Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”
by Anthony Lane
The New Yorker
May 30, 2011
The most startling thing in “The Tree of Life” is the sight of Sean Penn waking up and going to work in a skyscraper. Nothing rum about that, but, if my calculations are correct, Penn’s character, Jack, is the first person in any Malick movie to be living in the present day. “Badlands” (1973) is set in the nineteen-fifties; “Days of Heaven” (1978) unfolds in the early twentieth century, showing soldiers heading off to the First World War; “The Thin Red Line” (1998) takes place before and during the Battle of Guadalcanal; and “The New World” (2005) summons us to the age of Pocahontas. It is no sin to veer away from your own time—indeed, to stick doggedly to it can smack of historical vanity—but the suspicion lingers that Malick finds something distasteful in our current mores. Jack is employed in architecture or design (we see him browsing briefly through plans); more than that we cannot say, because the dialogue is either mumbled or faded out, and what draws Malick’s gaze is not the grind of an office meeting but Jack’s downcast glances out of high windows and the flashes of transcendence that are vouchsafed by patterns of glass and steel. Michael Mann, you could argue, is no less obsessed with the physical spaces that we inhabit, yet to experience “The Tree of Life” is less like watching a Mann movie than like reading Emerson’s “The Over-Soul.”
Before long, Malick retreats into the past—to be specific, into the Texas of the nineteen-fifties. The film was shot largely in the town of Smithville, although we see a truck with the words “City of Waco” on its side. That is almost the only traffic; children play, unthreatened, on tranquil streets, under skies of perpetual balm. Among the kids is Jack (now played by the excellent Hunter McCracken), a boy growing up with his younger brothers, R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan), under the wing of their parents, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his wife (Jessica Chastain). Neither of the parents earns a first name, and, like many of Malick’s dramatis personae, they feel at once solid and ungraspable. The mother, with her Pre-Raphaelite copper hair, is little short of an angel—at one point, she dances on air, like Winona Ryder at the end of “Beetlejuice”—and somehow, though the O’Briens are not well off, she never wears the same dress twice. The father works at a local factory, but Malick chooses, again, not to bother us with details. Of more concern to him is what O’Brien could have done: he plays the piano at home and the organ in church, and he puts on Brahms’s Fourth Symphony during supper. We are left with a sorrowful sense of wrong turnings taken, never to be retraced.
Sorrow issues in wrath, and “The Tree of Life” wakes up as we realize that O’Brien is venting his frustrations on the family. To begin with, severity and affection intertwine: “Do you love your father?” he asks Jack. “Yes, sir,” the boy replies. But tempers are lost, offenders are shut in closets for daring to talk back, and we get a frightening scene in which the sons are taught, or commanded, to swing a punch at the patriarch. “Hit me,” O’Brien says, baring his jaw. That, for once, is the most salient feature of Pitt’s anatomy. We have grown so fond of his doleful eyes, and the wide crack of his grin, that it’s quite something to find the actor leading with his chin, jutting it stubbornly toward a world that has fallen short of his great expectations. Add the heaviness of his tread and the thick rims of his spectacles, and you get his manliest performance to date, with the last flickers of pretty boy snuffed out.
When the father goes away on a long trip, the boys relax into near-Oedipal bliss, tended by a mother whose principles, as she intones them, are almost comically drained of sternness: “Love everyone. Love every leaf, every ray of light.” Not that there is any comedy here, and Nabokov’s knowing remark that only one letter divides the comic from the cosmic would touch no chord in Malick. Instead, he conjures a singular blend of the prim and the pantheistic, and “The Tree of Life” remains not just a joke-free zone but nervous of bodies that misbehave. No sex intrudes, although there is an extraordinary sequence in which the first promise of sex flushes Jack’s brow, like a fever, as he raids a neighbor’s bedroom and rifles through her lingerie. Yet, even here, when he holds her nightgown up to the light, like a celestial robe, then steals it and floats it downriver, you want to bow to the beauty of the images and, at the same time, to take the director aside and say, “Terry, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not all that pubescent boys like to do.”
This seraphic strain is present even in “Badlands,” Malick’s first—and still, by some distance, his best—feature film, in which a youthful tearaway (Martin Sheen) doesn’t hesitate to shoot men in the back, yet remains erotically aloof, even though his girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) is with him on the lam. We see her buttoning her dress, but that’s it, and the whole tale is bent upon the flatlining of desires; we hear it in her unperturbed voice-overs, which established a tradition that has swelled with every Malick film, and that now hits a solipsistic high. Almost all the folks in “The Tree of Life” devote more time to murmurs, cries, and whispers, confided to us from the prison of their own heads, than to conversing with their fellow-humans, and, while the result will sound to some like a prayer, others may find it increasingly lonely and locked, and may themselves pray for Ben Hecht or Billy Wilder to rise from the dead and attack Malick’s script with a quiver of poisonous wisecracks. “Brother” and “Mother” are the first things that we hear, followed, not long after, by a plea: “What are we to you?”
