#1 in my ranking of Terrence Malick’s films.
The intensely personal The Tree of Life recounts a childhood much like one that Terrence Malick led. One of three brothers, one of whom died at nineteen, Malick was raised in Waco, Texas in the 1950s where his father was a geologist for an oil company and played organ for their church. All of these details are present in Malick’s fifth movie where he also presents an extended sequence about the creation of the cosmos, life, and the conscience. It’s also the third absolute masterpiece Malick made…in a row.
This is Malick’s movie that most plays loose with time, jumping back and forth from the present day to the fifties to the sixties and then deep into pre-history when the stars were young. It’s a feature length near experiment, but it manages a shocking cohesiveness because Malick understands exactly the story he wants to tell. The quote from Job that starts the film (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”) is one of the keys to figuring out what Malick is doing, and he presents it to his audience at the very beginning.
It’s not that the story is a retelling of the story of Job, though it does often feel like an intersection of Job with Cain and Abel, but that the question that Malick feels Job addresses gets addressed in his story. I would distill it down to the idea that we all have limits on what we can control and that, despite our own behaviors and morals, there are forces outside of us that exert control over our lives. It’s a humbling experience for anyone who lives through it, and every major character goes through this realization by the end. In order to paint the picture of this idea, Malick has created a story rife with a series of motifs that he’s become known for, including one in particular that he brings to the fore more than ever before.
The idea of the Eden on Earth is apparent here, but more complexly drawn than in any other form. The entire memory of Jack, the main character, from his childhood is a kind of Eden, but it’s a place of pain and anger in addition to a place of joy and freedom. This was never completely outside of Malick’s previous versions of paradise on Earth that could never truly be because of our fallen nature, but its fallen state is more apparent in the personifications of two forces in the world, Nature and Grace. Looking back over Malick’s filmography up to this point, you can point out this burgeoning idea in dichotomies like the Farmer and Bill in Days of Heaven or the contrast between Staros and Tall in The Thin Red Line, but it’s through Mrs. O’Brien and Mr. O’Brien, Jack’s parents, that the embodiment of the dual idea comes to its fullest fruition.
Mother is Grace, almost sprite-like. As played by Jessica Chastain, she seems to float through Jack’s memory on a light breeze (even bounding up by the eponymous Tree at one point in his vision), offering comfort and succor in contrast to Father. Father, as Nature, is a hard man. I wouldn’t call him cruel by any measure, but he’s exacting and demands that his rule is law. When he says that R.L., Jack’s first younger brother, should stay silent at the table, he expect that order to be followed, and when R.L., in a moment of daring, tells his father to shut up instead, he lashes out physically. There’s no actual abuse, but his hardness comes out in violent grabs and reaches that never quite make their mark despite some of his best efforts. That dinner fight is one of the central battlegrounds of the boys souls in the film, and the quiet fight that erupts between Mother and Father afterwards is emblematic of the touch equilibrium that Nature and Grace have to find in life.
In the middle of all of this is Jack. In a literal breakdown of the action, the movie is a memory of middle-aged Jack after he had had a tough worded conversation with his father that had something to do with the death of R.L. when he was nineteen, decades before. In his tower of glass from where he works as an architect, he ponders the life he had left behind years ago in Waco. He wonders what his mother might have thought at the death of her son, very likely her favorite as evidenced by both parents’ obvious affection for R.L. that they never seem to demonstrate for either Jack or for Steve, the youngest. The bulk of the film is a revisitation of his memories through the beginning of his maturity, when he learns the limitations of his own experience, his parents’ knowledge and power, and ultimately his own sense of guilt for what he did as a child.
Like most children, Jack ends up rebelling against his parents. Manifested by throwing rocks through windows with his friends and even sneaking into an unlocked house of an attractive woman down the street to dig through her things and steal a slip, Jack can’t operate under the iron hand of his father anymore and acts out. However, he’s still a good boy at heart. He can’t keep the slip, hiding it under some logs before letting it go down the river. He embraces his father at a moment of weakness as his father lightly berates him for the care of the lawn. Even though he even goes so far as to assert that his father wants him dead to his face, Jack can’t hold onto that sense for too long, his father’s own pain eventually becoming apparent to an increasingly adult Jack.
This is a complex story of complex emotions as told through children, and near the beginning of it all is the creation of the Cosmos sequence, one of the boldest and most emotionally engaging acts of pure awe in film. It’s precipitated by Jack’s pondering on what his mother would have thought at the death of R.L. and her questioning of God’s will at the death of such a good, young man. Pointing back to that quote from Job that starts the film, it’s Malick cinematically offering the answer that God gave to Job. Instead of the words about where was Job when God was creating the heavens and the earth, we watch the heavens and the earth form. We watch life birth from nothing. We even get the first conscious decisions of pity by watching a pair of dinosaurs. It’s a remarkably humbling moment as we watch and listen to one mother’s very painful questioning to get a sense of our own scale in the universe as a whole. It is our limitations that end up scaring us, and that’s what ends up playing out in the film as a whole. Jack’s limitations are of childhood. Mother’s are of faith. Father’s are more practical in nature and arise from his job and efforts to raise his children into men.
Through all of this are fantastic performances, especially from the children. One of the advantages of Terrence Malick’s production style is that he’s extremely adaptive and improvisational to the point that he’s not looking for actors to manufacture realistic moments. Instead, he’s trying to capture real moments with people who get lost in who they are playing. This is born from several things, not the least is the fantastic production design from Jack Fisk (who had done the production design on every Malick film starting with Badlands) which allow the actors to completely immerse themselves in the tangible reality of their worlds. It also comes from the improvisation which allows actors, including the children, to find moments, as disconnected as they may be individually, to create a cohesive emotional reality from which to operate. So, Hunter McCracken, as the young Jack, along with Laramie Eppler as R.L. and Tye Sheridan as Steve are allowed moments to be boys together, to be afraid of Brad Pitt as their father together, and to connect with Jennifer Chastain as Mother together. There’s never a false moment from a single actor in this film, and considering that the film stars children, that’s actually rather remarkable.
Terrence Malick is a genius. He understands the cinematic power of image and sound better than almost any other working director and most who have passed. He attacks his central questions from all angles, and never the one you might expect. He creates believable physical realities for his characters to explore and pursue his thematic obsessions. He has an incredibly distinctive cinematic voice, approaching large questions with intelligence and tenderness, while filling the frame with beautiful images that never feel staged or artificial. The Tree of Life is the third movie in a row from Malick that fills me with emotions that few movies even try to accomplish. The Thin Red Line, The New World, and then The Tree of Life are a trilogy of films that any filmmaker should be wildly jealous of, and Malick makes it feel so effortless.
The Tree of Life is a masterpiece