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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s fifth film hadn’t crawled beyond Cannes, New York or Los Angeles before speculation intensified about the director’s future projects.

The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s fifth film hadn’t crawled beyond Cannes, New York or Los Angeles before speculation intensified about the director’s future projects. It’s a natural reaction, I suppose, given that Malick once went 20 years between pictures; as important as it is to have Malick in our present, his fans also want reassurance that he’ll be back again—eventually if not immediately, later if not soon enough. According to reports, Malick’s fans can rest easy: leftover footage from this film is planned for a documentary, and principal photography has wrapped on what is now being referred to as a Ben Affleck-Rachel McAdams project, even though Malick’s tendencies in the editing room could reduce those headliners to bit players by the time the film premieres. Malick will turn 68 this November, but barring any health problems it seems safe to assume we haven’t seen the last of him. And yet The Tree of Life feels like a swansong.

It’s epic, daring and almost painfully heartfelt. It’s ambiguous and overt. It deals in spirituality and science. It either alludes to Malick’s previous films or liberally borrows from them: tokens buried underground as in Badlands; a snake illustration straight out of Days of Heaven; a woman on a swing as in The Thin Red Line; a (street) lamp shining against the midnight blue sky as in The New World; and so on. It’s the summation of all that Malick seemed to be and a doorway to something beyond that. It’s an unmistakably personal film—a conclusion I reached long before I learned that it’s quasi-autobiographical, too. It’s the kind of film you might expect from a director who worries that he might never make another one—a pull-out-all-the-stops, bounce-the-check-to-the-undertaker, this-time-for-sure purging of the soul. It’s as if to die in peace Malick needed to get The Tree of Life off his chest.

It’s his most challenging film, and perhaps his messiest, too. And for those reasons in particular it took a second viewing for me to fully appreciate its scope, its intimacy and its intricacies—which isn’t to say I’ve figured it all out or come to peace with a sequence that might be the most disappointing in Malick’s career. But when I watch The Tree of Life I’m overwhelmed by the sense that I’m witnessing the work of a filmmaker who feels he has run out of time for holding back.

Ed Howard: It’s such a daring film, totally. The comments on our conversation about Malick’s first four films helped me to clarify some of my ambivalence about The Thin Red Line and The New World, giving shape to a complaint that I hadn’t articulated very well in the conversation itself: that those films are marred by half measures, stuck halfway between narrative cinema and the avant-garde, resting somewhat uneasily in both worlds. That is not a complaint that could be applied to most of The Tree of Life, but strangely enough, not because Malick has gone fully in one direction or another. Instead, I think he’s just reached a more assured balance between those two impulses—at least for part of the movie.

This is especially true of the long sequence that encompasses the bulk of the film’s second half, a gorgeous, emotionally and thematically rich memory of the childhood of three brothers living in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. This is, I think, quite simply the best thing Malick has ever made, and it perfectly addresses my earlier criticisms about the unsatisfying narrative currents in his most recent films. This whole sequence—which starts with the birth of the oldest brother and ends with a melancholy backward-looking shot as the family leaves their home to relocate for the father’s new job—is utterly stunning in every way, and is grounded in character and relationships to an extent that I don’t think Malick has ever before achieved.

That childhood sequence is a total masterpiece. The Tree of Life as a whole is not, I don’t think, but it’s certainly a very interesting film and, yes, a messy one, and also a very personal one. Parts of it are amazing. Parts of it are overblown and silly. Parts of it are overblown and silly and amazing. The cinematography is, of course, uniformly beautiful, if sometimes in the way a National Geographic nature special is beautiful. And then there’s the ending, which very nearly extinguished the good feelings I had about the hour leading up to this nauseatingly new agey coda. In that sense, The Tree of Life is typical of my conflicted responses to Malick’s previous two films, but neither of those films had anything that got to me quite like the troubled relationship between Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child, Sean Penn as an adult) and his father (Brad Pitt) does in this film. That this film contains some of Malick’s most remarkable work and, as we’ve both already hinted, some of his worst, suggests that The Tree of Life is indeed an ambitious film, a film that takes bold risks that don’t always pay off. As always, I admire Malick for that willingness to take risks, even as I wince at the moments where his results fall short of his ambitions. Because when, as in the childhood chapter of this film, everything comes together for him, the result is emotionally overwhelming, and says more about the human experience and the nature of life and death than Malick’s more overt philosophical statements ever do.

The Tree of Life

JB: Absolutely. And we might as well dive into that ending now, because we seem to agree that in addition to being disappointing in and of itself, it also undercuts the awesomeness of what comes before it, threatening to obliterate the impact of some of Malick’s finest work. The “coda,” by which I mean everything that happens after the O’Briens drive away from their Waco home, has to be the most awkward sequence in Malick’s filmography—cheesy, clichéd and feeble. It is not entirely void of richness, possessing as it does the mother’s (Jessica Chastain) acceptance of her child’s death and a bridge shot that neatly symbolizes man’s desire for connection (more on that later, I’m sure), but as a whole it’s a buzzkill. I can argue in favor of what it tries to do but not what it is. For 10 or 15 minutes, and it feels like longer, Malick follows the older Jack (Penn) as he wanders through a barren wasteland meant to evoke his adult loneliness, goes through a mysterious doorway and ends up on a beach—at sunset, naturally—where he is surrounded by his family and other anonymous souls wandering along the water’s edge in heavenly peace. The sequence succeeds in demonstrating Jack’s emotional catharsis, in a mathematical or architectural way, but it fails to actually conjure that emotion, to resonate.

