“The Tree of Life” is Director/Writer Terrence Malick’s fifth film and recently won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is playing in large cities. Fox Searchlight, as “Hollywood Reporter” Todd McCarthy has noted, “will have its work cut out for it in luring a wider public.” McCarthy called “The Tree of Life” “A unique film that will split opinions every which way, which Fox Searchlight can only hope will oblige people to see it for themselves.” Or not, more than likely, since I had to drive 7 hours to find it playing anywhere.
Terrence Malick was born in Ottawa, Illinois, and the town depicted in the film seems like a typical Midwestern town. Malick was born in 1943, was a philosophy major at Harvard and taught philosophy at MIT. He was Phi Beta Kappa and taught in France from 1979 to 1994, which may help explain whey he only has a few films to his credit, those being “Badlands” (1973) which gave us a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in a loose retelling of the Charles Starkweather Midwestern murder spree; “Days of Heaven,” (1978) which gave us Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard in a tale of western intrigue and violence; “The Thin Red Line” (1998), which gave us James Cavaziel, Sean Penn and Nick Nolte in a retelling of James Jones’ autobiographical novel about the World War II battle of Guadalcanal; and, last (and certainly least), “The New World” (2005) with Colin Farrell as Captain James Smith in a retelling of the Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) story.
I didn’t study at Harvard and I’m guessing that the majority of the audiences weren’t philosophy majors there, either, so I happily admit to being in over my head, even though I have the equivalent of a doctorate in Literature. The average audience probably didn’t spend much time reading Kirkegaard, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, as Malick did when a Rhodes scholar.
Most of us will be going to the movie to see if Malick has, once again, fashioned a truly compelling story with outstanding visual effects, as he did in three of his films. The problem is, Malick doesn’t always reach his goal of “compelling story” although they are always cinematically impeccable. This film reminded me of “Synecdoche, New York,” which Roger Ebert thinks is the best film of the past 10 years, but which I found an admirable whiff, (much like when your Little League son swings as hard as he can to hit a homer and totally misses the ball.) Go figure. Different strokes for different folks.
This time out with Malick, we are left to grapple with the story and figure it out ourselves (and me without my Kirkegaard reference work!), as Malick wrestles with Life, Death, Birth and Infinity [as the beginning of the old “Ben Casey” TV series used to put it.] Normally, one wouldn’t give the plot away, but when the plot is so sparse, it’s really not giving much away. It’s kind of a “do-it-yourself” plot. To quote Roger Ebert, “What’s uncanny is that Malick creates the O’Brien parents and their three boys without an obvious plot.” (June 2 review by Roger Ebert).
“Uncanny” is not the word the average movie-goer will use after plunking down their $10 (and up) to see “The Tree of Life,” if, in fact, they do attend. One anonymous IMDB reviewer wrote, rather harshly, “I can’t believe I wasted 2 and ½ hours (183 minutes) on this movie.”
It’s a gorgeous film, if you don’t mind a movie with an extremely rudimentary plot that is mostly “fill in the blanks” and which is described as “metaphysical, impressionistic and evanescent.” The dialogue is sparse. The acting, especially from the parents (Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien) played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, is fine, although having the mother float in the air at one point blurs the distinction between “real” and “fantasy” as does the fairy tale glass coffin-for-Mom scene in the woods, which could be considered a minus.
The film opens with a Biblical quotation (Job 38.4.7): “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” From there, we hear single words that are barely spoken, but whispered mysteriously: “Brother. Mother.” The philosophical principle is posed that we have to choose which one of these we’ll follow in life: Grace, which doesn’t try to please itself and accepts insults and injuries (Read: religion) and Nature, which only wants to please itself, wants others to please it, too and finds reason to be unhappy when love is shining through all things. (Hedonism, perhaps ?).
You posited a mouthful, Terrence! (Couldn’t we be a little of each?)
Mom (Jessica Chastain) gets a letter, is instantly upset and calls Brad, who becomes equally upset. One of their 3 sons, apparently the middle son most like Brad in his artistic temperament and his looks, Steve, has died. (We never know exactly how). That brings on the platitudes at the funeral: “He’s in God’s hands now.” (Mrs. O’Brien responds, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?”)
Watching these clichés being spouted, (“Be strong. You have your memories. The pain will pass in time. Life goes on. Nothing stays the same. You’ve still got the other 2 boys. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”) I was reminded of the film “Rabbit Hole” in which Nicole Kidman’s young son was also killed when he chased his dog into the street and was hit by a car driven by a teen-ager. During group therapy, the grieving mother is none too receptive to the concept of “God needing an angel” and asked, why God didn’t just MAKE another (expletive deleted) angel. (“After all, He’s God, isn’t He?”)
