Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life never stops moving forward. It begins with a Bible quote and ends with a transcendental meeting of found souls on a beach, and it has the structure of a child’s memories; it gathers in fragments, dreams, fancies, associations, glances, whispers, impressions. Most of it takes place in a small Texas town in the 1950s, and at a certain point, we see a truck that says “Waco, Texas,” which is Malick’s own hometown. We have no way of knowing just how personal this clearly personal film is, but there can be no question from what’s on screen that Malick is working from his own most intimate knowledge of what childhood felt like. Every short shot preserves a sense of mystery, of expectancy, so that we’re likely to feel like a character in a Virginia Woolf novel crying out, “Wait! Stop!”
In its first sections, The Tree of Life seems to be a film at least partly about architecture. Malick glides his camera forward into and sideways along the neat fifties interiors of the O’Brien house, which is presided over by an authoritarian Father (Brad Pitt) and a dreamy Mother (Jessica Chastain) and blessed with three rambunctious sons. The house always seems bigger and more spacious than it possibly could be (a child’s point of view) and the stark functionality of the fifties furniture design leads directly, visually and even emotionally, to the modern coldness of the skyscrapers we begin to see in Houston, Texas, where the grown-up Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) makes his living as an architect. We see Jack stranded in Houston offices, remembering the past, clutching at some of the shrubbery trapped in the foyers and courtyards of glass office buildings; we’re all so used to seeing Penn acting up a storm on screen that it comes as a relief to view him here as a figure in a landscape in a black Armani suit, silent most of the time, as abstracted and reactive as Monica Vitti in an Antonioni film.
In these first scenes, I was very much taken with the Antonioni-like architectural contrasts between 1950s Waco and (1990s?) Houston; the visual connections between objects starts to build a kind of giddy excitement that gets broken off, for quite a while, as Malick shows us the creation of the cosmos. I’m not sure how long this cosmos creation sequence lasts, but it’s the kind of thing that bespeaks a blissful kind of assurance. John Barrymore once said, “When Hamlet walks across the stage, you should hear his balls clank!” and I heard Malick’s balls clank, and then some, as his cosmos kept on expanding, some of it scored to shiveringly appropriate classical music. It’s at this point in The Tree of Life that you decide whether you’re going to take this trip or not. For me, I was tickled that a filmmaker had the nerve to call a halt to a rhythmically fleet but primal, even conventional family story to plunge a movie audience into often-near-silent space for a good long stretch of time.
We see a few dinosaurs, finally, one large one on a beach and another smaller one in the forest. A large dinosaur comes up to a smaller one and smashes its leg down onto the smaller one’s head; at first, it seems like a confrontation between predator and prey, but the bigger dinosaur just stares with almost tender curiosity down at the smaller one and then lets him go. This scene is echoed later when the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is big-brother-bullying R.L. (Laramie Eppler), who says, “I trust you” to his older brother only to have that trust betrayed. It’s not as simple as that sounds, though, for nothing is really simple in The Tree of Life; after R.L. says, “I trust you,” he flashes Jack a pitiful look that all but screams, “Betray my trust!” It’s hard to know how much of this is planned and how much of this is instinctive, but it seems like Malick is just bringing us these jewels of behavior and stringing them together for us to make sense of. Pitt’s Father is a bit of a tyrant, but not extraordinarily so. He’s a natural leader and authority figure, but also a disappointed person, and Malick lets us see how his kingly demeanor naturally breeds childlike rage and rebellion in Jack, so that his sympathy inevitably runs to his saintly, beautiful, un-expectant Mother, the exquisite redheaded Chastain.
So much of this movie takes place on the O’Briens’ spacious front lawn; the camera is set at low, childlike angles, and you can hear every evocative crunch of the grass, every twig being broken as it gets stepped on. Chastain keeps washing her feet with the lawn hose, and at one point Jack takes a sip from the hose; this scene has a sensual, Oedipal charge. At one point in Jack’s memory, Chastain’s Mother actually starts to fly (or levitate) near a large bush, and this flight seems as natural and wondrously suggestive as the Father’s Old Testament rage. If you talk back to your father at the dinner table here, you get thrown in a closet, and that’s only, it seems, as it should be. Never once is the O’Brien home seen as some kind of case history of an abusive father and his family; we all had our fill of movies like that in the ’80s and ’90s. This Father and Mother are actual, specific people, but mainly they function as archetypes.
