The Tree of Life – 2011 – dir. Terrence Malick
Did you love it? Did you hate it? Certainly few films have inspired such division among the film criticism community (but one could say that of films like Harmony Korine’s Gummo, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, or Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, too). It did win the Palme d’Or, considered by many to be cinema’s top prize, but some of the past winners have also been controversial (like Steve Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, or Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark).
Malick’s films deal with life’s large issues, the canvases underpinning our daily existence: war (The Thin Red Line), morality (Badlands), ruthless ambition (Days of Heaven), and the scope of human history (The New World). In his most recent work, ambitious to a fault, Malick explores nothing less than the nature of existence itself: from childhood memories and family bonds, to the pointlessness of war, to the depths of grief, to a quest for understanding the mysteries of the cosmos, evolution, and life on planet Earth.
Viewers expecting a straightforward narrative, conveyed via character action and dialogue, may be perplexed by the non-linear nature of this film, by its odd array of imagery that almost seems like someone changed the channel mid-stream, or shuffled us into a different theatre when we dozed off for a moment. But the one concept uniting the film’s vast continuum of thought is that human rites of passage, such as the sudden death of a close family member, cause us to question our own existence and our place in the seemingly unordered universe. Of course, some of us don’t do that, but instead focus on our remaining loved ones, our daily routines, our hopes for the future. Malick chooses to explore the trajectory of youth to adulthood as a way of understanding one’s place and function in the world, along the way meditating upon human existence, nature, religion and faith.
Although the events themselves are never portrayed directly, the impetus for the film’s lengthy segment of a young boy’s memories of growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s is the central character (Jack’s) loss of his brother, possibly to suicide, or possibly in an unnamed war (Korea? Vietnam?) and a sudden, seemingly delayed need for his adult self (played by Sean Penn) to understand the loss of his sibling.
But the film does not linger on the adult Jack’s crisis of grief or faith; instead we see the world through his younger eyes. There are brief moments depicting his mother’s unbearable grief (she is played with doe-like grace by Jessica Chastain), his father’s sullen silence., when both hear the news. But the film does not linger there, either, but journeys to Jack’s childhood, the endless summer days he spent playing with his brothers and their neighborhood friends. These segments, the bulk of the film, capture carefree mornings, afternoons and evenings of outdoor play: games, exploring, laughter, arguments, boredom. There are boys running through the arc of water from the garden hose, bys capturing fireflies, boys hurdling fences, boys fishing, boys laughing, boys wrestling.
The visual and aural depiction of this carousel of memory is nothing short of stunning. Somehow, it does not feel like flashback, but like actual experience, like the way a hot autumn afternoon feels when you’re nine years old, when there is nothing much to do and yet an endless array of options for how to spend your time.
As Jack grows older we glimpse scenes of conflict, wherein he realizes his father is not simply the loving supportive man he recalls from early childhood, but subject to occasional bouts of cruelty and anger. But interestingly, for those viewers who came of age in the 1950s, these scenes do not seem rendered to portray abuse or dysfunction. Rather, they portray a similar family dynamic to the one many of us grew up with: when fathers taught their sons to defend themselves by fighting, and after long days at work husbands expected the dinner hour to be harmonious and orderly.
It’s difficult to articulate the perfection with which Malick crafts these scenes, because of course each viewer’s response will be different. But for this viewer, I was catapulted in time back to the late 1960s and early 1970s of my own childhood in upstate New York, to jars of fireflies and games of truth or dare and the afternoon sun endlessly stretching over a day full of choices and slow, meandering time. Nothing but time. And of course, those painful days of early adolescence when nothing seems right with the world, and our parents seem to take on more flaws with each passing day. And it does seem that one thing Malick tries to capture here is the sense that the future is ever an unknown quantity to a child, even as the past can become an obsession for some adults.