Certain “chapters” or “dividers” are used in the film, almost as within a book, and these “chapter dividers” are evanescent amorphous shots of glowing light (the legendary Douglas Trumbull was visual effects consultant) that reminded me both of the light show I once saw at a Pink Floyd concert in Birmingham, England (1967), of watching glass being blown in a documentary about the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly, and of previous work Trumbull has done for films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and “Blade Runner.” It is worth noting that Trumbull is actually a year older than Malick, so both men are probably thinking about “the end” at this point in their careers. And I don’t mean just the end of movie-making.
A Biblical quotation (Job, see above) leads to very little dialogue but leads into the disclosure that the couple’s middle son (Steve, played by Tye Sheridan) has somehow died at 19. (One reviewer speculates in a war, but we never know, for sure, and Job seems appropos.) Then, while hearing, in no particular order, Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Holst, Respighi, Gorecki and Alexandre Desplat’s work as music coordinator, you see the following:
Flocks of birds flying
The mother walking in the woods
The universe (probably)
A placenta (probably)
Something resembling Biblical descriptions of Hell
What may be the iris of an eye
A volcano erupting
A bomb exploding
Clouds of volcanic ash
Is there a reason for these images? I filled in the reason (myself) as the creation of the universe and/or a chance to show some truly wonderful shots of nature. The only dialogue (from the Mother walking in the woods) is “Lord, why? Where were you? Answer me.” [The Lord, as is His/Her custom, says nothing.]
Shortly after the volcanic ash (truly amazing visual images), we have the very short dialogue, “My soul. My son. Hear us.” Then we see:
Ocean water (waves)
Something resembling the Pink Floyd light show images I saw in 1967
An egg being fertilized
Something that appears to be conception
Algae floating on water
Fish swimming in the ocean
A desert valley
Two dinosaur-like creatures (escapees from “Jurassic Park”?) on the beach
Hammerhead sharks swimming in the ocean, from below
Something that looks like the nourishing of a fetus
A rainforest creature
Please excuse me if I have misidentified what I was looking at. It went on for quite a while (a different reviewer referenced “occasional uncertain stretches”) and, later, was followed by shots of (again, apologies all around if I misidentify):
Brad Pitt listening to the sounds of his unborn child in utero, within the mother’s pregnant belly
Old ruins (looked Mayan)
The mother giving birth
Tiny feet held in the hands of Brad Pitt (used on movie poster)
Fish in a bowl with a child looking at the goldfish
A child with an “owie” from playing
Sun through the trees
A toddler and a new baby
An epileptic male suffering a seizure
Brad and son planting and watering a tree (Dialogue here: “He’ll be grown before that tree is tall.”)
A barking tethered dog
Churchlike choral singing
One of the sons going to the attic dormer room where he sits in a rocking chair while a tall man stands nearby
Etc.. etc.. etc.
So, let’s try to parse the story, as best we can, because, dear audience, it is up to us to fill in the (considerable) blanks. I like fantastic shots of volcanoes erupting and unborn fetuses as much as the next filmgoer, but what kind of character and plot do we have here?
The film is set in the 1950s and the attention to detail (Jack Fisk was the production designer) is spectacular. The town used to film “The Tree of Life” is actually Smithville, a town of 3,900 inhabitants just southwest of Austin, Texas, where Malick now lives (and where, previously, the movie “Hope Floats” with Sandra Bullock was filmed). The big old oak tree, in fact, is a 65,000 pound live oak in Smithville.
So, we can reasonably assume that, at age 68, with only 4 previous films to his credit (all of them eagerly awaited by legions of impressed and loyal fans), Malick, the philosopher and deep thinker with the visual eye of a true artist, is now pondering his own mortality (I know I am, and I’m younger than Mr. Malick) and his place in the Universe and “the meaning of life.” One reviewer said it shows how a young man interacts with his father (young Jack O’Brien has the most significant role as played by Hunter McCracken as a young boy, who grows up to be Sean Penn).
It is true that Penn has the line (interior monologue): “Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. You always will.” So the simplistic interpretation of the plot is that Mother = Grace and Father = Nature. Does this mean that the mother figure is “good” while the father figure is “bad”, however?
Not for me. Dad may have a quick temper and be overbearing, but he seems to be trying to be a good father to his three sons.
