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In the Beginning: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

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In the Beginning: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Fox Searchlight Pictures

For a filmmaker so consumed with the inexorable progression of time, history, and life, the way in which we’re all complex byproducts of the past and harbingers of the future, it’s fitting that The Tree of Life finds Terrence Malick finally returning to the beginning, travelling back, back, back to the dawn of everything, even as he grapples with his own complicated childhood memories and the bewildering present. Though that eon-spanning journey doesn’t occur from the outset, its relatively early appearance colors the entirety of this bold, mystifying, hypnotic film, laying bare the director’s desire to comingle the ancient, recent, and now for a lushly poetic inquiry—at once more personal and specific than his prior work, and yet also more universal and oblique—into man’s rapport with his environment, his place in the galaxy, his heart’s simultaneous capacity for kindness and cruelty, and his contradictory relationship to God. It’s the last of these that repeatedly takes center stage during the course of Malick’s fifth magnum opus, as a title-card quote from the Book of Job intriguingly open this metaphysical investigation into suffering and forgiveness—a bibilical reference to set the stage for a drama gripped by the question of why a father, and our heavenly Father, might hurt the very ones he claims to love.

The cosmic is the microcosmic in The Tree of Life, as Malick conflates the ethereal and the everyday into a spellbinding panorama. After a prologue of wispy light morphing and glowing in the eternal darkness—life born, as it were—an introduction focuses on 1950s suburban couple the O’Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receiving devastating news about the death of one of their three sons. In an instant, the film segues to the present to find their oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), alienated from his wife and spatially trapped by glistening skyscrapers that reflect the clouds above, still shaken to the core by this long-ago tragedy. And then, as if sparked by adult Jack’s thoughts of this bygone calamity, Malick leaps backward across the ages; a bloom of light and we’re suddenly witnessing the origins of the universe, a celestial explosion of yellow-black fireballs, blasts of virginal starlight creeping over the surface of newborn planets, and streaking, tumbling meteors crashing into foreign worlds’ land masses and oceans. Marrying 2001: A Space Odyssey with The Fountain, and set to soaring opera that rises and falls with majestic import, it’s a sublime, hallucinatory vision (co-created by Kubrick collaborator Douglas Trumbull) of cataclysmic birth, and of matter’s inherent creative/destructive duality.

Segueing from the intergalactic to the molecular and the biological, the sequence eventually wends its way to CG dinosaurs as they roam the Earth’s verdant forests, and—in a tellingly beguiling scene that will resonate later—an adult dinosaur placing its foot on the head of a child, its purpose for this act (to assert dominance? To protect?) left mystifyingly unknown. The continuum of life in all its violent, gorgeous, random glory has always been Malick’s guiding preoccupation, and as a result, there’s no surprise in the director’s juxtaposition of ancient outer-space sights with that of Mrs. O’Brien’s pregnant belly, and of her delivering her first son, an act that’s symbolized with a fleeting glimpse—akin to that of the dinosaurs emerging from the ocean—of children swimming out of a submerged house and to the surface. The notion of existence’s endless forward march takes form in The Tree of Life via flowing, rippling, cascading visuals: river streams and crashing waterfalls, Big Bang energy strands rolling through the darkness in waves, and planetary collisions producing concentric ripples. That Malick also employs a 40-year-old shot of an eclipse merely furthers the omnipresent impression of ceaseless progress.

Throughout, time spirals outward from its center, a motif that infiltrates innumerable moments, never more poignantly than when the O’Brien’s toddler son Jack traces his finger around an oval plate while sitting at a sunlight-dappled dining-room table with his mother. As with trees and their extending-upward branches, the circles are everywhere—the sun, the stars, kids spinning hand-in-hand, the parents’ alternately loving and callous eyes—and express a sense of cohesion that seeps into every corner of the film, positing its characters’ euphoria and grief as eternal elements of life, dating as far back as the mind can imagine and destined to be felt again after these individuals are gone. Floating tangentially in whatever direction it sees fit, and revisiting key images, phrases, and designs (in the church, a coiling stained-glass ceiling; in the desert, a rocky terrain split between black and white), The Tree of Life proves an exhilarating sensory feast of sights and sounds, one devoid of all but the most spartan dialogue and, splintered into snapshots tethered by an unstable and circular chronology, divorced from a linear narrative.