This is uttered by the mother, although it could equally have come from the lips of Job (who is quoted in the film’s epigraph) or a lamenting Jeremiah. The question is addressed not to the audience but—it is safe to say—to God. We then get his considered reply, and this is the branch of “The Tree of Life” that sticks out. We see glimmers of unfathomable light, vast interstellar conflagrations, drifting throngs of stars, planets in their formless infancy, sun and moon occluded by dark storms, energizing jolts of lightning, gulping primordial pools, early plants, early creatures, slow-dancing jellyfish, hammerhead sharks, a dinosaur lounging on the shore, an embryo’s eye, and, last but not least, a child being born—to a white-clad mother who neither sweats nor shouts—in postwar suburban Texas. Now, you can call this entire passage overblown, or diversionary, but what it is not is incoherent or mad. It strikes me as a straightforward account of creation, Malick’s Genesis, ending in the Eden of Jack’s childhood; everything else in the film dramatizes the loss of that prelapsarian grace and the rare, Proustian instants at which it is remembered afresh.
“If we cannot educate ourselves to his purposes, then clearly his work will look like nonsense.” That is Malick, writing of Heidegger, and introducing his own translation of Heidegger’s “The Essence of Reasons,” in 1969. He refers to the philosopher’s “peculiar language,” and “The Tree of Life” is no less odd, yet its purposes are clear: it is a grief-powered movie, triggered by the revelation, near the start, that Jack’s brother R.L. died at the age of nineteen. The complaint that is floated, if never spoken, by the O’Briens in their loss, as by any mourner, is “Why forge everything, from the big bang onward, if it’s all going to conclude with this—the far greater cataclysm, to me, of a loved one’s dying? What, O Lord, was the point?” (There are reports, unconfirmed by Malick, that his brother committed suicide in the nineteen-sixties.) So does the film burst the bounds of that emotion? Is it just too much? It certainly doesn’t know how to end; after two hours, I could have done without Sean Penn, dressed in Armani, kneeling on a beach, while the other characters mooch around like unwanted extras from “Zabriskie Point.” Afflatus has an unhappy habit, as Malick has proved before, of subsiding into a monotone. Tucked away inside the grandeur, though, and enlivened by jump cuts, is a sharp, not unharrowing story of a father and son, and, amid one’s exasperation, there is no mistaking Malick’s unfailing ability to grab at glories on the fly. When news of R.L.’s death arrives, the world reels and capsizes, yet even then we see the shadows of children—capering upside down, on the sunlit asphalt, like ghosts of what should have been.
The Difficult Gifts of The Tree of Life
By Nick Pinkerton
Wednesday, May 25 2011
The film begins with the O’Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receiving news of their teenaged son’s death, their grief echoing through perplexing shot sequences and sparse dialogue. It’s enough to confirm the scuttlebutt that The Tree of Life will be the most unorthodox Hollywood drama in many moons—and then the film’s perspective switches to the Hubble for a vision of the birth of the universe. From a nebulous “In the Beginning . . .” to the first articulations of life on Earth and the reign and extinction of the dinosaurs, this silent, self-contained sequence was conceived in collaboration with pre-CGI-effects legend Douglas Trumbull, fresh out of retirement. The image of a beached plesiosaur craning its neck to contemplate the fatal wound raked across its side lingers on, symbol of a wounding and disorienting work. It’s the big-budget experimental film George Lucas never had the stones to make.
Snap forward to the 1950s, the middle-class suburbs of Waco, and the O’Brien family in an earlier, happier moment. Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest of three preadolescent brothers, emerges as the axis of the film; the process of his education and acculturation to the edge of puberty is documented in a headlong style that lifts sometimes to singing montage. (Usually the crediting of five editors would be reason to panic; Mr. Malick’s film has very little truck with what’s usual.)
Scenes occur as if bobbing on the surface of a family’s collective consciousness. We’re transported intermittently to a future where the boy Jack has grown up into a crabby Sean Penn, daydreaming from a glass rectangle in downtown Houston, a contemporary America to make Thomas Jefferson pack it in. In large part, the film can be read as occurring in the mind of adult Jack returning to his birthright of memories: the indivisible combination of Mom, Dad, God, and backyard.
