Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Always you wrestle inside me; always you will

Posted by Matt | July 20th, 2011

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” asks the epigraph from the Book of Job that introduces Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. Interestingly Malick omits the rest of that Biblical line: “Declare, if thou hast understanding.” Possibly Malick guesses that understanding may be asking too much of audiences–NPR reports that at least one theater has put up a sign declaring that not understanding the film is no grounds for a refund–or possibly Malick hopes that he has crafted something that can be appreciated without fully understanding it. (The raft of early positive reviews that nevertheless throw up their hands at the film indicate this is indeed the case.) More than both of these possibilities, though, I’d suggest that the omission stems from the very impossibility of true and complete understanding that is a core theme of the film.

After a brief flurry of disorienting shifts in time and tone–from the first our desire to understand is under assault–the present tense of Malick’s story opens with Jack (Sean Penn) and his wife getting ready for their workdays in their up-scale house, relations between them slightly strained. A possible reason for Penn’s emotional distance is soon revealed when he lights a candle for his younger brother. It is the anniversary of that brother’s death, and it is clear from Penn’s guarded portrayal that unresolved issues linger. As the day progresses we see Penn at various moments in his workplace, a concrete and steel urban jungle given life only by a single tree. And then we see Penn in the elevator of his office building, talking on the phone to his father–played by Brad Pitt, in a (as a friend put it) “you sometimes forget that Brad Pitt can actually act” performance–apologizing for an earlier conversation during which he blamed Papa Pitt for the brother’s death.

The rest of the film is a record of everything that led up to that moment of apology and implicit forgiveness–literally everything, starting with the Big Bang, the moment of foundation.

Back, then, to that epigraph. Where wast thou? God is saying to Job, essentially, “you weren’t even there when I created the Earth, so don’t presume to understand how this world that I made works.” But in an extended sequence that The Discovery Channel really should license, what Malick does is–contra God–take us there, based on scientific ideas of the formation of the universe, the Earth, and complex life. And as the questioning, whispered voiceovers suggest (“where are you?”), the God of the Bible isn’t there. The “foundations of the Earth” were laid by natural processes; just as the “foundation” of humans and human nature was laid by animals, chance, and evolution. An aquatic dinosaur blunders onto the beach to escape predators, laying a foundation for life on land; a meteor tumbles toward Earth, laying the foundation for the end of the age of the dinosaurs and the rise of mammals. A recurring scene shows Penn walking among labyrinths of water-formed tunnels, volcanic rock, the seashore…the geological foundations of the Earth, of life on Earth. He is there, part of the tree of life. And this seems to be a recurring device in the film, to link events and images backward and forward in time. The lone tree Penn sees in his urban workplace recalls the tree he remembers from the woods of his childhood recalls the first tree we see back in the dawn of the world. Boys swimming recall the origins of life in water, boys being capricious recall dinosaurs being capricious. The world is fractal, everything now contains traces of what came before: in the scientific sense of biochemistry and geological strata; but also in our memories, racial and personal.

The suggestion is made early in The Tree of Life that people must choose between “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” The film then spends the bulk of its copious length recasting this as a false dichotomy. In part, this is done through sets of similar images linking the natural and the transcendent, finding grace in nature and vice-versa.

If these grandiose, musical scenes of the history of life on Earth recall Kubrick’s 2001, Malick’s scenes of boyhood life recall the small-but-growing personal world of Stephen King and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. Seemingly disparate, the two sets of scenes are linked, different sorts of foundation-laying. One is wonder at the childhood of the world, the other is the wonder of a child in the world. In both, all is new; in both, sense is born of nonsense, solid features shaped by liquidity. Like King’s fiction at its best, Malick captures so well the trunculent adolescence of 1950s small-town Americana. There is the endless anarchy of summer, the testing of the world that leads children to sometimes do things without understanding why, without having a reason; there is fraternal love and familial love, cut with resentment and competition; there is the encounter with the other, in various forms; there is the God-like archetypal roles of parents, so akin to the two faces of God in Penn’s memories–Pitt’s stern, uncompromising musician-inventor, Jessica Chastain’s ethereal, angelic nurturer. Together they represent for Penn nature and grace personified.

