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