Critic at large Steven Boone, who shares our disappointment with this sequence, argued that its inelegance is a direct result of its heavy-handed fabrication. Malick, Boone pointed out, makes films out of “found” moments—shooting liberally and often without structure in the first place, and then finding his film within that “found” footage in his extensive editing process. (Malick’s films are twice found, really.) In this coda, however, Malick seems to be directing the action, creating a scenario to meet a specific vision rather than letting the action come to him. It’s an astute observation, one that, to be fair, probably does a better job of explaining the effect of the scene (or lack thereof) than explaining how it went wrong conceptually, because while Malick certainly delights in “found” moments, he can premeditate with the best of ‘em, whether that means giving us yet another house with curtains that blow in the wind or actually relocating from another yard the mighty tree that sits outside the O’Brien home. In any case, when Penn’s Jack, wearing a business suit, falls to his knees in the wet sand, his arms outstretched in exultation, it doesn’t come off as the act of a man in the midst of catharsis but rather like the gesture of an actor hitting his mark and sending an “exultation” signal flag up the pole for all to see.

The Tree of Life

EH: Yeah, the problems with the ending are legion, but the biggest one is how schematic it feels. In terms of style and approach, it’s the complete opposite of the material that preceds it. The childhood scenes are so rich in character nuance and observational detail. It’s all so specific; this story is apparently autobiographical for Malick, and it shows. If some of Malick’s previous characters and stories could be overly generic, that’s not even remotely a problem here, as the characters and settings are totally fleshed out. This story is thematically resonant, but the ideas being expressed through these characters—typically Malickian musings on elemental human attributes like love, control, ambition, loss, guilt, maturation—don’t feel forced or preachy. Instead, these ideas arise naturally from the characters’ interactions, and from the evocative, elliptical style that Malick uses to tell the story.

That’s why it’s such a letdown when Malick the heavy-handed symbolist returns for the final 15 minutes, not so much to wrap things up as to deliver a crushingly obvious vision of heaven that reminds me, of all things, of the similarly disappointing—and similarly saccharine and spiritually pat—conclusion of the TV series Lost. Why does Malick feel this need to literalize, at the last moment, the spiritual, abstract concepts that are expressed so movingly through the more grounded narrative sections? I don’t know, but it doesn’t work at all because while the young Jack is a fully functioning character, Jack as played by Penn is a total cipher who’s divorced from the depiction of his younger self. Whatever catharsis he finds on that beach, surrounded for some reason by people from his childhood, their appearances frozen in time as they looked in the 1950s while only he has aged, it’s an empty catharsis that squanders the real depth found elsewhere in the film.

I feel similarly about the mother’s acceptance of her child’s death, which is a fine idea but an awful scene. She’s bathed in white light, flanked by a pair of anonymous young women (angels I guess?) and repeatedly making the gesture of lifting her hands towards the sky and opening them, as though releasing something to fly up into the clouds. Not only is the idea hammered home with a complete lack of subtlety, but the visual sensibility of it is so lame and clichéd, an unthinking regurgitation of the most turgid form of religious imagery. It makes me wonder how such a visually accomplished filmmaker can make something so clunky—especially when the scenes like this are surrounded by the visual riches that make the best parts of this film so stunning.

The Tree of Life

JB: I think you’ve cut to the heart of it: Although there are fundamental challenges to conjuring catharsis through Penn’s scowling cipher, the scene’s biggest failure is its ordinariness. Malick, love him or loath him, has never been ordinary. He’s the guy who gives us extreme closeups of insects, who gives us stories that unfold during the magic hour and who gazes at forest canopies with the awe of someone taking in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He’s the guy who makes curtains blowing in the wind seem profound (mileage may vary). He’s the guy who gives us stream-of-consciousness narration that vacillates between poetic grandeur and plainspoken sophistication. Most significant of all, he’s the guy who for five films now has found religion, spirituality and seemingly even God himself in the natural world that most of us take for granted. Put all of that together and it’s utterly shocking that when Malick finally gets around to depicting heaven off earth—after spending his career stunning us with his depictions of heaven on earth—it would seem so uninspiring, so bland, so hackneyed. Malick aspires, as he always does, for heartfelt magnificence, but while the earnestness of the emotions and the lushness of the images are stamped with his trademark, the unimaginativeness of it all makes the profound prosaic. The beach sequence reminded you of the finale of Lost, reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s clumsy Hereafter and reminded Tom Shone of commercials for “sanitary napkins, or life insurance, depending on which channel you chance upon.”

Of course, maybe this is what The Beyond looks like to Malick. Or perhaps this is what Malick figured The Beyond looked like to Penn’s Jack. To which I say, fair enough. But the problem isn’t that the beach scene can’t be defended. The problem is that it fails to live up not only to the gracefulness of the Waco scenes before it but also to Malick’s entire oeuvre. Emotionally speaking, that scene needed to tower above almost any other scene in his career. And it doesn’t. Not even close. It feels small. I never watched Lost, but based on the chatter I’ve heard about the show’s disappointing finale, that might be the most apt comparison. Indeed, the beach scene is enough to make one think, “Wait a minute, you led us all this way for this?”

If I seem particularly critical of the coda, I suppose it’s because I feel the final moments of his previous two films are absolutely magnificent. This is the third Malick film that I’ve been lucky enough to discover in the theater upon its initial release, and I vividly remember, as The Thin Red Line and The New World were winding down, nearly clasping my hands together in prayer as I begged them to fade to black precisely where they do. Both The Thin Red Line and The New World end on emotional high points created from climaxing scores that quickly give way to the tranquil ambient noise of secluded nature. They end swiftly, even suddenly. But the coda of The Tree of Life drags on, and all the while the incredible power of the previous chapter escapes like air out of leaky balloon.

