Features & Opinion

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life: A Visionary’s Folly

By MK Raghavendra • Published on March 5, 2012

Author’s note: The Tree of Life has already been reviewed on Dearcinema but this is a fresh evaluation and reflective essay about its implications because it is now being hailed as the best film of the year and it is not unlikely that it will soon make it to Sight and Sound’s list of the greatest films of all time.

[T]errence Malick, one of America’s most respected filmmakers, first attracted attention through Badlands (1973) a film very much in the same mold as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Robert Altman’s Thieves like Us (1974) in that it is about a young couple going on a robbery spree in the depression era and eventually coming to a tragic or bad end. What distinguishes Malick’s film from the other two is the director’s lyricism, his deep sense of the beauty of the land – where Bonnie and Clyde is straightforwardly dramatic and Altman’s film places its emphasis on social satire. Malick followed up Badlands with Days of Heaven (1978), another startlingly beautiful film set in rural America in the early part of the century. Both these films set Malick apart from Hollywood – as a visionary and artist rather than a storyteller with America being the constant presence invoked by his palette. Although both these films were critical triumphs, Malick made no films for twenty years when he made the exquisite The Thin Red Line (1998) a war film set in the Pacific in 1943. Unlike Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which came out in the same year, had a large star cast and garnered every conceivable Oscar, Malick’s film is deeply melancholic and not the same exercise in American patriotism.  After another film The New World (2005) which received mixed reviews, Malick has made another ethereal film which was under development for several years – The Tree of Life (2011) which received near-unanimous praise as the best international film of 2011.

At the centre of The Tree of Life is an American family, the O’Briens, in Waco, Texas. The O’Briens have three sons and the oldest is Jack who grows up to be an architect (Sean Penn). Somewhere in the 1960s Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives news of the death of her son RL at the age of 19 and this is communicated to her husband (Brad Pitt) when he is at an airport somewhere. A section of this part of the film is taken up by the parents’ grief, how they are comforted by the community and how they try to get over it. The film travels back and forth between Jack in the present and his memories of his childhood and adolescence. Mr O’Brien is an authoritarian father who tries to ‘do his best’ but this means that he rules his family with an iron hand with his children – especially Jack – frequently receiving harsh punishment. Mr O’Brien wanted to be a musician but is now an engineer with various minor patents to his credit. He is not as successful as he might have liked to be and he is resentful of others who have been, attributing their success to declining moral standards. These segments of the film are wonderfully acted with Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken (as the young Jack) excelling. The tension between father and son especially at the breakfast table is palpable. Although the family life shown in the film apparently owes to Terrence Malick’s own early life (about which he has been reticent), there are indications that the O’Briens are really an abstraction – the archetypal American family with its dreams, hopes, tensions and disappointments. There is perhaps a clue in the casting of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in the key male roles because one cannot imagine a Jack Nicholson or a Robert Downey Jr. in either of them.

Although both Pitt and Penn began their careers with character roles – Brad Pitt perhaps in Thelma and Louise (1991) and Sean Penn in films like The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) – they have gradually moved into another kind of terrain which they share with Tom Hanks, playing the quintessential American male. In contrast to other contemporary Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise and George Clooney who specialize in genre roles, DiCaprio whose roles suggest an individuality of sorts, Pitt, Penn and Hanks allow people to inhabit them, as though they were stand-ins for the national identity. It is this quintessential ‘American’ characteristic of Brad Pitt that Alejandro González Iñárritu shrewdly harnesses in Babel (2006) when he makes a political film about globalization. In Babel Brad Pitt becomes the American dealing with Moroccans, Mexicans and Japanese. To differentiate between Brad Pitt and James Stewart who also played an idealized American (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946), Jimmy Stewart’s characters were slighter in stature, perhaps corresponding to ‘local America’ and not the global colossus that America has been for the past few decades.

In The Tree of Life Brad Pitt plays the head of the archetypal American family and this means something very important because Hollywood valorizes the nuclear family as no other cinema does. It is clearly beyond the scope of this review to examine this issue deeply but in America the simplest kind of social organization existed independently before leading to more complex forms, and this also accounts for the moral significance of the family (and heterosexual monogamy) in Hollywood. As Alexis de Tocqueville notes in his monumental treatise on America, for the majority of the nations of Europe, political existence commenced in the superior ranks and was gradually communicated to the different members of the social body. In America, on the other hand, social organization began at the smallest level. The township was organized before the county, the county before the State, the State before the Union. The simplest kind of social organization led to more complex forms.

The family plays a more significant role in the simpler kinds of social organization and there is perhaps an association between this and the mythical dimensions assumed by the nuclear family in American popular culture. As evidence, the western created a durable mythology out of the origins of the American nation and John Ford’s films look to the white nuclear family (wife and children) as the civilizing influence in the frontier – even while the man is fighting Indians – and making the land safe for civilization. The American nuclear family is made important because it embodies the ‘American way of life’, becomes an emblem for the nation and therefore commands the same loyalty. So central is the family to The Tree of Life that there are few exchanges between members of the family and others from the community. Even in the present, the adult Jack spends his days reflecting upon his own past and one cannot recall a sequence in which he is not ruminating alone even when in company. At the conclusion of the film when Jack meets the people in his life, those he is united with are also from his own family. If this conclusion is reminiscent of the one from Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) in which Guido encounters all the people from his past in a circus ring, those dancing around him are mainly from outside his family.

