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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.