The Tree of Life

EH: Malick’s entire career has been oriented towards heaven, but I never expected him to literally depict the afterlife or the spiritual realm—and, as you point out in discussing how Malick has always found the religious in nature, I never felt like he needed to depict heaven itself in order to communicate his spiritual awe. And now that he has… yeah, you led us all this way for this? A heavenly beach and angels dressed in white robes and self-conscious gestures of acceptance and hugs all around? Maybe Jack hasn’t gone to heaven, maybe he just took an especially strong dose of Ambien. The aesthetic of the finale makes me think that it would have been a parody in the hands of a more satirically-minded filmmaker—the kind of saccharine mass-marketed heaven that Tyler Durden would have savagely mocked—but Malick apparently intends it earnestly. As you know from our discussion of Malick’s first four films, the director has always tipped too much in this overblown, self-serious direction for my tastes, but even a number of his longtime fans seem to have decided that the conclusion of his latest opus is a bit much.

That’s a shame, because if I’m especially disappointed by the final destination of The Tree of Life, much of the journey that leads there is exhilarating. The film begins in typical Malick fashion, an elliptical collage of fragmentary scenes of the O’Brien family in happy times (which will be expanded upon in the film’s second half), accompanied of course by whispery philosophical voiceovers. Then Malick leaps ahead in time to the parents learning of the death of one of their sons. Soon after, there’s a shot that absolutely slays me: the shadows of the children, projected upside-down on the concrete, running back and forth as they play. This shot will be echoed later in the film when young Jack runs down the front steps of the O’Brien house and then back up in reverse, his shadow stretched out behind him on the steps. But it’s the earlier shot that I find really haunting and unforgettable, a ghostly image that somehow crystallizes all the loss and grief of this family. Then, after a little break to show how dissatisfied and soulless adult Jack is (we know this because he works in a skyscraper!), Malick returns to the dawn of time, dramatizes the creation of the universe through near-abstract images of space and chemical reactions, spends some time with the dinosaurs before observing the meteor that wipes them out, and generally gives the impression that the entire history of the universe is leading towards the birth of the oldest O’Brien child.

As you said earlier, this is the work of a filmmaker who’s not holding back in the least. I’m not sure how I feel about some of it (the dinosaurs continue to puzzle and intrigue me) and some of it seems downright silly in that typically Malickian way (I couldn’t suppress an eye roll at the child swimming up through the underwater house right before being born), but it’s definitely quite a ride. And all of that is in many ways only setting the stage for the jaw-dropping childhood section of the film.

The Tree of Life

JB: If the beach coda is the most maligned portion of The Tree of Life—I’ve yet to find someone who goes so far as to praise it—the creation sequence is the most controversial. There are those who are all-in, those who are all-out, and then quite a few who seem to find the sequence awesome as a set piece but disjointed or even foolish in its application. After my first viewing of the film, I was probably in the latter camp (minus the “foolish” part). I was awestruck—and I don’t use that word lightly—by the utter beauty of the visual effects that depict gaseous clouds drifting, expanding and coalescing; that show planets and galaxies; that show the Big Bang and the meteor that did in the dinosaurs. I was swept up by the scope of it all, both in terms of what it represents and what it must have entailed to create. I was moved by Malick’s musical choices—the ethereal Funeral Canticle giving way to the rapturous Lacrimosa—which so perfectly convey the otherworldliness and incredibleness of the creation of life at a beyond-planetary level. And most of all I was touched by Malick’s courage: his willingness to abandon his human characters so completely and for so long, while exploring his amazement with the natural world at such an epic scale. In every way, the creation sequence is thrillingly limitless.

And yet I wondered if it fit and what it meant. I mentioned before that The Tree of Life feels like a swansong, and the creation sequence is one of the reasons why; as much as anything, it seemed as if Malick just needed to get it out of his system and thrust it into this film, in this place, for fear that otherwise his vision might never be realized. But then I saw the film again, and discovered that no matter the sequence’s origins—apparently, the creation sequence was originally conceived for another film called Q—it’s more than justified. In fact, it’s kind of the point.

Not long after the scene you mentioned with the shadows of playful boys dancing across the street (shadows of the mother’s boys in a memory? shadows of someone else’s boys in the present reminding Chastain’s character of her own children in the past? either works), there’s a scene in which the boys’ grandmother attempts to comfort the devastated mother with churchly wisdom: “Life goes on. People pass along. Nothing stays the same,” the grandmother says. “Lord gives and takes away—that’s the way he is.” But Mother isn’t buying it. She isn’t comforted by the thought that her dead son is now in God’s hands, because the way she figures it her son was in God’s hands all along. So eventually she asks the questions any grieving mother would ask: “Lord, why? Where were you?” And the creation sequence is the answer to that question.

But what does it say? There’s room for multiple interpretations. One reading is that the creation sequence refutes the idea of God, seeing as how it isn’t rooted in creationism. Another reading is that it confirms the presence of God, seeing as how the film starts and ends with a mystical gaseous presence that appears to be the egg from which the world hatched. I don’t think it really matters which of those is true. The crucial point is that the creation sequence suggests the lengths to which we the living often go to cope with death, questioning where we came from and why. Where was God, or Life, if you prefer? The creation sequence shows that He/It was everywhere, always.

The Tree of Life

EH: That’s a beautiful interpretation of those scenes. The creation sequence is the culmination of a thread that’s been running through all of Malick’s films, the idea that in the big picture, we’re all in this together. In The Thin Red Line, it was phrased as all of mankind sharing a single soul behind different faces. The Tree of Life isn’t so explicit about it, but the creation sequence positions humanity as another piece in the puzzle of nature. An important piece, perhaps—after all, the creation sequence does lead inexorably towards the creation of human life—but still just a piece, an aspect of a tremendously complex universe that encompasses processes occurring on a microscopic scale as well as dinosaurs towering above the ground. This is an idea that we’ve discussed in relation to all of Malick’s previous films as well. His positioning of humanity in the context of the natural world in his other films is here expanded into a grand statement on humanity’s place in the universe, in time, in a natural order that stretches back to the Big Bang.