The film begins with a quotation from the Book of Job. Job was a prophet punished by God for no reason and this part of the Old Testament has to do with deep suffering for which there is no ostensible rationale. Malick is evidently making a connection between this kind of suffering and what the O’Briens undergo at the death of their 19-year-old son. This is clearly problematic because death – even of the young – is a routine occurrence which cannot be compared to what Job underwent. This inordinate importance given to the boy’s death, the reader must be reminded, finds correspondence in America being overly preoccupied with ‘zero casualty wars’ – its concern with protecting the lives of its own citizens when it is casual about taking the lives of other people across the globe.

Once all these characteristics of The Tree of Life are taken note of, the film emerges as a dubious political undertaking. It is in this context that the most visually striking parts of the film also become suspect. Often framing segments of the family story about the O’Briens are magnificent bits dealing with creation and the origin of life on the planet – from galaxies and nebulae to gushing rivers and erupting volcanoes to protozoa and dinosaurs. One is initially rapturous about these until one wonders about their place in the film’s telelogy, about their purpose.

All fiction, it is apparent, relies on the action in it being geared towards a purpose/ teleology of some sort. In fact, it is only teleology which makes a complete story out of a narrative because all recounting is narration but all narratives are not stories. At every instant of a film or a novel, therefore, we are asking the question ‘Where is all this leading?’ and our satisfaction with a story (novel or film) depends on how the conclusion follows from initial exposition because the two are intimately connected. Once this connection is granted, it begins to seem that the American family in The Tree of Life is the culmination of a process which begins with Creation and includes the dinosaurs. If this reading appears implausible, the reader may consider how it would look if the ‘process’ beginning with Creation culminated in a Chinese or Eskimo family. If it were an Indian family, would it not be ludicrous for the Cosmic Egg to hatch – only to lead to the Anil Kapoor and/or Salman Khan in the same way that The Tree of Life leads to Brad Pitt and Sean Penn?

The Tree of Life makes it seem that America is not the product of history but almost elemental, that culture has not even mediated in the construction of Americans. It is an entrancing, exquisite film but it will perhaps only be valuable for clues as to how America regards itself in the global age, its preoccupation with itself leading it to conclude that the sentiments favored by it have the characteristics of something owing to natural law. This covert significance is rendered more valuable because the author is not the average filmmaker trying to make a blockbuster but a genuine visionary. Terrence Malick is an extraordinary talent but The Tree of Life may eventually only serve anthropology and a visionary who produces a work useful only to anthropologists has evidently acted in folly.

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11 Responses to “Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life: A Visionary’s Folly”

  1. Jugu Abraham says:

    “The Tree of Life” has been polled as the best film of 2011 by “Sight and Sound” (UK), “Film Comment” (USA), and “The Village Voice” (USA). “Cahiers du cinema” (France) placed it as the second best film of 2011 (the best film being Moretti’s “We have a Pope”). I am not aware of any film that received such unanimous approval of respectable critics worldwide over the past few decades. Yes, you are right, it will be gradually accepted as one of the greatest films ever. Even though it did not win a single Oscar or Golden Globe.

    Perhaps you will grasp the films’ “telelogy” if you care to read the “Book of Job” and truly understand the context of the quote that opens the film. The film is not about American values: it is about universal values. And it is important to note that the Book of Job is equally revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews. And to call this work as only useful to anthropologists is amusing, to say the least.

  2. There is no doubt that THE TREE OF LIFE is one of the most daring, mmost honest and most profound film made in the last decades. Sorry to say that but I have zero respect in these kind of critics who canonize Tarkovskij, Angelopoulos or even worse von Triers MELANCHOLIA and call THE TREE OF LIFE pretentious or esoteric. Malick is obviously in the tradition of the greatest poets America has to offer, from Melville to Whitman to John Ford. I never understand why so much people overlooked the aspect that it is one of the most personal film, narrative cinema has to offer. Okay no need to defend the film against the bullshit pamphlet by Jim Hoberman and so much others. And forgot the comparison with Kubricks 2001 (a great film but another cinematic temperrament than Malick). I am wondering, especially in India that only Adrian Martin and me mentioned afinities to Indias greatest director Ritwik Ghatak with bwhom Malicks last three films has a lot in common.

    • Daniel Speers says:

      I cant wait to watch Ritwik Ghatak now thank you so much. David Gordon Greens – All the real girls. Another similar film.

  3. Daniel Speers says:

    The film is largely autobiographical, and to suggest he is doing anything other then showing what he believes and how he came to believe it, would be incorrect. The Dead Sea Scrolls will have more effect on world history and events then all cinema combined, I think what you truly lack is a world historical perspective.

