The Tree of Life: Memory Epic

We survive by what little Fourth of July wits we’ve stashed away. But there are times when we’re all autumn people.

-Ray Bradbury

The boy whose spirit is buried under a tree in the backyard of his childhood home confronts growing up by asking, “How do I get back where they are?” He knows implicitly that belief isn’t just a feeling but a place, that being in the universe in the same place as the ones you love is more than just living in the same house. The Tree of Life is about nothing more than it’s about this sense of being there; it’s looking for secrets of the human spirit in a specific time and place, as though it might wait for us until we find it again, like the mementos you secretly leave in the houses you move out of to prove to the universe that you were there. Terrence Malick, a private man by Hollywood standards, makes a story that’s hard to tell in an industry whose audience expects a story to move itself, rather than them. The people in the Cannes audience who booed (equal to the ones who cheered) probably thought that of all the things The Tree of Life should be to them, it was so personal to Malick that they struggled to feel included in the faith. It was like being pushed off the communion table. This movie really does seem personal to him, and how much you like it may rely on how much you feel included. But personally, I find that its greatest value is in how much it meant to someone; seeing him realize it is a pleasure of cinematic self-obsession that’s rarely realized on this scale. If Malick had to leave the house now, I think this is the movie he would leave under the tree.

Like the most contemplative films ever made, what The Tree of Life is “about” has no measurable response. How it goes about it is putting a 1950s family’s struggle against themselves and their roles in the universe against the universe itself. After experiencing their grief over the loss of one of their three boys in scenes of silent torment, scenes as a child would see them (mom silently screaming from behind windows, reading a letter, dad wordlessly breaking down in his eyes on a phone), Malick takes us back to the beginning of time. We see the elements entangle, the space and sky and fire coming together out of nothing; we see a universe made of light and stone, sweeping gazes of the sea, cells kissing each other in the ocean, life crawling out onto the sand. We see gulfs of time and crustaceans and volcanoes and dinosaurs. I believe that in this incredibly spiritual film, Malick hopes to dissuade a fundamentalist interpretation, which suggests that according to the Bible, the earth isn’t old enough to have all this history – he is as sure of the molten universe, the expanses of time and rock and flesh, as Arthur C. Clarke was when he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie most likely to be compared to The Tree of Life.

In scope and slowness, in the method of making the universe out of silent fires and galactic color, the comparison is warranted (Malick even hired Douglas Trumbull out of retirement to come back and do the practical effects he did on 2001 in The Tree of Life; its nebulas are liquid on glass plates, spin dishes, dyes, flares and fluid dynamics). But Kubrick and Malick actually made opposite films: this is really the total antithesis of 2001. It’s evident in what they choose as their starting point. Kubrick starts at “the dawn of man” because his entire universe is concerned with the intellect: 2001 is about staring down the furthest reaches of existence in order to discover ourselves in it. Being concerned with the spirit instead, Malick has to start earlier; he has to establish a universe without mankind. To him, the human experience is not a beginning or an end to the universe (it was both for Kubrick), but just a stopping point, where people lived and died and maybe believed in something while they did. His beforelife wraps around the big bang and his afterlife accompanies the heat death of the universe, the earth swallowed by a dying sun. He uses an unknown amount of his own life to be the story between those ends. He hopes it might mean as much to us as it does to him.

Knowing this, the most amazing thing about The Tree of Life is that there’s so little ego in it. The story of growing up in 1950s Texas (where Malick grew up) isn’t vengeful; it’s not full of blame. The boy doesn’t even do anything that would warrant regret, exactly. The memories are about the questions we ask ourselves of where we’ve been, and how we get back to that place in our heart. It’s about naivete, not on the level of a universe, but on the level of a boy’s impression of himself. The film wisely doesn’t jump between images of the cosmic and images of the everyday, as Interstellar did, as though the things we do are cosmically significant. After introducing us to our universe, The Tree of Life puts us down in it. It subjects us to our corner of it. It doesn’t think we’re that important, but it knows that we secretly hope that we’re important to someone.