One thing I find curious about all this is how strangely bloodless Malick’s idea of nature is. Earlier I compared some of the images from this stretch of the film to a National Geographic documentary, but I realize now that that’s not quite right. What’s missing is predation. If this sequence is meant to demonstrate the eternal cycle of life and death (and I think it is), then why does Malick seem unable to find a place for the violence of nature, for predators and their prey? His vision of nature has always been idealized—shots of foliage swaying in the breeze accompanied by beautiful music—but the incompleteness of it really struck home for me in the scenes with the dinosaurs. At one point, one dinosaur walks up to a dying dinosaur that is lying on the ground by a streambed. It seems clear that the dying dinosaur is going to be killed and eaten, but instead the other dinosaur simply plays with it a bit, putting a foot on its head and tapping it hesitantly in a manner that seems more feline than reptilian. When I was a kid, I doubtless would have known what these dinosaurs were on sight, but now I can only guess that this playful dinosaur isn’t a predator or a scavenger, or else the scene wouldn’t make much sense at all. Regardless, the dinosaur’s behavior seems kind of cutesy, like it’s an anthropomorphized cartoon rather than a real animal. It’s an odd note to be hitting in the midst of this epic journey from the Big Bang to 1950s America.

Malick at times tries to suggest that nature is cruel, that death is a part of life, but, presaging the new agey hokum of the finale, his images present a relaxed, beautiful natural world where a dinosaur dies a quiet death much like an old man lying in bed, gasping his last reptilian breaths while lying amidst the splendor of nature. Death has an uneasy place in this film. The two most important deaths in the film, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the death of the O’Briens’ son, occur from a distance, the former shown from space and the latter signaled by an impersonal telegram. Perhaps this is appropriate: the film is uncomfortable with death because the characters are uncomfortable with it. Death is uncomfortable, and as you suggest, Malick seems more interested in the human response to death than he is in death itself. The bloodiest cruelties of nature would seem out of place in Malick’s idyllic vision of nature as a church—accompanied, oft as not, by appropriately churchy music—but in this film the impact of death, at least, is viscerally felt. What’s interesting is that Malick communicates this loss most powerfully not by lingering in the aftermath of the tragedy (though the brief scenes of Pitt and Chastain expressing their grief are very powerful) but by returning to the time that preceded the loss, with the knowledge of that eventual loss haunting every moment of childhood happiness and familial strife.

The Tree of Life

JB: That’s a terrific observation. Malick’s films have of course been full of predatory behavior by humans: from Kit in Badlands, through the hunting down of Bill in Days of Heaven, the Battle of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line and the clashes of Europeans and “naturals” in The New World to this film, where ‘50s boyhood is marked with mild skirmishes of violence that suggest within them the potential for something uglier. But true predation has been missing. The closest things we can point to are the storm of locusts preying upon the wheat fields in Days of Heaven and the first dinosaur we see in this film, which lies on the beach with a large bloody gash down its side. It’s as if Malick doesn’t have it in his heart to observe the cruelty in nature that he sees in humankind. The scene you mention, when one dinosaur pins down the head of another dinosaur that’s slowly dying along a riverbed—they’re velociraptors, I think—indeed seems to be saying something quite deliberate. After all, this isn’t “found” footage; it’s choreographed CGI, which suggests that Malick conceived the scene with a specific intent in mind. But what is that scene saying?

I’m not sure. The most obvious reading, I guess, is to assume that the scene mirrors the behavior that we’ll see in Father and Jack in the ‘50s scenes to come, because the healthy raptor seems intent on demonstrating its dominance, much in the same way that Pitt’s Father asserts his power over his sons and Jack asserts his power over his younger brother. In each case, dinosaur, father and oldest son need others to respect their strength, much the same way Kit needs everyone around him to respect his. Put more simply, it’s as if Malick is suggesting that power struggles are as old as time. The Tree of Life begins with the mother narrating about her religious upbringing in which she was taught that life has two paths: “the way of nature and the way of grace.” As she explains: while grace forgives slights and injury, nature “places itself against others” and “looks for reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining.” Chastain’s Mother, of course, is this film’s representation of grace, and Pitt’s Father is the depiction of nature. And as we watch Jack and his younger brother, we quickly realize that Jack is nature and his brother is grace. What I find interesting is that a filmmaker known for romanticizing nature would equate it with violence. It seems to me that Malick is implying that violence is our default setting, and that those who can rise above nature, rather than succumb to it, are extraordinary.

The Tree of Life

EH: The nature/grace dichotomy is definitely one of the major threads in the film, but I actually find it to be one of the less interesting ideas that Malick is exploring here. There’s something a little simplistic, and typically idealized, about his depiction of the mother as this figure of purity and bliss, so focused on happiness and play that she hardly seems of this world. Indeed, at one point Malick depicts her, in the memory of one of her children, as floating above the ground, dancing lithely in the air as though she’s already in the process of drifting upwards to heaven. In comparison, the rest of her family is very much grounded in this lovingly detailed 1950s suburbia.