Chastain’s mother is transparent with virtue, the idealized homefront sweetheart dreamed in Malick’s The Thin Red Line but now stretched gauzy over feature length. A less worshipfully written part gives Pitt more to do. Though more affectionate than our image of the flat-top Eisenhower-era patriarch, Mr. O’Brien badgers his sons with lessons in Looking Out For No. 1 and backyard boxing. Venting a bellyful of frustrated ambition, he talks covetously about the folks on the hill, brags about his worthless patents, and finds an outlet for unrealized musical aspirations by playing the church organ. This provides some of the classical music that fills Tree of Life, much of it liturgical, fitting Jack’s growing, paralleled disillusion with his father and the Father: “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” he’s asking both.
Though markedly faithful to Darwin, Malick’s film begins with a quotation from the Book of Job, imagines heaven, and features Mother pointing to the sky to deliver the lesson: “God lives there.” Like anything ambitious, Tree of Life will be called “pretentious,” but its characters address the gauche subject of the eternal, naturally, through the Judeo-Christian lingua franca instead of via a vague, enervated “spirituality.” In this, it is quite direct and accessible.
With his cosmic realism, Malick vividly remembers youth’s intimate yet huge idea of God, and Tree of Life’s Genesis overture recalls a child’s awed first conception of the vastness beyond his proscribed world. Thus prepared, you have fresh eyes to see suburbia as, yes, a miracle. The close touch of DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s Steadicam brings childhood rites near: roughhousing, betrayals of confidence, the clandestine thrill of being alone in a strange house, a child’s frank curiosity toward town drunks, cripples, and the black boys at that BBQ.
In his evocation of lost-Eden childhood, Malick shows the wisdom of C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism: “If we are to use the words ‘childish’ and ‘infantile’ as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood which we become better and happier by outgrowing,” Lewis wrote. “Who in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity, and to admire?” It is because the 67-year-old director can get so much of that onscreen, and much more besides, that he’s one of the few American filmmakers operating on the multiplex scale who makes movies feel like undiscovered country.
A prayer beneath the Tree of Life
By Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert's Journal
May 17, 2011
Not long after its beginning we apparently see the singularity of the Big Bang, when the universe came into existence. It hurtles through space and time, until it comes gently to a halt in a small Texas town in the 1950s. Here we will gradually learn who some of the people were as the film first opened.
In Texas we meet the O'Brien family. Bad news comes in the form of a telegram, as it always did in those days. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) reads it in her home, and gives vent to grief. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) gets the news at work. We gather a child has died. It is after that when we see the universe coming into being, and Hubble photographs of the far reaches.
This had an uncanny effect on me, because Malick sees the time spans of the universe and a human life a lot like I always have. As a child I lay awake obsessed with the idea of infinity and the idea of God, who we were told had no beginning and no end. How could that be? And if you traveled and traveled and traveled through the stars, would you ever get to the last one? Wouldn't there always be one more?
In my mind there has always been this conceptual time travel, in which the universe has been in existence for untold aeons, and then a speck appeared that was Earth, and on that speck evolved life, and among those specks of life were you and me. In the span of the universe, we inhabit an unimaginably small space and time, and yet we think we are so important. It is restful sometimes to pull back and change the scale, to be grateful that we have minds that can begin to understand who we are, and where are in the vastness.
Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.
We all occupy our own box of space and time. We have our memories and no one else's. We live one life, accumulating it in our minds as we go along. Terrence Malick was born in Waco, Texas, and has filmed much of "The Tree of Life" in small Texas towns; the house of the O'Brien family is in Smithville. I felt like I knew this house and this town. Malick and I were born within a year of one another, and grew up in small towns in the midlands. Someone else, without my memories to be stirred, might be less affected by its scenes of the O'Briens raising their three boys.
I know unpaved alleys with grass growing down the center,. I know big lawns with a swing hanging from a tree. I know windows that stand open all day in the summer. I know houses that are never locked. I know front porches, and front porch swings, and aluminum drinking glasses covered with beads of sweat from the ice tea and lemonade inside.I know picnic tables. I know the cars of the early 1950s, and the kitchens, and the limitless energy of kids running around the neighborhood.
