Monday, June 6, 2011
"The Tree of Life"
“Brother. Mother. It was they who lead me to your door.”
The quiet voice behind that delivery begins “The Tree of Life” against a glowing, flowing light in the center of darkness, the voice belonging Jack (Sean Penn), the brother and the son. The film then opens up on images of the world—nature, and a young girl who inhabits it—where Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) notes there are two ways through life, either through nature or grace. Noting that nature is cynical, looks for ways to be unhappy, and is self-serving, she obviously sides with grace—selflessness, love of all things, forgiveness above all else.
Immediately after mother praises the way of grace the film cuts forward to a pivotal time in her life. She receives a telegram delivering news that her son has died. This is all too much for her too bear. She tells her husband (Brad Pitt) that she wants to die so she can be with her lost son. Her own mother tells her that she still has two sons, as if that’s some consolation. Her husband speaks of regrets, and things he wished he could have told his son. All of this is told in very much the style typical of the film’s writer/director, Terrence Malick. These are moments presented like memories, jumping from one emphasis to the next, as if the time between was all under the cloud of the previous confession.
After the passages of the grieving mother and father the film flashes many years forward to the present, where Jack wakes up one morning with his wife. Jack seems distant from his wife, who pays attention to him but keeps her distance. Jack goes to the bathroom, where putting his hand through running water in the sink brings a spark to his face. Later Jack paces about his living room in his suit, as his wife (dressed for work as well) brings in branches from the yard to display on their centerpiece. Jack lights a candle, putting his head down in mourning. Jack’s wife, having given him his distance and perspective, puts her hand on him. We learn that Jack’s brother died at 19, and this is the anniversary of his death.
These opening moments set-up everything that the movie will be about for the next two hours. Where this film differs from any other movie Malick has made is in how it breaks up the story in non-linear fashion. Malick’s story is much about memory and dreams, and this film according to those close to the filmmaker is very much like Malick’s own story, whose brother died at 19 as well. The film was first attempted to be made in 1978, and supposedly some of the footage shot at that time was seamlessly integrated into this film. Malick stopped filming that movie, then under the title “Q,” and didn’t make another until the World War II film “The Thin Red Line” in 1998.
Many of Malick’s critics note how his films seem to meander because they aren’t driven by plot. This is a criticism (made even from those who admire Malick’s films) that I noticed starting in the reviews of “The Thin Red Line,” where many complained that the lack of plot and repetition of themes lead the film to be long-winded and redundant at over two and a half hours. (Malick’s previous films, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” were each only an hour and a half long.) But there is a careful structure to Malick’s films. Part of the reason I think Malick’s recent films are often criticized for their structure is how notorious Malick is in changing the film in the editing stage. The first cut of “The Thin Red Line” was originally five hours long. Malick cut out a lot, including the original lead character (played by Adrien Brody) and the original first act of the film, which took place at boot camp.
The structure of “The Thin Red Line” takes hold around two relationships. The relationship between Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel’s characters bookend the film while the relationship between Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas serve as the film’s center. It’s a film structured around the arguments that each of these individuals have with one another, and the relationship dynamics are the closest the film has to a central plot. Director Martin Scorsese, who called “The Thin Red Line” the best American film of the 1990’s, said part of the film’s beauty is how you can watch the film from any given point and get exactly what Malick is doing with his themes and ideas.
I doubt Scorsese could say that same for “The Tree of Life.” While the film carries its ideas and themes in a very graceful, thoughtful manner like any Malick film you couldn’t arrive at the end and get exactly what is being said without seeing the beginning. The first twenty or so minutes, showcasing the grieving parents and Jack, are the root of this film, and without much thought about those minutes one can get weary of what exactly they are meant to consider throughout the film, especially in the end.
Even on the anniversary of his brother’s death, where the pain is still raw in him, Jack still goes to work. He partakes in conversations with other co-workers and endures meetings all while he is visibly distracted. He calls his dad to apologize about a conversation they recently had. We see flashes of folks wandering a beach—thoughts from Jack’s mind. His thoughts are distracting him from is day-to-day work routine.
Many have written that the passages involving Jack at work showcase him being taken from nature. Jack works for an architecture firm, and many note the tall skyscraper of glass he works in constantly shows nature, something once accessible to Jack when he was a kid but now something that he can’t touch. But I don’t believe that’s what Malick is striving for. The scene where Jack’s wife brings in branches for their centerpiece shows nature is still a part of Jack’s life. The workplace scenes aren’t about a lack of nature but about Jack and his father. Much later in the film we find that Jack’s father prides himself on having never missed a day of work. That Jack is at work on a day where he most likely shouldn’t be means he is his father’s son, working a job he can’t get much joy from or respite, like his father.
Jack is raw and distracted, and drifts off, obsessing how impossible it was for his mother to ever come to peace with his brother’s death, which leads to thinking about the nature of existence. From there the film goes into a lengthy, breathtaking sequence of the beginning of the universe before seamlessly going into a masterful sequence where Jack is born and grows, taking his first steps, having his world perspective change with the introduction of his two brothers, and learning to recognize the animals and other things that inhabit and make up the world. In this we see the pride of his father and the grace of his mother, who points to the sky and tells Jack “That is where God lives.”
This is a wondrous sequence that gives weight to the utter heartbreak and disillusionment of Jack’s mother at the beginning of the film. “The Tree of Life” is not a film of melodrama or cheap sentiment but a raw film that taps into the truth of life and loss. If Malick had simply told the story as a coming of age film these scenes wouldn’t have the same meaning. We’d see the joy and then the heartbreak. But because we are well aware of what happens these lived-in passages also have a tinge of mystery to it, how this family was before tragedy changed them all.