The relationship between Jack and his father—both of them infused with the qualities of “nature” according to Malick’s formulation—is the real heart of the film, and provides much of the most interesting tension and emotion. Father is, implicitly, linked to God by Malick. At one point one of the kids asks in voiceover, with mingled exasperation and curiosity, “Why does he hurt us, our father?” It’s a key question of the film, since one of Malick’s themes is the idea that bad things can and do happen to good people. This is an important question that, sooner or later, every religion has to answer for its adherents, since living a good life according to what God wants is never a guarantee of safety, longevity or happiness. It’s the question at the core of the book of Job, which is quoted at the beginning of the film and brought up in a homily delivered by a priest when the O’Briens go to church one morning. Why does he hurt us? The voiceover might be referring to God—why do bad things happen in the world?—but more concretely the line could also be about the O’Brien patriarch, who like God dispenses justice, punishment and love unpredictably. He is unknowable, like God. His family can’t be sure when his disciplinarian rigidity will burst into anger or when his cool demeanor will momentarily be overwhelmed by the displays of affection and warmth that he occasionally shows for the sons who he obviously does love. These children see their father as devout worshippers often see God: loving but unfathomable, strict, remote, as liable to dispense punishments as hugs.

Father aims for gruff wisdom but really just terrifies his kids, making them hate and fear him, to the point that they rejoice when he leaves. The parents might represent nature and grace, but they more convincingly embody discipline and freedom: where Father is bound by strict rules of behavior, codes of manliness, Mother is free, a childlike spirit of play and improvisation. One of the film’s funniest and most joyful scenes is the exuberant romp that breaks out when the three brothers wake up one morning (awoken by the ice cubes their mother smilingly places on their feet and necks) and realize that their father has left on a long business trip. With the disciplinarian absent, they can run around the house without fear, laughing and yelling and playing, mocking their father’s anger, chasing their mother with a lizard, while she alternates between scolding and laughing.

However, in the absence of the father’s moderating influence, a real darkness begins to creep in around the character of Jack, as he slides from harmlessly petty childhood infractions to fledgling acts of violence and destruction. A dark drone dominates the soundtrack, as Jack revels in the guilty thrill of breaking windows. He’s discomfited by the idea of launching a frog to its death with a firework but does it anyway, just to see how it feels. Most horribly, he betrays the guileless trust of his adoring brother, who he shoots in the finger with a BB gun, a moment of visceral pain that plays out on screen like a quick spasm of horror and pain and almost immediate guilt. The grace/nature dichotomy falls apart a little at moments like this, because Jack seems to need his father’s moral certitude and chilly discipline; the “grace” of his mother proves useless to deal with a world of pointless cruelty and sexual confusion. The freedom represented by the mother is also the freedom to do wrong, to hurt others, to succumb to negative emotions.

The Tree of Life

JB: I suppose that last part is true, but if so I think that creates problems for your discipline/freedom interpretation. Yes, the father is a strict disciplinarian. Yes, around the mother the boys are not just free from punishment but free in spirit, too. But Malick’s nature/grace dichotomy would suggest that to do wrong, to hurt others, to succumb to negative emotions, would be to turn one’s back on grace. That doesn’t mean grace is “useless,” because it’s not meant to be a disciplinary action so much as an ideal, the carrot to nature’s stick, a state of being that one achieves inwardly, not through external force.

When Jack acts out in this film, we’re seeing two things. First, we’re seeing the ramifications of jealousy: Jack envies his younger brother. He’s certain that his mother must love his younger sibling(s) more, and he feels removed from the bond that his guitar-playing brother has with their organ-playing father. Beyond that, one senses that, in the parlance of the film, Jack sees his brother as naturally graceful, and he resents him for it. It’s worth noting that in the scene in which the boys are trying to decide whether to break the windows of a neighbor’s shed, Jack’s younger brother silently shakes his head at the proposal just before Jack picks up his first rock to fire it into the glass. The window incident isn’t a random act of mischief so much as it’s an act of sibling rivalry; Jack breaks the windows precisely because his younger brother wouldn’t. Like so many children (or adults, really), he tries hard to stand out because he doesn’t fit in. And that brings us to the second thing we see when Jack acts out, breaking windows or shooting his brother with the BB gun: nature begetting nature. Jack wants to be his mother’s son, but he becomes his father’s son. He even says so at one point, telling his father that for all their differences he has more in common with him than with her—an admission that seems to surprise the father, who we presume feels he’s always struggled to connect with his oldest son.

For all the heavy-handedness with which the nature/grace dichotomy is first introduced, one of the film’s strengths is the artfulness with which these threads are woven together. For example, the mother’s playful way of waking up her tired boys with ice is offset by a scene in which the father walks into their bedroom and rips the sheets off of them—no time for gentleness or affection—with stern organ music playing in the background. Amidst shots of play there’s Jack’s punishment for slamming the screen door and a lecture on weeding. Chastain’s Mother is a nurturing, loving presence, talking softly to her children in bed at night and giving them gentle kisses. Pitt’s Father, on the other hand, typically fluctuates between threatening and peculiar—when he tries to teach his sons how to fight, they seem terrified by the strangeness of the exercise as much as anything. To Malick’s credit, he doesn’t portray Father as wholly monstrous. One of the film’s most touching images is the shot of soaking wet boys with huge smiles on their faces clinging to their father, who has been playfully spraying them with the garden hose. We can feel the father’s desire to connect with his sons, as he does so beautifully in the scene in which he plays the piano to accompany the middle son playing guitar. But, well, grace is not his nature. The father’s relationship with his sons, particularly Jack, can be summed up in one terrific shot, when Father leads Jack back toward their front lawn: his arm is outstretched as if to wrap around his son, but instead his hand grips his son around the back of his neck, like a police officer taking a suspect to his jail cell, as the setting sun shines through the two-foot-wide but almost endlessly deep emotional abyss between them.

