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The Tree of Life

director: Terrence Malick
– Feb. 25, 2023
first posted to Adversaria Aug. 5, 2022

I finally got around to watching The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. It has been sitting on my tv cabinet for a number of years now. In a great part it had slipped from my mind, and when it did come back to my attention every so now and then I was never in the mood for it. I generally will not watch a film for the first time if I fear my mood will get in the way. And knowing the way of Malick films, I was all the more wary. (And, to be honest, I was often put off by the idea of a Malick film centered on an abusive father.)

Now, I consider The Thin Red Line one of the greatest movies I have seen. It is for me an achievement of cinema as art. So I have a high estimation of what Malick can do, and an appreciation of his methods. Though, I was put off by To the Wonder, if simply in that the infidelity seems to occur for no reason whatsoever: it is an ungrounded moment in the film and yet the film hinges on it, so it hinges on an emptiness. At that moment the film loses its structural integrity. In truth, I was rather pissed off at it. I also have The New World, though I will have to watch it again. It has been a while.

But The Tree of Life. It is about the overtly stated question of living either in the spirit of nature (in essence, that of competition) or the spirit of grace (that of love). Its frame is a family in the 1950s, the O'Briens: father and mother (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons. It seems clear the father, who is an abusive disciplinarian who believes success only comes by conquering and strives to train his sons to that belief, stands for the spirit of nature, while the more loving mother, within whose presence the three boys are the most joyous, for the spirit of grace. And that theme of two opposites does run through the main body of the film. But the issues are more structural than thematic.

The film opens on Chastain and jumps quickly to what are presumably brief moments of her childhood on a farm. Though, if they are meant to establish a character they are too brief and shots of petting a cow does not character establish. Indeed, I thought at the fore there was a daughter in the film. It speaks that perhaps Malick was letting his impressionistic technique take the best of him. Within the first minute there is created a confusion. Then come some moments of Chastain with the boys at play – prelude to the joy of the spirit of grace. Then a scene of Chastain receiving a telegram, telling her one of her sons is dead. The time of that is some ten-odd years in the future. Though, there is nothing to cue that. On second viewing you will notice that the house is different than the house with the boys as seen in those moments of the film, but in the first viewing it is unestablished. For me it was not until the Sean Penn voiceover, he playing the character of the eldest son as an adult, where he says his brother died at the age of nineteen, that it became clear. Though, it took longer yet for me to figure out which son was dead and which son Penn was playing. Yes, on second viewing the cues are there, and I cannot say that a film has to be wholly understandable on the first viewing. The Thin Red Line has a flaw in that the two main characters have voices very close to each other. It took me the second viewing to fully distinguish them. (The error may have been in my not realizing it was two voices to begin with.) And, as has been said by more than one, literature can only be re-read. And, push comes to shove, The Thin Red Line is not an easy reader text.

But I do not think the issues with the openings are but minor flaws saved by a second viewing. I would think a person should not have to work that hard, pay that close attention to detail, to understand an impressionistic text. That seems two opposing stylistic currents. Everything needed should be available in the instant of the impression. Then the mind can follow the structure of the film without demand while their main energies are to that impressionistic gestalt.

Then comes the creation of the universe. After the film sets everything and everybody up all of a sudden you are at the beginning of the cosmos watching the evolution of stars, of planets, the beginning of life, and, briefly, the develop of life to the age of the dinosaurs. The sequence, about twenty minutes in length, ends with the asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaurs. What does this have to do with what preceded it? I have a decent guess. You have a story started that makes mention about the place of god in the cosmos. And so you have a presentation of the massiveness of the cosmos – god's perspective thereof – ending with the extermination of much of the life on the planet – god's relationship thereto. But that is an idea come a day after, and even now I feel like I am a little bit a lot reading into the sequence, putting a lot of weight on that last shot. Within the viewing I was far more "Well, that was very nice, but what does that have to do with anything?" Particularly, what does that have to do with the most overtly stated theme: the division between the spirit of nature and the spirit of grace?