This is very much a Freudian movie, which also places it squarely in the mindset of the 1950s, and Jack certainly wants to kill this Father, at least metaphorically, to be with this Mother that he remembers flying but also sees at one point as a fairy princess in a glass coffin, waiting for a kiss from a Prince. This is a clear enough image of desire, but not everything is as clear-cut in The Tree of Life. At one point, Jack steals a white nightgown, tries to hide it and then throws it into a river so it can float away, Ophelia-like; it all happens quickly, for everything happens quickly in this movie. As this was happening, I went right from thinking, “Why is he doing that?” to “I know why he’s doing that,” but I couldn’t put that knowledge into words. It’s too emotional, too much an image and an instinct for words.
When Jack comes home from the river, Malick holds on a shot of the Mother with her arms folded; she knows or senses what Jack did, and she’s angry, but this is a woman who cannot yell at her children, so Malick just leaves her suspended there, feeling violated, but helpless to resist. She’s just as helpless in the kitchen when she finally strikes out physically at her husband; he holds her in a vice until she calms down. In that moment, Pitt gives you the sense that the Father recognizes how unfair it is that he can win an argument with his superior physical strength, but he also lets you see that part of him is happy to use his advantage. That’s evolution, and that’s the dynamic between the weaker and the stronger, the big brothers and the little brothers, the small dinosaur and the big dinosaur. The main thing in these power dynamics, Malick makes clear, is that the bigger animals show some mercy and tenderness to the smaller ones. Not total mercy or acquiescence; that would be impossible, and even counterproductive.
As the O’Brien family listens to a sermon in church, we hear that trouble might find us no matter how stealthily we hide from it; that’s life, and that’s luck. And some people have bad luck, something that Father and Mother O’Brien try to shield from their children. A man has a seizure on their lawn, but he’s seen only from a distance, and Jack is spirited away into the house. The boys see a drunk careening down the street and prankishly imitate him, but then they see another man right afterwards whose legs are bowed-in so that he has to limp, and Malick shows us Jack’s guilty, confused shiver of recognition, all at once. At one point, we see what looks like Father and Mother O’Brien in another argument in their house, but when Jack peers closer, he sees that this is a different family, not his own yet exactly like his own, and this brings about an even deeper pang of recognition. When I was a kid, my Mother took me to eat lunch at Burger King, and I saw a boy who looked exactly like me. He was around my age, had the same curly hair and facial structure as me, the same eyes, the same nose, the same everything. But this boy who looked exactly like me was mentally handicapped. This boy who looked exactly like me couldn’t even feed himself. Even just thinking about this boy who looked exactly like me makes me start breathing heavily—I was panicked when I saw him then, and I’m still panicked thinking about him now. This panic is partly what The Tree of Life is about.
The family material in The Tree of Life has always been the province of literature because in a novel you can show people as children and then as elderly, within one paragraph, if you want to. In film, you can’t really do that convincingly, and so Malick decides to keep the Mother forever young, which is appropriate to the story he’s telling. As the movie reaches for its conclusion, Malick brings us out of the suburban home and the skyscrapers of Houston and into the natural world, where a wave on the beach can be an explosion in space, and where a Father and a Mother might meet with their children and their neighbors and walk together, dazed, into the light. We’ll all be walking dazed into that light eventually, and what The Tree of Life is ultimately saying, I think, is that we need to look around as we stumble and try to help others along. When I tried to go to sleep after seeing Malick’s lyric fifth feature, I suddenly remembered a popular song from the early ’60s that contained this movie’s title: “Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum.” That song is called “The Best Is Yet To Come,” and Malick’s movie gives me hope that that might be the case.
Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and the L Magazine, among other publications. His first book, on Barbara Stanwyck, will be published in February 2012.