So much of The Tree of Life is memory, is about memory. “I think about him every day,” says Penn of his dead brother. Christian religion promises a heaven where we are reunited with those we love, but memory already provides that, every day, whenever we dare call upon it. Christian religion promises grace, but nature already provides that, too–in memory, and in imagination, as the film’s final scene of reunion shows. When it comes this finale is sudden, feels unearned. (Everyone will find their own flaws with the film, and for me it was a wish for a few minutes less of the music of the spheres, and a few minutes more building up to the end.) But I think the suddenness is quite intentional. It is the suddenness of eucatastrophe, of unexpected grace. It cannot make sense; the freeing release of forgiveness feels as it does precisely because it is a release from the chain of cause and effect. And that chain is one that had dragged down Penn and his family–the litany of questions to God that God can never answer: why do bad things happen to innocent people, why does effort go unrewarded, why are people loving one moment and cruel the next, why is my brother loved more than me, where are you? We cannot believe that the world works the way it does, we cannot not search for understanding (exhibit A: this review). Even when religions tell us otherwise–as when the town preacher tells the family to expect a capricious God–we cannot not believe in reasoned causes, in ideas like fairness. “Some day…we’ll understand it all, all things” declares the pious Pitt, even as he inwardly seethes over his failures and his perceived lack of appreciation. And so a release from the chains of cause and effect must feel transcendent; and yet, must be human choice. Penn’s adult forgiveness is one of the few uniquely human acts in the film, an act not linkable to animal behavior (contrast it with another such act, shooting animals for pleasure as a child). When Chastain then whispers “I give him to you” to Penn’s wife, we have an inkling of what possibilities have been unlocked. By forgiving his father Penn is potentially allowing himself to be more open, to drop the stiff mask of cultural and personal history that all characters in the movie wear, to perhaps mend the icy formality that exists between himself and his wife.

A pensive Penn sets aside his mask.

It’s memory and imagination, then, that allow forgiveness and moving on–not understanding. Some matters cannot be proved or disproved–the God of the Bible may not be present in The Tree of Life, but nothing in his vision precludes a Deistic God, who has set the universe in motion and now watches; nothing precludes a theosophical understanding of the world, a union of science and spiritualism, nature and grace. And indeed much of the film, starting with its title and its first image, has theosophic overtones (the swirling lights that appear when characters try to talk to God are from theosophic artist Thomas Wilfred’s lumia piece “Opus 161″). But The Tree of Life does not insist on any specific understanding, so much as wondering how to live given the limits of knowledge and understanding. These limits are everywhere in the film: what we are not told by Malick can be as telling as what we are. We are not told what happened to Penn’s other brother, the third sibling, but his absence from the present-day narrative is telling; equally telling is that Penn and his wife appear to be childless. More centrally, we know next to nothing about the argument between Penn and Pitt. All we know is that Penn has accused Pitt of somehow causing his brother’s death, but then, when he’s had a chance to think about it, takes the accusation back and apologizes. And that’s The Tree of Life in a nutshell. We can put together some puzzle pieces around the circumstances of the brother’s death, but we cannot know the reasons behind Penn’s accusation, or its accuracy. In the context of Penn and Pitt’s argument this information simply isn’t important; what is important is that whatever happened, Penn would have found a way to believe that Pitt had caused it. But as we–and he–sift through his memories of childhood, triggered by the sad anniversary and the glimpse of the tree, we realize that sometimes we do things for no reason at all, without being able to explain or understand why. Sometimes things happen for no reason at all. That’s just the way nature works, and trying to understand these events as a meaningful, mediated sequence of cause and effect mostly leads to disappointment and recrimination. But nature does also give us those other gifts–memory, imagination–and they can more than compensate if we embrace them, as Penn finally does. Especially in the hands of a storyteller like Malick, they are nature’s own forms of grace.

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Note that these impressions are based on a single viewing of the film several weeks ago; this review is an artifact of memory.

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