The Tree of Life

EH: Your description of Mother as “a nurturing, loving presence” in contrast to Father’s stern and terrifying countenance suggests one of the other ways in which Malick sets up these two parents on opposite ends of a scale. These characters represent stereotyped and old-fashioned ideals for their respective genders, fulfilling societally expected roles so completely that they nearly become caricatures. Mother is nurturing and loving, sweet and kind, sensitive and graceful. Father is domineering, strong, unsentimental, reluctant to show any emotion other than anger. Part of the reason he’s so strict with his sons is that he wants to raise them to be what he thinks a man should be: that’s the rationale behind the boxing lesson, as well as the constant emphasis on discipline. It’s as though he’s preparing them to be in the military, which is why it’s so easy to assume that when one of his sons dies, years later, it happened at war in Vietnam. Father also tries to instill in his sons a distrust of other people and a cutthroat attitude towards business that Jack obviously internalizes, as evidenced by Penn’s portrayal of the older Jack as a stereotypical soulless businessman. One senses that Jack has grown up to be what his father wanted him to be, a hyper-successful masculine provider; his mother’s exaggerated femininity had comparatively little lasting impact on his personality.

If gender is important to the film’s depiction of family life, sexuality also enters into it in certain scenes. Malick’s films have always been circumspect about sex. There are sensual and romantic images in his films, especially The New World, but no real sex; indeed, it’s hard to imagine Pocahontas and John Smith in that film going beyond the playful, almost childlike romantic relationship they share, which seems to consist mostly of laying in the grass together. So it’s probably telling that the most sexual sequence in all of Malick’s work is the scene where Jack breaks into the home of a woman who he has been voyeuristically spying on. Jack walks around the house, fascinated by everything he sees as though all of it is an extension of the woman he’d been watching, and finally he takes one of the woman’s undergarments out of her dresser and spreads it out on the bed, admiring the sheer fabric, perhaps imagining the way its thin surfaces might lay against the woman’s body. The fetish-like way he engages with this garment, stealing it and then desperately getting rid of it by letting it drift off on the current of a river, suggests the intensity of the confused feelings overtaking him.

Jack’s fascination is sexual, but also related to class. The home obviously belongs to a much wealthier family than the O’Briens; it is nicely decorated and full of valuable knick-knacks. Jack’s voyeurism is motivated by more than a youthful, burgeoning libido. It’s also about a desire for a different sort of life, for an escape from the strife that so often fractures his own home life. Perhaps he even understands, on some intuitive level, that so much of his father’s bitterness is rooted in the O’Brien patriarch’s feeling that life has passed him by, that he’s failed to accomplish as much as he could or should have. (This, too, ties back to gender roles, since the father feels that he hasn’t been successful as a man and as a breadwinner.) When Jack walks through this home, his pseudo-sexual excitement is an echo of the similar scene in Days of Heaven when Abby walks around the farmer’s house, relishing the nice things that are now hers. Malick understands, and doesn’t judge these characters for their materialism: for those who had so little, a taste of something fine and fancy can be exhilarating.

Those feelings of avarice and jealousy are all tangled up with Jack’s developing sexuality, and also with guilt, shame, and the Freudian transference of his adoration for his mother to another woman. The sequence ends with Jack returning home, having disposed of the stolen slip, and confronting his mother, who seems to somehow know, if not precisely what he did, then at least that he did something. He can’t even look her in the eye, instead shuffling by, looking back with such a miserable expression, unsure of what he’s even feeling at this point. Moments like that are why the childhood section of The Tree of Life is so brilliant: seldom have the complicated, half-formed emotions of childhood, both positive and negative, been so intensely felt and so precisely conveyed.

The Tree of Life

JB: I agree with that last sentence wholeheartedly. I can’t remember where I read it, but at least one review of The Tree of Life suggested that it was yet another Malick picture without sexuality. But I don’t get that. As you’ve pointed out, it’s just a film without sex. Prior to the scene in which Jack enters the woman’s home, there are others in which he ogles the woman’s bare legs or comes up with an excuse to drink from her garden hose so that he might spy on her as she hangs her delicates on a clothesline. There is incredible eroticism to those scenes, and incredible youth, too. What we’re seeing there is true immaturity: adult sexuality that’s coming into form.

For all the movies that have been made about childhood, whether in the present tense or through a nostalgic filter for a bygone age, few do as wonderful a job of capturing what childhood feels like. The emotional highpoint of the film for me is the one that kicks off with the mother holding her child, looking up to the sky with a smile on her face and saying, “That’s where God lives.” Then, with Ma Vlast flowing in the background, Malick gives us a current of childhood images: boys running and chasing one another around the house; throwing a ball onto the roof; playing with 4th of July sparklers; climbing trees; and eventually crashing hard at night with dirty fingernails. The sequence ends with the boys hearing the sound of the screen door opening, signaling that their mother is about to call them in for the night, prompting them to scurry behind a tree across the street, hiding single file and then breaking into animal noises (perhaps my favorite image in the entire film). Later on we’ll see the episodes of mischief and more moments of pure innocence, and some that are a combination of the two, such as when Jack dares his brother to stick a wire hanger into a lamp. In each case, the boys seem to be wearing blue jeans, and sometimes nothing but blue jeans, as if they never take them off. (In a bit of irony, there are some shots in Malick’s film that remind of the John Hillcoat-directed Levi’s ad that so clearly ripped off Malick; indeed, Levi’s even gets a thank you in the closing credits.) When a truck comes through town spraying DDT, even that is a moment for childhood play. What Malick captures here is the endlessness of a childhood summer, and the spaciousness of 1950s childhood, where the boys seem entirely unteathered, free to explore, free to be boys.