The experiences of the boy, Jack (played as a child by Hunter McCracken and in flash forwards as a silent architect with sunken eyes by Sean Penn), are more experiences than literal truths. Emmanuel Lubezki outdoes himself here, dollying into and out of blackouts; he frames Penn on a sunlit shore of what must be the afterlife; we see how people react to each other there, even as we see them leave their childhood home and go out into the world. His face hides memories. His eyes reconcile with a father that he remembers being younger than he is now. These are meditative, personal images, which the movie sometimes accidentally turns into sermons. The ego that The Tree of Life occasionally shares with Interstellar intrudes on the experience, as the mother character (played by Jessica Chastain) says over these images, “The only way to be happy is to love” (remember Anne Hathaway’s speech on cosmic love?). I remember going to church every Sunday and I remember how much I disliked prayer: even as a kid, I could never accept the idea of someone else speaking to the universe for me. Only the “moment of silence” ever had any effect on me, and though I realize that many people already struggle with knowing what to take from The Tree of Life, I think the intention here called for even more of those silent moments. I think not quite knowing what to take is the most important message it could have, and telling us cheapens the experience.

Let me put it this way: images of universal significance compare wonderfully with human experiences that emphasize the mundane truths of our little days together, but clash like two stubborn planets when compared instead to people speaking sermons of truths that presume to tell you what all of it means. Ego makes the project seem foolhardy. It happens a lot in movies, and it sometimes happens in this one.

But that’s not an ongoing problem with The Tree of Life; it just occasionally makes it seem like the worst thing it could seem, which is trite. The actual experiences of the people in the movie do not share that feeling, and they’re what grows this movie in your mind into a memory of a time in your life, more than of a movie. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it.

The story of The Tree of Life tastes like a Ray Bradbury summer; he used to describe it as a feeling you could pour in a glass. Malick knows and probably remembers things that I’ve only read about: tin glasses, neighborhood diners, model rockets, mint juleps. He doesn’t have Stephen King’s cynicism about the period (Malick doesn’t deal with well-known problems of the era like abuse and racism, things that a child probably wouldn’t notice) and he also doesn’t think of it as a paradise. To him, it’s just a time that was, a place his spirit used to be.

This part uses all of its actors well but none so well as Brad Pitt – this role becomes a reckoning of the Pitt character that he’s played in everything. Every time we’ve thought of him as an everyman, we were thinking of this man, Mr. O’Brien, who has no other name in the film besides Father (never “dad”). There’s even more Bradbury childhood in that: I remember him talking about first names once, and how the names of our father and mother remain foreign to us. That’s what other people call them. The “Mr.” and “Mrs.” emphasize their boundness in an era that put up with itself through thick and thin; the script sets the children apart from the parents by naming them what other children call them, rather than what their own children do, or what they would call each other. The choice contains Malick’s impression of the memory of his parents, which is of the parents of other children; that Mr. and Mrs. should remind us that we are no longer the children who used to hear people call our parents that. This tiny choice to use the salutations is a form of growing up: The Tree of Life is fractal this way, like leaf veins mimicking tree branches. Every tiny choice is an image of the whole. A salutation is a blueprint to its whole universe.

We see Mr. O’Brien torture Jack with lessons, being alternately proud and ashamed of him, creating punishments designed to emphasize wrongdoing (slamming a door earns fifty door closing repetitions in silence). Malick understands this man without hating him, as Jack learns to do. In the absence of Malick openly negating sympathy for Mr. O’Brien (he could have included a scene of wife abuse or beating), understanding his character falls entirely on Pitt. He plays him as a man who acts harshly because he believes in a harsh world; we can see that all his anger is rooted in love. We can see that he is mean in the way he was taught to be mean, and we see his inability to control his life (he dreamed of being a musician and became a power plant worker) manifest as a desire to control his family. Fathers not understanding their sons, forgetting that they used to be just like them, and sons dealing with being as old as their fathers, hating them, and doing only what they hate (as Jack says): that’s a cycle of being a boy in the universe. Mr. O’Brien tells his son repeatedly to “Hit me,” to make him tougher. It’s impossible not to see Tyler Durden saying the same thing, and for about the same reason. Men teach each other to be men and make their sons hate them because of love. That’s something Malick understands enough to not blame them for it.

Can you see why I have a problem with Mrs. O’Brien saying, “The only way to be happy is to love?” There are so many kinds of love in The Tree of Life that the statement is either contradictory, or too complicated to be meaningful in that moment. The experiences of the movie far outweigh the messages.

