Review: The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick has made only five feature films to date, all made in the US. None of those five films has won an Oscar although many of his films have made the grade of garnering numerous unsuccessful Oscar nominations. On the other hand, Malick’s The Thin Red Line won the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival, Days of Heaven won the Best Director award at Cannes, and now The Tree of Life has won the coveted Golden Palm at Cannes, awards that have eluded many Oscar winners. These facts themselves speak loudly about the quality of Malick’s cinema, appreciated more in Europe than in the US.
For this critic, too, only three of the five Malick feature films, the same three that won acclaim in Europe, bear the stamp of truly outstanding cinema. In contrast, many American viewers to this day find his debut film Badlands, which has certain elements that recall the typical Hollywood entertainment ingredients of the Sixties and Seventies, and The New World with its historical magnetism to be equally enchanting.
The Tree of Life is arguably Malick’s finest and the most profound work to date. It is not an easy film to appreciate and will leave an impatient viewer totally perplexed and frustrated. If a viewer had no idea of Malick’s cinema and had come to watch a typical action film with Brad Pitt and/or Sean Penn, that person would indeed feel cheated. If a viewer was not used to a narrative cinema continually switching between past and present with long sequences of film that appeared to be out of the Discovery TV channel and not pick up the relevance of the editing, the experience would be akin to a viewer wondering if the reels of the film were mixed up by the projectionist. (Interestingly, I recall similar reactions in the early Seventies when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey was released, when young students went to see the film to get “high” after smoking hashish, because of the long psychedelic and colourful sequences the film had of the journey to Jupiter, with no spoken words, accompanied by superb music in near empty theatres, totally oblivious of Kubrick’s intent.)
Malick’s cinema is different. Malick’s films are the works of an erudite filmmaker and, therefore seek to communicate with a viewership that has the patience and humility to listen to profound rhetorical questions asked for the benefit of the viewer. These films are the antithesis of popular cinema with slick talk and frenzied action. Malick’s works—at least the three that I admire most—tend to deceive the impatient viewer who refuses to probe a movie beyond the obvious. Malick’s The Thin Red Line was less about the heroics of war but more about the ethical and reflective mind of the soldier who is able to comprehend his actions and put them in the perspective with nature’s majesty. Malick’s Days of Heaven provided the viewer with awesome images of difficult calamities and the travails of the urban poor running away for refuge in rural America that sandwich a period of magical carefree rural lifestyle of love that embraces the wonders of nature around us that one often tends to ignore. The natural “heaven” in Days of Heaven is not so obvious but it is there in spite of the locusts and the fire that dominate the film. In The Tree of Life, each and every sequence of natural beauty, is a tool for the viewer to help understand the metaphysical and moral education of Jack (the director’s alter ego) that incorporates the lessons Jack has learnt from his father and mother, and most of all his brother.
Malick is not a film director who makes films just for the love of the medium. He intelligently uses cinema, music and images, as a tool to discuss his favourite metaphysical and theological concerns. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman did this often to question conventional Christian concepts his own father, a priest, had brought him up to respect and believe in. Bergman’s “Man-God trilogy” of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence almost rejects God as a metaphorical spider in the first, accepts God in the second despite doubts, wrestles ambiguously with God’s silence that even Mother Teresa had found so difficult to accept. Andrei Tarkovsky did the same but very subtly—Tarkovsky’s strong Russian Orthodox Christian roots silently emerge in Solyaris (Solaris), The Stalker, and his final film Sacrifice, while the subjects of these films were not overtly spiritual. (Few are aware that Tarkovsky was a intensely religious Russian Orthodox Christian and knew St. Mathew’s Gospel in the Bible by rote, the very same book that Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini made into a fascinating work of cinema called Gospel According to St. Mathew). The Tree of Life needs to be evaluated the way one evaluates a Tarkovsky, a Bergman, or a Pasolini—all classics of international cinema.