A film works through time. And while at the level of Marvel movies they might by necessity function such that everything is explained up front so the viewing brain may never be taxed, that is not requisite to film (or writing). The director (or author) is allowed to ask the viewer to watch for a minute – or three or twenty – before coming to an understanding of why. But there should come an understanding of why. There should not be a massive interruption in the development of that gestalt. There can be moments of "Wait for me to finish my thought," but there cannot be "but what am I supposed to do with that thought?" Non sequitors do not fit impressionism.

The heart of The Tree of Life is an interesting story: two parents of two spirits, and how the eldest son comes to realize that while he hates his father for what he is, he nonetheless knows he himself is, at heart, more like his father than his mother. Overall a usable framework except for two things. First the film began to feel like it was documenting the birth of a psychopath. I do not think that that was what was intended by the spirit of nature. The father might be a disciplinarian, but he is not a sadist. The son is. It is a clash. The second issue is more structural: the viewer is given a development of a child, after which comes, for the attentive audience, "You set up your final act, so what happens?"

Ostensibly, the adult Jack.

But what is the offered purpose of Sean Penn's character, the adult Jack? He is hardly in the film, and most of that is just sitting in chairs looking inwardly agitated or riding in elevators. He does touch some plants. All in all, though, is he enough of a character to justify his existence? I was asking in the film why we were at all looking at him in his brief moments, since nothing was being created by his presence in the film. Indeed, except for a phone call and the little bit of monologue, he has no real connection to the main action. And I was permitting that his presence early on was simply to set up his presence later on, perhaps when he find out the end result of the evolution of the character.

Yet, within the film, the only purpose he seems to serve is to get the viewer to the end sequence, with everyone in the movie, living and dead, walking about on an endless beach, just enough water present that the sand is wet and half puddled. And everyone walks about and greets each other and expresses kindnesses, and it is as shallow as the water on the sand. Perhaps it is intended as the culmination on the meditation, the realization of a life lived in grace as opposed to nature, but what I was brought to think about was the ending being imposed by studio execs upon Sandy Bates's (Woody Allen) dark, psychological film in Stardust Memories: "They all go to jazz heaven!" The beach scene is that silly. But by then the audience will have been lulled into the general mood of the film, and will be searching to justify the ending, or, at least, simply accept it. But if you take one step back, it is that silly.

It is worth noting that there are three sons in The Tree of Life. Yet the youngest is so hardly present in the film he seems little more than a character that turned out in editing to be superfluous but which could not, unfortunately, be wholly edited out. So he is just this mostly voiceless third person sometimes in the scenes. There is one moment, a dinner scene where the father explodes into rage, where he is important for how the mother holds him as though defending him from the rage. But elsewise he is hardly present at all. All the sibling dialogue and action are between the other two brothers. The same questions can be asked of the female person in the adult Jack's life. Why does he speak about her in voiceover if she has no real role in the film? Unless you consider her silently walking about odd landscapes with the adult Jack to be a "real role."

Indeed, if the majority of the film is the development of the oldest son, and the role the second son plays is as a character in – or victim of – in that development. So what purpose really of his dying? The film is hardly at all about the second son, there is far less tying the two sons together (again, it seems, except primarily as victim of the eldest's sadism), and the death occurs ten years after the body of the film, so it has no impact whatsoever upon the action of the film.

The solidity lacks. There is a core within the movie, but the movie as a whole loses – or never has – a solid anchoring on that core. Abstract themes seemed in the making of the film more important than the story. So you have a son that is a superfluous character. You have an out-of-nowhere sequence of the creation of the cosmos that offers no reasons why. You have a development story of the child Jack but it leads nowhere. You have the story begin with a death that has no play upon the action. And you have an ending that is a very long sequence of people walking about that feels the film pressing upon you the idea that "See! They are all in jazz heaven! It all turns out well in the end."

Oh, and there are shots of trees.