These scenes stand in contrast to the shots of the older Jack, who looks back on his life from atop a Houston skyscraper. He’s an architect, apparently, at one point looking at blueprints that seem to show lots of tiny little offices or cubicles. “I feel like I’m bumping into walls,” Penn’s Jack says in the voiceover. “When did I lose you?” he asks. But does he mean his brother or his childhood spirit, his grace? His house is spare, like something out of a Kohler ad. It’s unlived-in. He’s boxed-in now, and he apparently longs for both the freedom of youth and the feeling of dirt underneath his fingernails.

The Tree of Life

EH: The scenes with Penn as Jack are the film’s weak point, but yeah, for the most part they do work in terms of the film’s symbolic system, the opposition between innocence and cynicism, between grace and nature. Interestingly, one thing I don’t think works is Penn’s comment about “bumping into walls.” Malick’s mise en scène goes out of its way to establish that this character is miserable and alienated: as you say, his house is bare and seems like a pristine model home rather than an actual lived-in residence, and at work he’s surrounded by steel and glass and concrete. At least one review I’ve read has pointed out that these are the first scenes in any of Malick’s films to be set in the present, and it’s consistent with his generally nostalgic, backward-looking sensibility that he seems to find the present lacking. But the images of skyscrapers towering up to the sky, high glass ceilings stretching up to views of the sky framed by steel beams, don’t seem as claustrophobic as Penn’s comment would suggest. Maybe I just don’t respond to Malick’s obvious suspicion of cities. Maybe Malick’s aesthetic is so naturally inclined to find beauty and awe everywhere that he makes these urban images too aesthetically appealing to support the idea advanced by the dialogue.

Or maybe—and I like this idea best of all—part of the point is that Jack himself is missing the beauty all around him. He says he’s bumping into walls, but to me Malick’s images seem to undermine this statement, showing Jack in large open spaces with ceilings that vault up to heaven like the roofs of cathedrals. So many of Malick’s films include characters who are oblivious to the splendor of the natural world, but maybe the adult Jack is a character who’s oblivious to the splendor of the man-made world. He looks all around him and sees only ugliness and conformity and constriction, especially in comparison to the free-wheeling sense of adventure and play seen in many of the childhood scenes, set in a sunlit suburbia that’s surrounded by the wilds of nature. The viewer can’t help but make the same comparison, and Malick even seems to want us to find Jack’s adult surroundings oppressive in comparison to his childhood environs. Instead, I come away with the conclusion that Jack’s sense of claustrophobia is self-imposed, that if only he’d let go of the past he could find some happiness in the present and the future rather than constantly looking backward to his childhood as the source of all his problems and the repository for all his joy.

Granted, this is a direction in which the film sometimes seems reluctant to head, and the final scenes—in which none of the characters besides Jack have aged past the 1950s—suggest that Malick himself remains mired in the past, as does Jack. The film never quite considers the idea that real fulfillment and happiness are to be found in opening one’s eyes to the beauty of one’s present situation rather than trying to return to a tumultuous but (in memory) idyllic past. Those images of surprisingly soulful skyscrapers are like a whispery countercurrent to this dominant thread in the film, a faint suggestion that pleasure, joy, grace and freedom are confined to 1950s suburbia only if we allow them to be.

The Tree of Life

JB: I like that reading. Personally, and maybe because I was swayed by Penn’s narration, I saw the skyscrapers as more imprisoning than inspirational, but you’re not the only one who thinks that those shots provide their own kind of awe, whether or not that was Malick’s intent. In his review at Not Just Movies, Jake Cole observes that the adult Jack’s “revulsion of his surroundings does not match the tone of the shots, which remind the audience that the steel and glass monoliths do not cover up nature but reflect it on their surfaces. Malick’s films previously argued that the destruction of mankind was a part of nature and not against it, but he goes further here. That the last physical shot of the film is of a bridge shows how Malick has progressed to the point of accepting the man-made world as a part of nature, cementing the idea that everything is connected (and there’s no better man-made object to demonstrate connection than a bridge).”

Jake’s reading and yours remind that even though this is the first time Malick has grappled with the current world it’s not the first time he’s observed human progress. In Part I of this discussion we noted that in his previous film Malick regards 17th Century England with almost the same awe that he has for the forests and rivers of the New World. And we shouldn’t forget that two of the most romantic images in Days of Heaven are President Wilson’s train rumbling through the vastness of the panhandle and those biplanes swooping down to the farmland below. Malick might be nostalgic for the way things were, he might see his ideal in the rearview mirror, but he’s never portrayed progress as some looming absolute evil. For me, The Tree of Life proves that Malick views human progress as just another irrepressible phase of natural evolution.

As for the shot of that bridge, it’s the one thing that almost saves the beach coda for me—or at least saves it from being a complete waste of time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a jarring shot, because after spending film after film in amongst the trees, anything made of steel seems out of place in Malick’s universe. But the moment I saw that bridge I flashed back to that excerpt from The Thin Red Line that I quoted in Part I: “How do we get to those distant shores? To those blue hills? Love.” The bridge is love. I realize that sounds very Kumbaya, and I don’t mean to suggest that Malick is directly alluding to that scene from The Thin Red Line, but spiritually those moments are united, and I suspect you’d agree with me that this is one of those times when a shot of a bridge is anything but “just a bridge.” Put together with Jack’s oceanfront rapture, the bridge suggests that we can connect to our past, if only we go looking for it.

The Tree of Life

EH: Yes, it’s a bridge to the past, not a bridge to the future. Malick is conceptually able to leap back to the very beginning of the universe and show the irresistible progress of time, but the film ends in a loop between the present day and the idea of heaven as embodied by a return to the past, to memories of one’s childhood. Malick has a very ambivalent attitude about progress, of course, as evidenced especially in The New World, where progress can evoke awe at mankind’s remarkable feats, but also horror at the destructiveness and waste produced by any great leap forward. That’s why The Tree of Life hurtles through the entire history of the world—quite literally starting with nothing, then single cells tentatively fusing, then the dinosaurs and their extinction—only to come to an abrupt halt with one family’s failure to move forward.