This same-sex parent dynamic of conflict goes on between girls and their mothers and between sons and their fathers. The father does seem to have a bad case of displaced aggression in one dinner-table scene, and as played by Brad, he seems to enjoy “lording it over” his small sons. This may be because Mr. O’Brien really wanted to be a concert musician (organist) and, instead, ended up running a plant that gets shut down, causing Mr. O’Brien to go from one extreme to another in his thinking.
In earlier scenes, Mr. O’Brien is all confidence, saying, “You make yourself what you are and you have control of your own destiny. You can’t say I can’t. You say, ‘I’m havin’ trouble, but I’m not done yet. You can’t say I can’t.” At various times he forbids one of the sons to speak at the dinner table (“Do not speak unless you have something important to say.”), rides his oldest son, Jack, constantly; teaches all his boys to fight; and pontificates on the nature of the boys’ mother’s naiveté, saying, “People will take advantage of you. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s anything you can’t do.”
Of course, later, after he loses his job at the plant, Dad changes his tune and comes home to Mrs. O’Brien and says, “I wanted to be loved till I was great. The Big Man. Now I’m nothing. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. They’re closing the plant. I was given this choice: no job or transfer to a job nobody wants.” After sulking about how he had never missed a day of work, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) has a tender scene with young Jack, telling him, “You’re all I have. You’re all I want to have. You’re a sweet boy.” And, at that point, Dad apologizes for being tough on Jack and the others. By film’s end, the whole family is pulling out in a cloud of dust, away from the house that was their home, bound for less green and gorgeous climes (Waco, Texas).
Jack has a period of time in adolescence where he is tempted by “the Dark Side” and keeps giving in to temptation. He throws rocks through a window, breaks into a house and riffles through the lingerie drawer of a classmate, helps shoot a helpless frog into space on a bottle rocket. When his mother accosts him, telling him to behave (Dad is out of town on a business trip), Jack defiantly says, “No. What do you know? You let him run all over you.”
Young Jack also thinks, at one point when his father is at work under a car, “Please God, kill him. Let him die. Get him out of here.” Jack recognizes that his father is a hypocrite, as he tells the boys not to put their elbows on the dinner table, but then does so himself. So, this is not a smooth-running father-son relationship (at one point, Jack says, to his father, “You’d like to kill me”), but Jack is a young, confused boy who also intentionally shoots his brother with a bee bee gun and afterwards says, “I do what I hate. What I want to do I can’t do. I’m sorry. You’re my brother.”
Many of the themes of the long film are articulated by the minister in a church scene, who says such things as, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Sentiments such as “Help each other. Love everyone every way you’d like (surely the Golden Rule Redux). Forgive” abound.
[If I may be permitted to digress (and I may), this is the perfect film for Sean Penn. He has directed a few films himself. In 1991, he directed “Indian Runner.” In 1995, he directed “The Crossing Guard.” Most recently, Penn directed “Into the Wild” (2007). If there is a more self-indulgent director, who loves to focus lovingly on, for example, ducks on a pond for a good 15 minutes, to the boredom of his audience, that director has not come forward. Penn is one of the most gifted actors of his generation (and has the Oscars to prove it) but, when I see that he has directed a film, it is the Kiss of Death.]
At film’s end, we have one of those “Lost” endings where you wonder if everyone is dead already. I said, to someone, “Is this death or marriage?” which provoked a laugh at an inopportune moment.
People are standing on a beach. Sean Penn sinks to his knees. His mother is there, comforting the small child with no hair who survived a housefire. Other people are wandering around on the beach (one heavy woman in the background scene has on a very ugly, misshapen tee shirt). There are gigantic ocean swells. Mom hugs Sean. Brad is hugging Steve, the son who died young.
Here’s the rub: Dad and Sean walk together on the beach, and Sean looks older than Dad (Brad Pitt), so this has to be symbolic of heaven. Sean is a grown-up, but the others are as they were. A black mask drifts to the ocean floor, just to help us out with the symbolism. The artistic second son is shown walking through a door in the middle of nowhere (desert like setting) and the mother is shown walking towards the son and uttering words that sound very religious, at least in the Judaeo-Christian ethic (“I give you my son.”)
Soon thereafter, Sean Penn, a city-dweller and apparently a successful architect, is shown going down in an elevator in the city.
Weird evanescent light.
All right-y then. This is me, ignoring the advice to “Go towards the light” and heading for the exit, with much admiration for Emmanuel Lubezki, who was the Director of Photography, and Jacqueline West, who did the costuming, and following two little old ladies with white hair, one of whom said, “I should have read up on this before I came. Now I’m going to have to go home and find out what it all means.”
Not really, Ma’am. It’s a Terrence Malick film. Just go with it.