The film doesn’t say which city or exact time it takes place. It’s most likely the fifties, taking place in Texas (given that Malick grew up in Waco, Texas in that time). Jack is probably twelve or so, now played by newcomer Hunter McCracken in a fantastic performance. The youngest brother R.L., who would later die, is about nine or ten. The lack of details (we only know the father and mother as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien) only adds to the lived-in feel of this passage. Malick’s attention is more focused on the thoughts and behaviors of these people.
Mr. O’Brien is a strict disciplinarian who yearns for his boys to have the kind of life he didn’t take advantage of. He’s the “nature” of Mrs. O’Brien’s “nature versus grace” notion, having not become the successful musician he yearned to be but instead works hard at a job he doesn’t care about, while feeling sore over those who are more successful than he is. Mr. O’Brien strives for more for himself and his family, having filed many patents in hopes that something he does for himself would be of value, but nothing comes of them. Because he can’t overcome his mistakes he focuses his attention on his boys, teaching them that it’s all about survival of the fittest. To get ahead, he tells them, you sometimes can’t be good. He felt being good in his younger years and not doing all he could to take advantage of opportunities lead him to his predicament.
The boys and those in their neighborhood are ever mindful of the pain that can befall others and themselves. When the brothers see a drunk man stumble they mock him privately but when seeing a man with cerebral palsy they are respectful if a little scared of how one can end up in life without their own doing. When a boy they know dies it opens up questions nobody can answer. “Was the boy bad?” one of them asks, wondering if that’s why the boy died. The minister at their church speaks of the story of Job, warning that nobody can protect themselves or their children from the bad that can happen in life.
“If you’re not good, then why should I be good?” Jack wonders, about his father and of God. He begins to rebel against his parents. Jack acts out against his father, the irony being that his father is the one who tries to instill in him the value of not being all that good a person. He starts to feel ashamed and disgusted around his mother as he begins to have lustful thoughts for a girl in class, which in turn makes him realize that his mother must be a figure of lust to others. With a distance growing between him and his mother Jack begins to see his mother as someone who’s very naïve, and bonds with his dad over it.
“The Tree of Life” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this past May, where it won the festival’s Best Picture-equivalent prize of the Palme d’Or. Many who love the film relate strongly to it. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film (published after he wrote a blog piece on it after initially seeing it) that “I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience.” I agree with Mr. Ebert's sentiment. Part of the magic of the film is that Malick is so passionate and sensitive about capturing life and all its joy, mystery and pain that if you’re is involved in the film you can’t help but cling to something in the film as yours.
In many ways I am Jack. Much of the uncertainty of life, the world and existence haunted me ever since I was a young, and has since been colored by the loss of my own little brother when I was a child. When I was eight (a few years before my brother died) I’d wake up in the middle of the night, wondering what it means to be in Heaven when one dies. “And then what?” I’d wonder. If life is a progression, where you learn and get older, what does it mean to “exist” in the afterlife when time isn’t a factor, age isn’t a track of progression, and you know all there is to know? A line in the trailer for “The Tree of Life” that isn’t featured in the movie has the father promising that once we die we’ll finally know all things. But if you knew all things who would you be? Who would you be when you lack a subjective mindset? (Subjectivity is another driving force of film, and it is also addressed in a lovely aside during a dinner where the father talks to his son about the definition of subjectivity.) I felt like much of my feelings and experiences were on display in the film.
What Malick does with the relationship between Jack and his younger brother R.L., the one who will die, is possibly the most honest, sensitive and beautiful depiction of childhood brotherhood I’ve ever seen. Many of their moments together just ache with feeling. When Jack betrays the trust of R.L., which leads to harm, Jack invites R.L. to get him back. R.L. tells him no. Not knowing exactly how to express the appreciation of R.L.’s forgiveness Jack awkwardly kisses R.L.’s arm. R.L. brushes off the planted kiss, and Jack plants another kiss. R.L. brushes it away again, and so forth. It’s a beautiful, funny and completely recognizable moment that just warms your heart. Later when life is about to change for everyone both Jack and R.L. hide from everyone just to cry together.
The film reminded me of another semi-autobiographical film, Jim Sheridan’s 2003 film “In America,” a film dedicated to Sheridan’s brother Frankie, who died at the age of 10 (like my brother). Like “The Tree of Life” it’s about the wonder within the pain of childhood, where a child’s feelings of loss ignite their imagination as a way of coping. The film focuses on an Irish family—a father, mother and two girls—who move to America after the youngest child dies. The film is told from the point of view of the oldest girl, who believes that her brother gave her three wishes when he died and is saddled with the burden of when to use the wishes as her family endures great turmoil starting over in America. Her mother gets pregnant but faces complications, and moves to have the child and put her own life in danger because she can’t bear to lose another child. Her father, haunted by the past and the uncertain future, is unraveling. He strives to become an actor, the dream he has for himself, while struggling to work odd jobs he doesn't care for to support his family. He feels like he’s carrying the whole family on his back until he’s told by daughter that she feels the same. Her last line in the film, asking her brother to let her go, has the same kind of yearning that’s within Jack but the knowing that it’ll probably never come to be.
The loss of his brother haunts Jack, but just as haunting to him is his mother’s pain, and the pain he feels knowing that the life of grace his mother lead was no longer to be after she lost her son. The ending of the film baffles many. But this is Jack’s mind—his memories and imagination. If one clings to what Jack is working through in the film, and what he wishes (if not so much for himself but for his mother) you have the central idea of what the film is about, wrapped in wondrous observations of life and haunting questions that we don’t have answers for.