The Tree of Life (2011)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick. 139 mins. PG-13. Starring Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken.
Hugely successful architect, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) slogs through his life in a trough of despair. Through the center of his soul runs a crevasse cut by contention with his harsh father and, even more so, lasting grief over the death of a younger brother decades before (the film never tells how he died but shows word of his death coming by telegram to his mother in the early 60s by telegram; in fact, the writer-director’s younger brother died by suicide). The first spoken words in the film, whispered in barely audible voice-over, not only point to the conclusion but supply the reason for the film as a whole, namely the path into and beyond despair to faith, hope, and love: “Brother, mother, it was they who led me to your [God’s] door” (1:12-1:45). What follows is largely an account of Jack growing up in 1950s small-town Texas with his parents and two younger brothers, though that story has within it two stunning galactic leaps. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and now ranks as one of the greatest religious (and American) films ever made, a profound spiritual biography that lushly depicts the wellsprings and impediments to love of God. This writer-director Malick accomplishes with innumerable stylistic innovations that immerse viewers experientially, like very few other films, into the deep thickets of complex psycho-spiritual realities.
To understand Jack and his family members’ role in Jack’s hard life, Malick depicts each in remarkable fullness, usually eschewing words altogether, much preferring sound and music and showing to telling. The mother in the tale (Jessica Chastain), a jubilant, luminous Roman Catholic, exults in a divine presence made palpable in the abundant exquisite beauty of the world, from cows to her much-loved three sons; in one voiceover she urges, echoing Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, “Love everything. Every blade of grass” (1:25:00-1:26:32). She not so much walks through the world as cavorts and romps, savoring the gift of living amid unfathomable splendor (the epigraph to the film comes from Job 38: “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?”), and lest this sound like pure gush, Malick’s film style, in a remarkable achievement, hauls viewers smack into the embodied experiential texture of the characters. In this case, seeing, and hearing, come very close to flat-out believing.
Amid his story-telling ingenuity, Malick throughout emphasizes three religious thematics that together achieve a full, holistic, and biblical view of God and human predicament. The most prominent in the early part of the film is Creation–that there is anything at all, something rather than nothing, and lo, that it should be so stunningly beautiful. Invariably wonder spills into awe, even amid, and sometimes because of, profound loss, as in Job (and the film even features a sermon on Job). Twenty minutes in, in response to the query inside Mrs. O’Brien’s wrenching grief—“Lord, why? Where were you?”–comes a lyrical digression of sixteen minutes plus on the evolutionary creation of the world (19:40). It is visually and aurally spectacular, as is much of the rest of the film, especially in recurrent images of water and light, elements that for Malick signal mythopoetic constants of the soul. (Malick keeps promising to release a feature documentary expansion of this sequence, The Voyage of Time, now scheduled for 2016 release.) In The Tree of Life, through Eden’s other tree (as well as through a tree in the O’Brien’s back yard), Malick argues for the aesthetic—as in the sensual relish for all of life, from baby’s feet to cool water splashed on warm legs–as a glaring but usually discarded pathway to divine love. For Malick, “for God so loved the world” appears most readily in the “lilies of the field” ad infinitum.
That said, there is the inexorable problem of evil, something that Malick in film after film has not unflinchingly depicted (see his war film The Thin Red Line, 1998). He is acutely aware of Mrs. O’Brien’s dead-on questions, a reality his own life has necessarily pondered. The reality shows up throughout the length of The Tree of Life, though some sequences stand out in their poignancy and/or shock: the drowning boy (1:11:00), the physically and psychologically maimed (55:53-57:35), a violent father (1:20:10-1:23:40), thoughts of murder (1:44:50-1:45:50), distorted desire, sexual (1:31:15-1:35:00) and professional (1:54:00-1:57:00), and from all of this all of humankind “groans,” as does Job and the whole creation, for answer and/or repair. It is there in the fabric of nature “red in tooth and claw” and in the malign tangles of the human psyche.
These collide, to put it mildly. Lost in his own inner desert (as the film regularly glimpses), Jack’s soul at last and in a quietly rhapsodic closing, both visually and musically, arrives at the “door” referenced in the first words of the film (see above) and journeys through the door, though with hesitation and uncertainty, summoned onward by a faithful younger self. Finally, on an evening shore, Jack finds gladsome welcome and solace in reunion (and reconciliation) with his family, including with his antagonistic father and his long-absent brother. And there as well his mother finds release from her sorrow, at last able to surrender her son to his fate and God’s care. And after Jack’s vision, all of which seems to take place in the length of an elevator ride, he reels through his familiar world as if seeing it for the first time and with, at last, the hint of a smile on his face, for at last Jack sees as, well, as God sees. Alas, so the world should be.
There’s no other film like The Tree of Life, for it is as much song and gallery as motion picture; the camera throughout exalts (and exults in) all of life, and the music is stunning, from Bach to Smetana and Preisner and a host of others. As the title suggests, the film limns the far reaches of the ever-strange, ungraspable reality of being alive. For Malick, and for viewers, this becomes a full-throated tale of the wildness of the love that infuses the whole of the biblical story, especially in its emphasis on wonder, beauty, and love as pathways into profound delight and shalom.
written by Roy Anker