Nonetheless, the story eventually segues from the large-scale to the small-scale, settling its gaze on the pre-tragedy O’Briens in ’50s Waco, Texas and, specifically, on adolescent Jack (Hunter McCracken), a boy divided—in a recurring dynamic for the film, and Malick’s canon—between cold nature (his father) and loving grace (his mother). Malick depicts this struggle, and the clan’s rocky domestic reality, with a dreamy naturalism that extends to Pitt and Chastain’s performances, which teeter between evocative artlessness and iconographic larger-than-lifeness. If there’s an unevenness to Malick’s latest, it’s here, in the conception of Jack’s parents, given that while the director bestows Pitt’s God-like paterfamilias with the same complexity he grants nature (in which violence and gentleness coexist in irreconcilable tension), he conceives of Chastain’s mommy as merely an angelic force of benevolence, thereby slightly lopsiding his material. Still, that disparity proves minor, given that it’s couched amid a wide-ranging, detail-oriented (though never fetishistic) portrait of post-WWII life. Cut with a lyrical attention to mood, to tangible sensations, and to aesthetic/thematic parallels, the film is imbued with both urgency and pensiveness, allowing it to play like a swirling, plummeting, kaleidoscopic reverie of lucid memories.

While this dominant Texas section is The Tree of Life’s most traditional passage, Malick steadfastly works in an elliptical, Joyce-by-way-of-Faulkner manner, dispensing with conventional narrative dictates to engage in his trademark free-flowing poeticism—contrapuntal narration from various sources, tangential cutaways to the surrounding environment and its creatures, and an inherently rhythmic synthesis of imagery (shot, often in rapturous handheld, by The New World’s Emmanuel Lubezki) and audio (including Alexandre Desplat’s hauntingly soaring score). Dialogue pops in now and again, but Malick, frequently steeping his action in long stretches of silence and ambient sounds, isn’t after straightforward storytelling any more than he’s after objective “realism.” The Tree of Life’s ’50s-set sequences have a potency that suggests they’re shards of recollections derived from Malick’s own childhood, from the camaraderie and contentiousness of Jack and his brothers as they run and fight in the yard, to close-ups of Jack’s laughing classmates, the sudden volatility and threats from his father after dinnertime grace, the Oedipal negligee-theft perpetrated by a shamed Jack, and the lingering sorrow over his brother’s eventual death—which carries echoes of Malick’s own brother’s passing.

Never before has a Malick film felt as pressingly personal, and thus it’s difficult not to view Penn’s middle-aged Jack as the director’s proxy. Lost in soul-crushing metropolitan structures, or while wandering a signifier-laden spirit-world desert, Jack is an exile trying (as with so any Malick protagonists) to reconnect with an idealized innocent-Edenic past, as well as to wrestle with the legacy of his father, in the hopes of attaining salvation and peace. With plotting that’s slippery and narration that only implies a fraction of the issues with which it’s concerned, The Tree of Life confronts its Big Questions with a forthrightness and earnestness that’s wedded to generous ambiguity. A religious rumination on humanity’s light/dark warring heart and the extent of God’s hand in our fates, the film cannot take its eyes off the heavens; the camera tilts toward the sky (shades of The Tree of Life), toward lights (aerial and Earthbound), and toward hands opening to the sun in supplication, all visuals entwined with hushed narration that resonates like a confessional prayer. Yet that from-the-ground-up perspective also serves as a piercing reflection of Jack’s childhood POV, which soon comes to be colored, in increasingly confused and explosive ways, by the influence of his domineering father, a crew-cutted capitalist engineer driven to torment his family by ego, ambition, and authoritarian anger born from professional failure.

If the details of Jack’s attempts to achieve a stable accord with his father (and himself) don’t neatly converge, and if the action’s chronology doesn’t quite gel, it’s because Malick treats his material not as literal, but as emotional fact. Staged primarily in the green outdoors or within abodes illuminated with Vermeer-ish natural light, Jack’s coming-of-age odyssey toward maturation and reconciliation is cast in stream-of-consciousness, image-collage terms, with Malick crafting a mélange of conflicts between father and son, man and beast (as when Jack straps a frog to a rocket), and the heart’s competing urges for good and evil. Consequently, the film soon comes to resemble a formal and thematic apotheosis of sorts for the director, a search for communion and absolution that—ending, with human and divine clemency, in a figurative water’s-edge “heaven” identical to where dino life first sprang out of the primordial ooze—feels like both an end and a beginning.