And what of Mrs. O’Brien? Chastain, who is always a sort of ghost in her roles, moving through a universe she doesn’t feel entirely a part of, plays the wife and mother as a boy would have known her. She’s perfect for this role (compare it to her attempts at being Amy Adams in Interstellar). As much as Jack fears his father’s hand, he’s allured by his mother’s feet: Malick secretly places a young boy’s confusing desires within viewing distance of many of the shots in The Tree of Life. When Mrs. O’Brien takes her husband’s onslaught and swallows it, we don’t see someone weak (she knows who her husband is, and that what he does to her is most of all a result of what he expects of himself) but someone that a young son might confuse as being weak. Jack both wants to save her and shame her, wishing his father was dead and knowing how much he’s just like him. When she washes her feet in the sprinklers, the character needed to be played by Mother Mary, someone who could be beautiful and not seductive, whom we would see as sexy from the lens of a person who thinks of sex as something other people do, or must have done, a desire with no act. Even a young boy who doesn’t understand or believe in God goes to church being handed these sacred artifacts: a commanding father, a blameless mother, an omnipotent universe. Dealing with those archetypes in the face of puberty is something Malick does for us through visuals. Chastain is their perfect vessel.

But there’s something about The Tree of Life that sets it in another age of filmmaking from what the above description might make you think. It’s naturalistic but it’s not obsessed with being “real.” This means that Lubezki and Malick are in an extended love affair with nature and even see humans in its design: from below, a canyon’s walls come together in an illusion of a seated figure; Da Vinci cloth studies appear in nebulas in this movie; there are women throwing their hair back in the stars. But despite imagery of nature, they seem to agree to reject the standards of the neo-real movies, which involve using shocking reality to communicate life, emphasizing mundanity and de-emphasizing traditional acting. Not doing this is a flaw with many visualizations of the 1950s that I’ve seen, which hope to make it real by making it dirty (by making children curse in it, for instance). Malick wants us to remember not the time but what the time feels like to him now; he wants us to remember his memory. We see Jack deal with his sexual urges without seeing him masturbate; we see him peeking into windows, and being wracked with guilt over desires he doesn’t understand. Malick never once tries to make us believe that this is really happening, or that people saying “fuck” will somehow make it more meaningful, just that it did happen to someone and this is their view of that moment. The Tree of Life is film impressionism.

When asked to justify the Cannes Jury’s choice to select The Tree of Life as Palmes d’Or, then jury head Robert De Niro said that it, “seemed to fit the prize.” He’s saying that it’s easy to see that Malick’s work is amazing, but that it’s hard to know what exactly to do with it. Those who are religious are probably most likely to be swept up by it – Alexandre Desplat’s music sounds constantly like a benediction – the ending track particularly sounds like a recomposition of “Ave Maria” – and it goes to great lengths to affirm their own view of the universe, that men and women are different, that tolerating each other is possible through God, that grace is a better path than instinct. But I think Malick is saying more than that. The Tree of Life may be about those things, even to a point of literalness that dissuades me from believing in every line of its sermon, but it’s even more about a feeling. It’s a film version of memory itself, and knows enough to take the despair out of it.

To assemble images into such a pure reflection required Malick to put himself in the work, and reading his biography I know he’s thinking about his home, about the younger brother who killed himself over despair in his music career, over his struggle to pattern his art after his own view of the world. The Tree of Life allows him to do just that, and it’s more than most of us get. It’s not just a portrait, which always requires more vanity, vanity even in the absence of beauty (have you noticed that the purposefully ugly self-portraits are often made by the most confident artists?). It’s more than that: it’s what he hopes to leave behind so that the next people who live here will wonder who he was. Perhaps you remember that it was the dead brother who buried the little things under the tree, not Jack. Jack remembers it because people leaving their spirits behind for other people to find is how we all remember each other; it becomes his spirit beneath that tree because it’s a brother that he’s really leaving behind when he finally grows up. I don’t even know what’s under the tree, exactly. Whatever it is, I bet he hopes to save it till autumn.


Image is a screenshot from the film: ©River Road Entertainment/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Cast & Crew

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

Mr. O'Brien Brad Pitt
Mrs. O'Brien Jessica Chastain
Jack O'Brien Sean Penn/Hunter McCracken/Finnegan Williams/Michael Koeth
R. L. O'Brien Laramie Eppler/John Howell
Steve O'Brien Tye Sheridan

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