A bold and singular vision, director Terrence Malick’s film functions as a conversation between Jack O’Brian (J.O.B.) and God. A haggard Sean Penn, playing Jack, disillusioned in adulthood questions the foundations of his life after suffering personal loss. The Tree of Life serves as a religious response to the clinical atheism at the heart of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (not a criticism of that film).
Douglas Trumball worked as the effects supervisor on both films and his photographic effects are truly iconic once again – his innovative techniques are exemplified through the unconventional use of milk for the CGI effects. Similarly, the cinematography of the three time academy award winner Emmanuel Lubezki is truly remarkable. Every shot has the perfect composition and density of a great artwork in of itself. Indeed Malick’s eye is as glorious as ever; the blissful images of waterfalls and harmonious father-daughter bonding through nature are shots to rival the crocodile being submerging in water that opens The Thin Red Line. In a previous Malick film, moreover, Days of Heaven cinematographer Haskell Wexler sat in a cinema with a stop watch to time how much of the work was his such was his pride. Likewise Malick’s extraordinary use of the 15-20 minutes of ‘magic hour’ in collaboration with Lubezki once again creates images a cinematographer spends a career striving to create. A scene of particular visual poetry is the sun-glazed vignette wherein Jack reflects upon his dad rocking on his chair, laconically ordering him to re-close the door.
Indeed the film is eloquent of these small humanistic moments set against the great expanse of time. It opens with the biblical quotation Job 38:4: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?’ and an oblique red image. The much discussed origins of the universe sequence is introduced as a result of Jack’s emotional turmoil at the death of his brother, Steve. Depicted in discordant fragments that perfectly convey his spiritual isolation, Jack is forced to question the entire basis on which he lives his life and what it is that he believes to be true. The origins of the universe sequence is God’s riposte to Jack’s charge that he abandoned him – how can he know of his plan when he was not there when it was conceived? The impressively realised shots of dinosaurs battling each other for their very existence is hauntingly echoed in a later scene where Jack recalls occasions in which he taunted his now dead brother. The implication of humanity’s similarity to his less apparently civilised ancestor is disturbing with its underlying suggestion. If life throughout time is simply a battle for survival as part of Jack’s father’s ‘fierce and will’ philosophy then what is the fundamental purpose? The differing life expectations of the morally simplistic dinosaur and the hopeful children is fascinating whilst the potential for increased destruction with the development of technology is piercingly discomforting. Hence in a manner befitting a western the film explores man’s preoccupation with guns. This contemplative reflection is symptomatic of the pain ridden tone of the film. The comparison of the macro (the story of the Universe) and the micro (Jack’s upbringing) highlights a human life’s brevity in comparison to the life of the natural world.
Jessica Chastain plays the protagonist’s mother and embodies the way of Grace – seeking to live a pious and virtuous life ingratiating oneself with one’s natural environment. She chillingly remarks to Jack about the tree in their garden: ‘you’ll be old before this tree is grown.’ This cutting sense of sorrow at the futility is reflected by the fact that Jack is beset by tragedy throughout the film. Jack first starts questioning God after a child dies in a swimming pool tragedy; Malick skilfully summons the ominous mood through pathetic fallacy with swirling black clouds. In a similarly adept fashion Malick’s impressionistic use of sound, for instance when Chastain discovers the news of Steve’s death, is carried over from Days of Heaven, inflicting gut wrenching pain upon the viewer. Yet at the same time the film has the lyricism of Malick’s previous films as he employs his trademark voiceover technique; the precocious young Jack serves as a slightly more articulate version of his child narrators from Days of Heaven and Badlands. Malick also returns to the multi-narrator technique he adopted in The Thin Red Line with Chastain’s frail voiceover a testament to her range considering her later more bullish work in such films as Zero Dark Thirty. Nevertheless it is the young Jack, impressively played by newcomer Hunter McCracken, who shoulders the burden of the narrative responsibility. His stark rumination ‘Oh mother, father always you wrestle inside me, always you will’ hauntingly surmises one of the key concepts of the film’s thesis. Namely that the underlying dichotomy of ‘the way of Nature and the way of Grace’ co-exist within each of us. Indeed the power of the unrelenting tragedy of the majority of the piece is astonishing. The viewer watches helplessly as Jack O’Brian – this biblical Job-like symbol of modern society – finds himself seemingly inexorably drawn towards the way of nature. The structure of the film means the viewer knows that this outcome is inevitable.
As the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, Brad Pitt is on magisterial Jesse James-style form. The actor delivers one of the finest performances ever committed to the medium; his domineering performance complete with austere kinesics perfectly fills the silence provided by other aspects of the film. The father, who through his insatiable urge for dominance embodies the way of Nature, encourages his children to hit him to toughen their resolve and enhance their physical strength. Pitt’s character, however, having dreamed of being a concert pianist is forced to resign himself to playing the music at his local church and working as a businessman. Thus Pitt brings a sensitivity to the character – for example Malick shows Pitt’s character’s attempt to console his children after the swimming pool tragedy. Perhaps he is not simply maybe he is merely a product of his upbringing? The climatic speech he delivers to Jack in an attempt to justify his stringent disciplinarian methods as trying to teach Jack to be ‘strong and [to] be his own boss’ is steeped in pathos.