And I know the imperfect family life Malick evokes. I know how even good parents sometimes lose their tempers. How children resent what seems to be the unforgivable cruelty of one parent, and the refuge seemingly offered by the other. I know what it is to see your parents having a argument, while you stand invisible on the lawn at dusk and half-hear the words drifting through the open windows. I know the feeling of dread, because when your parents fight, the foundation of your world shakes. I had no siblings, but I know how play can get out of hand and turn into hurt, and how hatred can flare up between two kids, and as quickly evaporate. I know above all how time moves slowly in a time before TV and computers and video games, a time when what you did was go outside every morning and play and dare each other, and mess around with firecrackers or throw bricks at the windows of an empty building, and run away giggling with guilt.
Those days and years create the fundament. Then time shifts and passes more quickly, and in some sense will never seem as real again. In the movie, we rejoin one of the O'Brien boys (now played by Sean Penn) when he grows to about the age his father was. We see him in a wilderness of skyscrapers, looking out high windows at a world of glass and steel. Here are not the scenes of the lawn through the dining room windows. These windows never open. He will never again run outside and play.
What Malick does in "The Tree of Life" is create the span of lives. Of birth, childhood, the flush of triumph, the anger of belittlement, the poison of resentment, the warmth of forgiving. And he shows that he feels what I feel, that it was all most real when we were first setting out, and that it will never be real in that way again. In the face of Hunter McCracken, who plays Jack as a boy, we see the face of Sean Penn, who plays him as a man. We see fierceness and pain. We see that he hates his father and loves him. When his father has a talk with him and says, "I was a little hard on you sometimes," he says, "It's your house. You can do what you want to." And we realize how those are not words of anger but actually words of forgiveness. Someday he will be the father. It will not be so easy.
Heaven, Texas and the Cosmic Whodunit
By A. O. Scott
The New York Times
May 26, 2011
NYT Critic's Pick
postponed, but moviegoers eager for rapture can find consolation — to say nothing of awe, amazement and grist for endless argument — in “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s new film, which contemplates human existence from the standpoint of eternity. Recently showered with temporal glory at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, this movie, Mr. Malick’s fifth feature in 38 years, folds eons of cosmic and terrestrial history into less than two and a half hours. Its most provocative sequences envision the origin of the universe, the development of life on earth (including a few soulful dinosaurs) and then, more concisely and less literally, the end of time, when the dead of all the ages shall rise and walk around on a heavenly beach.
At the beginning and the conclusion — alpha and omega — we gaze on a flickering flame that can only represent the creator. Not Mr. Malick (who prefers to remain unseen in public) but the elusive deity whose presence in the world is both the film’s overt subject and the source of its deepest, most anxious mysteries. With disarming sincerity and daunting formal sophistication “The Tree of Life” ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them. In this case a boy, in whispered voice-over, speaks directly to God, whose responses are characteristically oblique, conveyed by the rustling of wind in trees or the play of shadows on a bedroom wall. Where are you? the boy wants to know, and lurking within this question is another: What am I doing here?
“Here” in this case is Waco, Tex., in the 1950s, a slice of earthly reality rendered in exquisite detail by the production designer, Jack Fisk, and the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. Their evident devotion to Mr. Malick’s exacting, idiosyncratic vision — the care with which they help coax his ideas into vivid cinematic reality — is in its way as moving as the images themselves, which flow and sway to equally sublime music. (The score is by Alexandre Desplat. He holds his own in some pretty imposing company, including Couperin, Brahms and Berlioz, part of whose great “Requiem” underpins an ecstatic celestial climax.) The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality.
Embedded in the passages of cosmology, microbiology and spiritual allegory is a story whose familiarity is at least as important to the design of “The Tree of Life” as the speculative flights that surround it. The world of neatly trimmed lawns and decorous houses set back from shaded streets is one we instinctively feel we know, just as we immediately recognize the family whose collective life occupies the central 90 minutes or so of the film.
The particulars of these people — Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and their three sons — and of the place they inhabit are drawn from Mr. Malick’s own biography, but they also have an almost archetypal cultural resonance. This is small-town America in the ’50s: Dad’s crew cut, Mom’s apron, the kids playing kick the can in the summer dusk.
To some extent this tableau — words can hardly do justice to the honeyed sunlight streaming through kitchen windows and refracted through the spray of garden hoses, or to the loose-limbed rhythms of children at play — offers an idealized glimpse of a lost Eden. But it would be a mistake simply to bask in (or to sneer at) Mr. Malick’s nostalgia for the vanished world of his Eisenhower-era childhood.
