The Tree of Life,
Terrence Malick, 2011, USA
I received, firstly, the advice that if I could last the first half hour, I would be okay. “Tree of Life” starts with a whispery, portentous, frequently one-word voice-over (“Brother.” “Father.” etc.) that is guaranteed to set my teeth on edge and my sneer twitching. Oh, such resonance and poetry in these words! But these hushed voices are less narration than fragments of disembodied thoughts that sporadically appear, intending to elevate the poetry and occasionally offer insight into the characters, as little as we are offered (“Mother. Make me good.”). And these whispers do not guide the film: they just annoy with drawing attention to the film’s portentousness.
Rather what steers the film is the vertiginous camera, a hand-held vision that is aggressively mobile, often as disorientating as any found-footage excursion. In “The Tree of Life”, the camera swoops insistently, often to napes. When a camera that glides through an office complex is intercut with a camera that glides through nature and back without losing a beat, the magic of the film starts to come to life with this juxtaposition. A nineteen year-old is dead: the mother is devastated; the father tries to retain a square jaw; a brother reflects – and this triggers off the memories that will be the bulk of the narrative.
Where did it all begin? And here Mallick throws in his most audacious conceit by taking us back to the forming of the universe and the world in a prolonged spectacle that offers gorgeous, dazzling visuals rather than story. It is a special-effects sequence that can’t help but provoke memories of “2001: a space odyssey” (and indeed, Douglas Trumbull was involved in the creation of this sequence). It also prompted my friend to recall that moment in “Ed Wood” where Ed professes enthusiastically that he could make a whole film out of a bunch of stock footage. Indeed. And then Mallick becomes even more audacious and throws in the thing that probably is the film’s greatest contention: suddenly, we are looking at a dinosaur on a beach. Filmed mostly in low light and tones, these CGI creations look real enough and they are presented as prettily and with as much reverence as everything else that precedes it and is to follow. And, for the record, I liked the dinosaurs. This first sequence gives us a chapter that references evolution. Later, this will conflict with the fall into a mundane family drama and their reliance upon religion. And by “mundane” I mean that it is the simple and unextraordinary qualities that the film triumphs and considers most vital. The universe was created by incredible processes, and so was the earliest life on Earth, and then there were dinosaurs and, eventually, there were these three brothers and their loving and strained relationship with their parents. How wondrous and remarkable these things are, how grand and great the differences in size these moments seem, and where does one lead to the other? Of course, this can also be read as tapping into human narcissism, that we and our individual experiences are the true centre of the universe…
To that end: a tale of a boy growing up during what seems like a short period of a couple or years or so in a certain house in smalltown America (the memories end when the family has to move). This is, as the ominous voiceover tells us from the beginning, a tale of fathers and brothers, just in case we aren’t sure. Strange, then, that aside from the two brothers we become most familiar with there is also a third brother who seems superfluous. Indeed, it may be hard to work out which younger brother will die: this death is like a Hitchcock “McGuffin”, there mostly to set the story of memory in motion. The father spins from being affectionate, dictatorial, protective and unreasonable. Mother is rendered mostly in moments of dancing around: on the grass or sometimes in the air, for example. She is cast as angelic and therefore barely needs a complex personality until called upon to render maternal grief at the loss of one of her boys. She is “Grace”, but with little to do for herself, the film is imbalanced towards her apparent primal opposite: the father.
Aside from our main protagonist, the boys too have vague characters. They run and play charmingly and as they grow older, they start to experiment with meanness and unhappiness brought about by their stern father and messing around with other kids. Our protagonist becomes increasingly troubled and complex as time goes on and he starts to move away from the confines of the house; we often see him wandering around the streets, occasionally so slow he might just as well stand still. The bulk of character interest is the father, who comes a fully rounded character: charming, conflicted, authoritarian, loving, et cetera. This is probably more achieved by Brad Pitt’s exceptional performance than the screenplay. He manages to fight off most of the symbolic imagery to become a character.
This is a story of where we come from, of memory and loss. It also appears to be a tale of the union and conflict between the natural world and God. If you find inspirational meme’s insightful, then you may be stirred by the religious symbolism, the whispery voiceover and themes that permeate the film: life is a waterfall, cascading magnificently; we are but grains of sand in the wind; and so on. Many may be seduced by the religious symbolism and probably feel that is where the poignancy lies, but this is the laziest of signals. Tales of people, of time and place and growing up, the forming and conflicts of the young and the failings and struggles of adults, these are the things that speak truth and the nods to God here are but pretentions to poeticism that drag insights down to man’s most narcissistic interpretations of existence.
And that brings us to the beach at the end, where Sean Penn wanders and meets the cast of his past. There are reunions of a sort and the mother gives over her son to God – all on a pale beach. It certainly feels a little confused and confusing. However, I prefer to read the beach as less some kind of afterlife or Heaven’s Gate – which the sentiment and otherwordliness might imply – but rather as a plateau of (Jack’s) memory, where its cast wander in Jack’s mind; as a place where he can bring them all together again, as if they had never aged, as if they are forever on call from that time in his childhood. I do so to sidestep the triteness of the afterlife depicted as a beach of the soul.
The opinion seems to be that Malick is aiming for ‘pure’ cinema, one unburdened by narrative constraints, that is given to the visual rather than story and dialogue. This usually means the cinematic version of a stream-of-consciousness tone poem.
“Tree of Life” is definitely going to reward repeat viewings and is the stuff that books and criticism will be written upon for, oh, as long as people are interested in film. It is a splendid experience, not only visually but it has emotional weight despite the its obviousness and pretensions. But then Malick has a total new edit for the Criterion release – an extra fifty minutes (!) – so maybe that makes all this review redundant? This speaks to the film’s fidgety and impressive portrayal of restless memory and cinema and also to its inability to pin itself to anything deeper than the emotional gestures of commercials and stale aphorisms.