There are different strokes to appreciate Malick’s The Tree of Life. The obvious one is that of a theist, a believer in God or Allah or any name you prefer to give the Creator. The first clue the viewer gets is the quotation “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?” (Chap 38,verses 4 and 7) from the Book of Job—a book from the Old Testament of the Bible. It is arguably the oldest book of the Bible, a tale that existed before Genesis was written and accepted by the Abrahamic religions. The Book of Job is built around an individual, a God-fearing theist who questions God on why he of all people has been deprived of all things material and familial but yet stoically chooses to accept and revere God. In Malick’s film, a deeply God-fearing religious Texan family is deprived of one of their three sons, not unlike Job. The mother, Mrs O’Brien, the embodiment of grace in the film mimics Job’s reactions after the loss with the words “I will be true to you. Whatever comes.” A major problem for viewers of The Tree of Life would be the constant references to the Book of Job, in case they are not familiar with the text. A quotation from the book kicks off the film. Fortunately, this critic had studied the book as a prescribed optional text for his postgraduate degree in English Literature from Bombay University, not merely as a religious text. Some of the text is explained by the priest’s sermon in the film. Now no one knows who wrote the Book of Job and literary scholars have concluded that the present form of the book was the product of oral literature and that the current version is the product of at least three different authors. Malick distills the essence of Job’s metaphysical travails into a simple event—the death of a 19-year old that occurs early in the film. For cineastes like me, the event and the progression of the film is reminiscent of the structure of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue, which interestingly Kieslowski and his screenplaywriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz was also modelled on one chapter from the Bible: I Corinthians 13. Mallick’s film, too, recalls the Kieslowski’s film, when Mrs O’Brien speaks the words “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Those words of Mrs O’Brien reflect the same final realization of actor Julliete Binoche’s character in the French/Polish film following the death of an important member of the family early in the Kieslowski film.
For Malick, the Job-like realization of Mrs O’Brien is only a tool for the full education and sensitization of her eldest son, Jack (who probably embodies the young Malick, growing up in Waco, Texas, the name emblazoned on the truck spewing DDT, in the film), played by Sean Penn, who has grown up as a successful urban architect of repute. The success of Jack seems to recall the words of his father Mr O’Brien “Your mother’s naive. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you’re good, people take advantage of you.” We can assume Jack had followed his father thus far—following the way of nature. But when Jack’s brother dies, Jack realizes his folly—he needs to follow the way of grace embodied in his mother. What results in the film is an abstract journey (a path to nirvana of sorts) from the worlds of steel and glass, through a derelict wooden door frame (symbolic of the transformation of Jack) as he is led by a woman (either his mother or his spouse), through rocky crevices to a sea shore where all the persons he has met in life are alive and well. The sudden action of falling on his knees is the dawning of nirvana in Jack that links the viewer back to the opening words: “Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door.” To the attentive listener, the framework of the entire film had already been presented with the opening quotation from the Book of Job followed by these words of Jack, before you even see a single person on screen. Apart from the Book of Job, there are several references to the 23rd chapter of the Book of Psalms. Now to an atheist viewer, or a cineaste who is merely interested in pure cinema, all this could appear to be hogwash. But is it?
If you prefer to put aside religion and theology in The Tree of Life, a moot question would be: can an atheist enjoy and appreciate The Tree of Life? This critic would fault the marketing of The Tree of Life for audiences who are not familiar with the cinema of Malick, a method of presenting a tale increasingly being adopted by other filmmakers such as French director Claire Denis and Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu. There is a link between these directors separate works that moviegoers could pick up. Alert viewers of Malick’s The Thin Red Line would recall a flame in the middle of a dark screen that began the film. The flame reappears prominently later in the film when Sean Penn character in the film presents an avuncular boss to the AWOL character played by Jim Caviezel. There is are following spoken lines Pvt. Bell from The Thin Red Line : “Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.” That sequence too underlined connection of the flame and “grace” glorified in The Tree of Life. This flame symbol takes a more evocative level of punctuation between segments of The Tree of Life, including the start of the film. The transformation of the troubled adult Jack in The Tree of Life begins with Jack lighting the flame of a blue candle. A flame that symbolizes light in darkness and knowledge of creation. The chain of thought is endless. In The Thin Red Line, an alligator sliding into the forest ponds opened the film only to be strung up as dead meat for soldiers later in the film. In The Tree of Life you have large dinosaurs for the creation sequences followed by sequence of a lizard brought into the house by young Jack and his siblings.
In The Thin Red Line there is a voice-over rhetorical question from Col. Toll about trees and nature: “Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel.” In The Tree of Life, Mr O’Brien representing “nature” is the parent growing trees and getting his son to tend the lawn in front of their house. It is important for the viewer to recall the first spoken words in The Tree of Life:“Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door.” The father is NOT one who transforms the adult Jack.
For those who love good cinema, the following sequence epitomizes Malick’s cinema like no other. A character receives bad news. No word is spoken. There is a sob of grief. Cut to the loud whirr of airplane engine. Telephone call is answered in the midst of the din. No word can be heard, only the loud engine. The engine sound suddenly fades and you hear bells of a church. This is typical Malick’s cinema. Spoken words are minimal and when they are spoken they are often as a voice-over. Sometimes, the voice is not that of the person on screen.