In his view, rooted in an idiosyncratic Christianity and also in the Romantic literary tradition, the loss of innocence is not a singular event in history but rather an axiom of human experience, repeated in every generation and in the consciousness of every individual. The miraculous paradox is that this universal pattern repeats itself in circumstances that are always unique. And so this specific postwar coming-of-age story, quietly astute in its assessment of the psychological dynamics of a nuclear family in the American South at the dawn of the space age, is also an ode to childhood perception and an account of the precipitous fall into knowledge that foretells childhood’s end. It is like Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” transported into the world of “Leave It to Beaver,” an inadequate and perhaps absurd formulation but one that I hope conveys the full measure of my astonishment and admiration.
The center of the film’s universe — Mr. Malick’s eyes and ears and alter ego — is Jack O’Brien. We first meet him, in the person of Sean Penn, as a middle-aged architect who lives amid gleaming skyscrapers and clean, ultramodern surfaces and who is haunted by the death, many years earlier, of his younger brother. The opening scenes take us briefly back to Jack’s youth, acquainting us with his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and allowing their grief over the loss of their son to cast a shadow of tragedy over everything to follow.
What follows most immediately is the creation of the universe, which arrives (no matter how many times you have read about it) as something of a surprise. How did we get here? There is a scene in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” in which Nicolas Cage’s terminally blocked screenwriter, looking for a place to begin a new script, is cast back to the origins of the universe, which after all is where every story commences. Mr. Malick enacts a more earnest, grander version of the same insight, acknowledging the expansive, regressive logic of simple curiosity. “Where are you?” Jack asks, of his brother and God, and the scale of his longing demands a cosmic response.
But that response will only make sense if it touches down, once again, in Jack’s own experience. In a lovely, surrealist touch, he is imagined emerging from an underwater house and swimming toward the sunlight on the surface, and then he is an infant, cradled in his mother’s arms. Before long a brother arrives, and then another, and the world makes room for them.
There are very few films I can think of that convey the changing interior weather of a child’s mind with such fidelity and sensitivity. Nor are there many that penetrate so deeply into the currents of feeling that bind and separate the members of a family. So much is conveyed — about the tension and tenderness within the O’Brien marriage, about the frustrations that dent their happiness, about the volatility of the bonds between siblings — but without any of the usual architecture of dramatic exposition. One shot flows into another, whispered voice-over displaces dialogue, and an almost perfect domestic narrative takes shape, anchored in three extraordinarily graceful performances: Mr. Pitt, Ms. Chastain and, above all, Hunter McCracken, a first-timer who brings us inside young Jack’s restless, itching skin.
“The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005) — films that heralded Mr. Malick’s re-emergence after two decades of silence — took established genres and well-known moments in American history and turned their commonplaces into something new and strange. The Pacific theater in World War II and the British colonization of North America (the war movie and the western, more or less) became unlikely but curiously persuasive settings for meditations on the human connection to and estrangement from the natural world. “The Tree of Life” does something similar in a more intimate, less self-consciously epic register, staking out well-traveled territory and excavating primal, eternal meanings.
This movie stands stubbornly alone, and yet in part by virtue of its defiant peculiarity it shows a clear kinship with other eccentric, permanent works of the American imagination, in which sober consideration of life on this continent is yoked to transcendental, even prophetic ambition. More than any other active filmmaker Mr. Malick belongs in the visionary company of homegrown romantics like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and James Agee. The definitive writings of these authors did not sit comfortably or find universal favor in their own time. They can still seem ungainly, unfinished, lacking polish and perfection. This is precisely what makes them alive and exciting: “Moby-Dick,” “Leaves of Grass,” “The Bridge” and “A Death in the Family” lean perpetually into the future, pushing their readers forward toward a new horizon of understanding.
To watch “The Tree of Life” is, in analogous fashion, to participate in its making. And any criticism will therefore have to be provisional. Mr. Malick might have been well advised to leave out the dinosaurs and the trip to the afterlife and given us a delicate chronicle of a young man’s struggle with his father and himself, set against a backdrop of rapid social change. And perhaps Melville should have suppressed his philosophizing impulses and written a lively tale of a whaling voyage.
But the imagination lives by risk, including the risk of incomprehension. Do all the parts of “The Tree of Life” cohere? Does it all make sense? I can’t say that it does. I suspect, though, that sometime between now and Judgment Day it will.
“The Tree of Life” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Birth, death, the end of the world.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa; music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Jack Fisk; costumes by Jacqueline West; produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
WITH: Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Fiona Shaw (Grandmother), Irene Bedard (Messenger), Jessica Fuselier (Guide), Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), Laramie Eppler (R. L.) and Tye Sheridan (Steve).