  4. And one of the many miracles offered by this film is Brad Pitts performance. Imagine this guy covered every second week a front page of some blolevard magazines but how he appears in Malicks film it is like you discover Pitt for the first time. How Malick is able to integrate stars and non-professional actors is amazing. In all respect how Malick worked with stars is like a Robert Bresson with his “models” never dared to dared to dream of.

  5. Phyllis C. says:

    There seems to be only a few ways to get the upper hand on any web-based discussion/ comments section:

    1. Dismiss the author
    2. Dismiss the article by citing other sources of praise and/ or exhausting adjectives from dictionary.com about how great a director or a film is

    If a lifetime of watching films and (presumably) reading about it is not enough to teach people how to engage with any piece of writing without condescension; an attempt to grapple with the ideas presented in the article is to ask for the sky.
    But why must one seek recourse to Sight and Sound/ Village Voice/ Book of Job or invoke poor dead white males like Walt Whitman for defending personal opinions? If Malick and/ or his film deserves such devotion, why can’t they stand on their own legs?
    But of course, there is the slight matter of locating said limbs in the work(s) of the filmmaker on part of the devotees before bursting into self-righteous responses.

  6. I’ve not responded earlier since I’ve been in china. To respond to the salient points in the above comments, the part of China I’m writing from has a large number of minorities. Considering that one of them valorizes suicide and another follows a matriarchal system in which children rarely know their fathers, they will certainly resent any claims that the values upheld in The Tree of Life are ‘universal’. In fact, it strikes me as impertinent that one can attribute ‘universal’ appeal to any set of values. All values are culture specific and if one does not agree with this, one will have to dismiss a whole set of beliefs held by communities across the world as ‘false’. This is plainly more suited to the dark ages than to an era in which political correctness is regarded as crucial in one’s pronouncements. It is only because of America’s cultural hegemony in the world that the ethical viewpoint of The Tree of Life can be mistaken for a ‘universally valid’ one.

    Secondly, whatever one may think of a religious text, no matter how much one holds it in esteem, the invoking of a religious text cannot make a work of art more valuable. The Book of Job does as much for The Tree of Life as the Bhagwad Gita does for Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!

    Thirdly, it is vulgar to cite polls in order to assert the value of a film. A good critic provides an argument to support his/her views and not the opinions of other critics.

    One likes or dislikes a filmmaker / film for a variety of reasons but these reasons do not include one’s fascination with another filmmaker. An appreciation of Malick need not, therefore, go hand in hand with a dislike of Tarkovsky.

    There are no similarities between Terrence Malick and Ritwik Ghatak or between The Tree of Life and Bresson

  7. First of all, if I see similarities between Ghatak and Malick, than it is my right to mention it even though not every Indian critic know films by Ghatak at all. Secondly the review talks about America and if we talk about American poetry (Malick is without any doubt an American poet) than it is quite alright to mention Walt Whitman or Herman Melville. And yes there is fire in any pro and contra-discussions about THE TREE OF LIFE. Which is fine but nobody should think it is possible to understand the film or at least get any idea about its richness after the first viewing. I haven´t seen any trace of a good argument against the film. It is popular, no even populistic to ridicule a masterpiece like THE TREEE OF LIFE (you can see this in a lot of reviews around the globe). Almost naturally the critics who spent a bit more time with the film come finally to the conclusion that this film has much more to offer than being a subject of unreflected and superficial gossip.

  8. Phyllis C. says:

    1. You are being racist. Ghatak might be a new discovery for you, but kindly refrain from exterpolating the condescension stemming from the thrill of that discovery to ‘every Indian critic’.

    2. Please learn to use the language you are writing in correctly first. We’ll talk about poetry (American or otherwise) later.

    Look up the term ‘gossip’ for starters. And if you think you know the meaning already – you must also be smart enough to realise the contradiction in terms. It is not something people ‘reflect on’ as a routine; nor is it usual for it to be profound! If you meant gossip to be the disparaging term it is normally understood to be, you are actually advocating reflected-on and profound ‘gossip’ about the film!

  9. please don´t get personal and insulting. I know Ghataks film for nearly 15 years.
    And then with “Gossip” I don´t especially adressed this term to starters (if you read my other posts here). With gossip I measn this terrible and dull review vy Jim Hoberman for example and I could add around 10 reviews by so-called “respected critics”. That is exactly the problem the so-called filmcriticism degenerates to a kind of reviws you can find at IMDB or as well at the Amazon clients, reviews. But we are not talking about any film, but about the most discussed film of the last year and I am definitely sure the most important american film of the last 10 years.

  10. Phyllis C. says:

    1. One should never write in a hurry. Now you missed out on meaning.

    2. You possibly cannot expect the reading public to understand your personal, quirky ways of interpreting any term. If you use ‘gossip’ as an unqualified noun in a sentence, people are going to go by the standard interpretation given in Collins/ Oxford/ XYZ Dictionary.

    3. Unqualified discontent indicates a malcontent.

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