I see I’ve not yet included what now seems to be the obligatory beatific gush over Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography (magnificent though it is), made any comment on Alexandre Desplat’s ambitious musical score (rarely has a film given so much importance to the soundtrack), offered an appraisal of the quality performances (Pitt is effective as always; Chastain does wonders with what is often a mute performance; the children are delightfully unaffected, naturalistic), or delivered any observations about how the specific contours of the script are either fresh or mundanely recycled…I’ll say my verdict is a little of both.

I wasn’t pleased with every moment and every choice made; Penn’s screen time seemed too minor to me, given it’s primarily his dilemma that we initially are led to believe will be the spine of the film.

Composer Desplat’s other works have been routinely extraordinary (particularly his scores for Birth and The Painted Veil), but here I felt the use of much overtly religious “heavenly choir” material—not always composed, but perhaps in part chosen by him?—to be narrowing its appeal a bit too much for my taste.

But then, I should probably also admit that I first thought the movie’s final shot—no, no spoilers here—to be shockingly banal, only to realize just a short time later just how apropos it really was, and how Malick lets us know, in those final few seconds, how we might manifest the film’s internal burdens in the external world by making Herculean efforts to connect.

So, in retrospect, while I experienced many frustrations while watching The Tree of Life, those seem a little small to me now. What the film may evoke best is that the tree of life is indeed very tall. It takes a while to climb, and it requires much effort before you attain a spot high enough to see clearly all around you.