Malick’s dialectics are essentially rhetorical questions and exclamations made by the characters in his films, with you the viewer emerging as the judge of the series of spoken viewpoints. It is Malick, the teacher of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) taking over, or perhaps Malick the Harvard and Oxford university alumnus taking over. For instance, in The Thin Red Line a soldier asks another who has a Greek name “Did you read Homer?” The question may seem out of place but if the viewer is familiar with Homer’s epics the situation on screen gets a new perspective. In Malick’s The New World samples of voice-overs are “Who are you, what do you dream of?” with the answer from lead female Pocahontas “We are like grass.” Very few directors have attempted this—and viewers who are new to the cinema of Malick, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Syberberg, Zvyagintsev, Ruiz, and Claire Denis will find such works “pretentious” just because the grammar of their cinema requires the viewer to be attentive and patient and constantly reflect on what they see and, most of all, what they hear. Mallick, and filmmakers like him, give more attention to nature, the flora and fauna, to tell a story of human beings.
In The Tree of Life, Mrs O’Brien, the mother, represents grace. She says: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” quite in contrast to her husband who teaches his sons to be “fierce.. to get ahead in this world. If you’re good, people take advantage of you.” Jack later realizes that his father, an evidently clever God-fearing man, who has 27 patents to his name, loses his job eventually. Jack even begins to hate his father and eventually the grown up Jack apologizes to his father for something he said following his brother’s demise. Jack’s father self realization (another voice over) is another lesson in life: “I wanted to be loved because I was great, a Big Man. Now I’m nothing. Look. The glory around… trees, birds… I dishonoured it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”
The basic structure of The Tree of Life is birth, acceptation of siblings, ability to differentiate between good and bad, awareness of the less privileged, sexual awakening, loss of social security of a parent, death of a loved one, and the understanding of why death is a part of the larger scheme of the Creator of the universe. This basic structure is punctuated by visuals of the creation of the universe which puts in context the differences of the two parents of Jack. There is a dinosaur who almost kills a smaller one and yet does not but instead goes in search of another—is it the anguish of a mother who has lost her progeny? The volcanic lava meeting waves of the sea might appear to have little relevance in the Malick tale but it has considerable import if you consider the constant nature vs. grace turmoil in the O’Brien family. The final words of Mrs O’Brien the viewer hears are: “I give him to you. I give you my son.” These are words of considerable theological relevance coming from a woman who was initially grieving the loss of a 19-year old son. This lady also says another important line: “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” Every leaf, every ray of light, is precisely what Malick underscores for the viewer in The Tree of Life. The visuals of creation, from the cell to the planets, nature’s beauty ranging from a butterfly to a tree, are interlinked with message of good living and understanding life for both a theist and an atheist. Malick’s achievement in this film is his ability to telescope the development of Jack’s body and mind with the cosmic development of earth, its fauna and flora. Kubrick’s attempt in 2001–A Space Odyssey looked at the external cosmic beauty and man’s preoccupation with machines, not with individual minds. Malick has broken that boundary.
One wishes Malick explained the absence of the third son towards the end. The third was not the kid who drowned—that was a kid from a neighbour’s family. Jack seems to be influenced by one sibling who dies, and not so by the other. The O’Brien family’s attitude to race relations is ambiguous while Mrs O’Brien goes out of the way to provide drinking water to arrested and disturbed individuals in police custody. There is compassion exhibited for all including frogs that some thoughtless kids tie up to a firecracker rocket for fun.
There is much more to this film than all this. There is the relevance of each piece of music used in The Tree of Life–pieces of music and chorale pieces carefully chosen by Malick. This is a film that demands several viewings to digest the details and the full perspective of the contents.
I recall, as a wet-behind-the-ears film critic, recommending in a New Delhi daily that I worked for in 1979 that one of the finest films on show during an International Film Festival of India was an Andrei Tarkovsky film showing at the now defunct Archana theatre. The disgruntled viewers who could not appreciate the film damaged the seats of the theatre. The next day I was pulled up by my News Editor. If the same film were screened today in New Delhi there could be a totally different reaction because more people are aware of what to expect from a Tarkovsky film. So too is the case of Terrence Malick’s movies—the more you see a Malick film with patience, the more you realize what it has to offer. Perhaps then a viewer will appreciate the philosophical words spoken in The Tree of Life: “I am nothing…Keep us. Guide us. Till the end of time.”