The rush of history can’t be stopped, Malick suggests, but on the individual level his characters fiercely resist that relentless momentum, desperately wishing to return to simpler times rather than move forward. There’s such tension between the conservative and the radical in Malick’s work. On the one hand, The Tree of Life is his most formally adventurous film yet, fully embracing the avant-garde in terms of editing and imagery. Parts of the creation sequence recall the abstract work of Stan Brakhage and Jordan Belson, and Malick apparently samples a brief snippet from an abstract short by the experimental filmmaker Scott Nyerges. In the celebration of color and light forms, parts of the sequence particularly evoke Brakhage’s The Text of Light, and not just because of the resonances in the titles: Brakhage’s adoring tribute to light filtering through ashtrays finds a spiritual successor not only during the most abstract moments here, but also in Malick’s obvious love for the natural world, his appreciation of light beams cutting through dense treetops or streaming in through filmy curtains. The sensuality of avant-garde work like Brakhage’s, often achieved through rapid cutting and abstraction, is echoed in Malick’s much more studied, less abstract approach to the world.

For all the radicalism of Malick’s vision, though, the underlying dynamics are, if not quite regressive, then at least overly focused on the past. Implicit in Malick’s vision is the impossibility of truly halting the flow of progress, and the 1950s childhood section of the film also suggests that the past is much more complicated than the idyllic, sanitized images of it that proliferate in popular culture. But for all the darkness and conflict that weave through the O’Brien family’s domestic situation, that section of the film is nevertheless inscribed with a very potent desire to escape the alienation of the present and immerse oneself in that lively, sensually stimulating milieu. This desire is carried over into the problematic coda, in which Malick seems to visualize David Byrne’s vision of heaven as “a place where nothing ever happens,” except that Malick finds that prospect not numbing but sublime.

The Tree of Life

JB: The only danger with that reading is that it places an awful lot of emphasis on the 1950s and on the ‘nothingness’ of the beach footage. It could be that the coda is simply a depiction of a man rediscovering his grace, which just happens to reunite him with his childhood, which just happens to have occurred in the 1950s; meanwhile, Malick might not be intent on portraying heaven so much as creating a space where the living Jack can be reunited with his deceased brother. Point being, for all the vastness of The Tree of Life, in the end it’s an incredibly small and personal story—one man’s journey into his past in search of, what? Happiness? Peace? Grace? His dead brother? The meaning of life? All of the above? What Malick seems to find sublime is a contented spirit. He found a slice of heaven in Kit and Holly’s forest hideaway in Badlands, in the farmland of Days of Heaven, near the war zone of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, in untamed Virginia and manicured England of the 17th Century in The New World and now in Waco, Texas, circa 1950-something in The Tree of Life. Yes, this is all in our past, but if Malick were to set a film in 2011 or 3047, I suspect he would find heaven there, too, elusive and fleeting though it always is in his films.

The more I think about Malick’s filmography, the less I see his films as fixated on or reverential about the past. Instead I see a filmmaker who is determined to consume and preserve those fleeting bits of heaven or grace. Malick is Kit or Jack’s younger brother burying mementos in the ground. He’s Holly gazing into the stereopticon. He’s Witt finding a “spark” amidst war. One of the most crushing moments in The Tree of Life, and the place where I wish Malick had ended the picture, is that shot of the O’Briens driving away from their home, each of them looking back longingly at a structure that for them is overflowing with memories. Does Malick romanticize the past? Sure. But he gets there by romanticizing it as it happens, by seeing the beauty that so many of us miss.

The Tree of Life

EH: I should emphasize, as we wrap this up, that one of the things I like best about The Tree of Life is how many contradictions it embodies. As I’ve said, it can be seen as both conservative and radical, simultaneously obsessed with progress and with the past, and it is open to multiple readings that overlap even as they contradict one another. Its ultimate meaning is up-in-the-air, though my visceral dislike for the closing scenes unfortunately does color my perceptions of some of Malick’s ideas, making me more suspicious of the new agey currents that drift through the film, mostly peripheral until those final scenes on the beach. The ending can be read in multiple ways, I think you’re right about that, but more because it’s vague and hackneyed than because there’s any productive ambiguity in it.

Thankfully, this disappointing conclusion notwithstanding, The Tree of Life is a rich and complex film with densely interwoven thematic layers and countless visual delights. Like you, I love that point-of-view shot from the back of the O’Briens’ car as it pulls away from their home for the last time, and like you I wish the film had ended there. That shot encompasses so much that is great about Malick’s sensibility: bittersweet nostalgia coupled with a wise outlook on the inevitability of loss and change, the sensually drifting quality of the imagery, the romanticism that’s built on a strong foundation of concrete detail. That moment is earned. The entire childhood sequence of the film builds to that moment, so its romanticism and nostalgic yearning are grounded in a very tangible reality. Most importantly, it captures a child’s helplessness and lack of agency, the sense that one is skating through life, borne along by the decisions of others. Jack, looking back to his own past, is unable to make it play out any differently; he can only observe, carried along with the flow of life towards that unavoidable moment when everything finally collapses.

Not every moment in The Tree of Life is so dense or so perfectly realized, but there’s no doubt that this often thrilling, sometimes frustrating film is one of Malick’s finest achievements yet. As you said at the beginning of this conversation, it is the daring work of an artist who is not holding back a thing, and that accounts for both its dazzling moments of emotional catharsis and its baffling moments of indulgence.

The Tree of Life

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.

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