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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.