Pitt’s wonderfully evocative costumes are emblematic of the stunning production design that at least from an outsider view creates a veritable depiction of 1950s Texas. Malick creates wondrous scenes of frivolously innocent childhood fun, with the boys mischievously setting off firecrackers, for example. In fact Malick did not allow the child actors to view the script during the filming of these scenes to make the moments as organic as possible; an effect heightened by Hunter McCracken’s inscrutable facial expression suggestive of the puzzlement at his discovery of the world. The score at times guides the viewer through the elliptical, elided portrait of rites-of-passage moments. Furthermore, the score, largely composed by Alexandre Desplat and supported by pieces of classical music is lyrical and mesmeric, perfectly captures the uncomprehending magic of this idyllic childhood. Nonetheless, the strictly controlled environment leads Jack to be all the more awe-struck when he encounters less palatable realities. The complex scene where Jack initially mocks a disabled man (war-veteran?) is wrenching. The nuances of Jack learning a difficult lesson about suffering are affectingly conveyed through McCracken’s conflicted face. Moments such as Jack’s repressed anger at his physiological development are also beautifully depicted, with the gangly adult that lives in Jack’s attic a wonderful symbol for the confusion of growing up.
The coming of age tale serves as a microcosm of the struggle for complete autonomy as well as an allegory of the struggle to maintain spiritual direction. Leaving the childhood home with the eulogised tree (the titular and overarching symbol of the film) marks Jack’s loss of purpose. Analogously, in the Bible Adam and Eve are left with a spiritual void after they are expelled from the Garden of Eden and ‘The Tree of Life’. The shot of the O’Brian boys crying helplessly in a field overwhelmed by emotion is a heartfelt paean to the loss of innocence. Likewise Malick’s mesmeric low-angle shot of an intimidating skyscraper is a perfect expression of the protagonist’s bewildered emotional state, through film technique. The cause of loss of faith is discussed as the film has an engagingly discursive tone; the young Jack’s idea that suffering is the source of the dissipation of faith is left for the viewer to ponder. Thus the film asks what the foundation of religious belief actually is: is it the father’s stoical obedience to his church faith? Or is an approach reliant on a less rigid belief system but on underlying ‘love’ true belief? The frequent images of waterfalls that accompany these thoughts perhaps suggest the idea of eternal renewal but these are just some of the strands from a film which poses a question with each image. The manner in which these themes are resolved makes the ending so potently and profoundly uplifting.
The beach setting for the final sequence features heavily in the pre-release material for the film. The Christian mythology about God carrying someone during a difficult time leaving no footprints in the sand adds to the emotional force of the scene. The viewer sees tender hair-rustling shots of the deceased brother being handed over to God, as Jack is allowed to crossover from the mortal world to a more ethereal reality. Malick signposts this in elegant figurative language, with shots of bridges as symbols of transition. Witnessing Jessica Chastain humbly cry ‘I give him to you, I give you my son’, a reworking of Job’s ‘For the Lord hath giveth and the Lord hath taketh away’, is a cleansing and harrowing, transcendent moment. Indeed, throughout the scene, Malick’s poignant use of Patrick Cassidy’s ‘Funeral March’ is awe-shattering. Moreover the fact that Jack’s brother literally becomes a part of the natural world is emblematic of its pantheistic as much as theistic ideals. The film concludes with a rueful, dazed smile from Penn followed by the reiteration of the enigmatic opening shot. Malick thus crafts an intelligent structural device to convey God’s omnipresence. It has been suggested that this is all part of the end of the life-cycle of the universe. This however fails to recognise the fundamental optimism of the film, its inspirational hope. As above all else the ending is a thoroughly cathartic emotional experience. The film therefore achieves its noble aim of establishing religion, specifically Christianity, as a holistic force for good.
The film’s genesis dates back to the 1970s after Days of Heaven Malick contemplated making ‘Project Q’ about the origins of the universe. The Tree of Life has thus certainly been a long-gestating project (it was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival). The ostensible importance of the project for its creator has partly led to the film being interpreted by such publications as Sight and Sound as having an autobiographical tone. Malick, however, who did in fact have a brother die in adulthood as well as an authoritarian father and a mother of Irish ancestry, would prefer it if people did not examine this route. He would, as ever, prefer the work to speak for itself. Nevertheless this purity of intent provides it with an emotion thrust reminiscent of Bergman’s lacerating, confessional cinema. Furthermore attempting to meld one’s personal experiences, regardless of how painful they are, with one’s cultural interests to articulate a personal perspective on the human condition is to my mind the definition of art. Hence it was rewarding to see the film recognised with the 2011 Palme d’Or ahead of for example Michel Hazanavicius’ infinitely less substantial The Artist. Given De Niro’s choice to be in Meet the Fockers sequels of late this could his most erudite film decision in many a year. A refreshing antidote to focus-group malaise, the film is Malick’s most ambitious in scope and didactic in tone. Its idiosyncratic storytelling offers a glimmer of where an increasingly commercialised English language cinema could progress. Thus the film is a sensational visceral and cerebral journey, a must watch for anyone with a passing interest in film and the possibilities of an audio-visual medium. The Tree of Life is a summation of a life’s work and a life changing experience: it is a masterpiece.
Written by Joe Regan