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Non-Review Review: Tree of Life

Terence Malick’s Tree of Life stems from the beginning of the universe to “the end of time.”It’s hard to imagine any film with a similar scope, let alone one focused on the troublesome relationship between a nuclear family in the mid-to-late-twentieth century. The easiest way to summarise Malick’s epic yet intimate drama is describe it as a profound meditation on the history of the cosmos, reflected through a child’s coming-of-age tale. Confused? I don’t blame you. I’m slightly confused and I just watched the damn thing.

A beautiful sequence of images...

The most disconcerting element of the whole film isn’t the abstract segments that bookend the film, and will undoubtedly have armchair philosophers like me contemplating them until the end of time. Nor is it the surprisingly linear, surprisingly accessible family drama located right in the middle of the film. It’s the weird discord between opening and closing sequences that want to be oblique and surreal, open to interpretation, as compared to a relatively straightforward and easy-to-follow middle section. That transition threw me a little bit, to be honest, and it really felt like I was watching two movies clumsily edited together – both clearly involving the same characters and plot points, but very different from one another.

The film is a fairly heft meditation on The Book of Job, and it opens (appropriately enough) with a quote from that section of the Bible. There’s a definite spirituality that informs Malick here, as his film is very clearly centred around some core religious concepts and ideas, much of the exposition and philosophical questions articulated through prayer. It’s interesting to centre a film like this around such core Christian theology, but Malick does it in such a manner that it’s never too intrusive and never too overwhelming.

Our Father...

After all, the questions articulated by The Book of Job are fairly universal, Malick is simply borrowing a particular iconography in order to address it. At its core, as phrased by a preacher in the middle of the film, The Book of Job is the story of a righteous man suffering in spite of his good deeds. Malick centres his story on that of a child, and one who tries to understand why it is that bad things happen to good people. It’s a fundamental question, and an interesting one. Why do the righteous suffer? Why to the guilty profit?

There’s a fascinating sequence, underscored by the death of a young child and a fire in a house down the neighbourhood where another young boy is horribly scarred, where the family’s patriarch rambles on about people who (in his opinion) don’t deserve their riches, while innocents starve and die. This is while driving from an up-market part of town to an impoverished and segregated black community. It’s hard to make sense of these things. A young boy, praying to God, asks, “Why should I be good when You aren’t?”It’s an apt question, one that comes with any sort of faith.

Strange doors...

However, despite his use of Christian imagery and dogma, and despite his relatively even-handed portrayal, one senses that Malick is a humanist at heart. He doesn’t seem to believe that the answer lies in heaven or anywhere like that, but is instead intrinsic to man. The mother’s opening voice over suggests that there are two ways to live – “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” The choice about how we live is up to us.

The way of nature is the selfish manner, Malick reminds us, that all animals share. In fact, one memorable sequence illustrates that this sort of selfishness and insensitivity is a trait that dated to prehistoric times – “the way of nature” has existed since the dawn of time, an is a reflection of biological needs and imperatives, survival instincts. In contrast, Malick suggests, “the way of grace”is a profoundly human creation. It’s frail and beautiful and rare… but it’s something we created.

Shadows on sand...

The story is about trying to reconcile those conflicts – with the “the way of nature” personified by the family’s father and “the way of grace” embodied in their mother. Returning to Christian archetypes, the “Father” (“don’t call me dad, you call me father”) is very much the Old Testament God, full of spite and anger, controlling through fear and other base needs – he is not afraid to beat his children and lock them in dark rooms. The mother is very much the mellowed God of the New Testament, one who doesn’t really reward or punish, but appeals to the better nature of her children – offering forgiveness as long as they renounce their sins (and promise never to do it again). It’s telling that, when a deity does appear during Malick’s more abstract moments, it is female rather than male.

Returning briefly to those abstract sections, I find it interesting that there’s such a jarring change in Malick’s style. The first forty-five minutes of the film are almost a collection of shots that a viewer has to mental piece together into a story, rather than a plot of itself. In many ways, with Malick’s combination of beautiful cinematography and a powerful choral soundtrack, it almost reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi, but with characters (if not exactly plot). These sequences are pretty much what will keep more mainstream audience members away, and even I thought the random philosophical soundbytes were a bit much, veering into the realm of self-parody of arthouse film-making at times.

Spaced out...

On the other hand, if you are willing to engage with it and try, it’s easy enough to make some sort of sense of – how much or how little depends on the viewer and I suspect each will reach their own conclusions. On the other hand, Malick’s illustrated history of the universe is pretty much worth the price of admission alone, and serves as one of the most impressive pieces of cinema this year. It’s really that good, feeling like one of those great BBC documentaries given the big screen treatment, and even I can make some sort of sense of it all in context, which is great.

“I want to know what You are,” the child prays to his God at one point. “I want to see what You see.” My own personal interpretation of the opening sequence is that it’s an attempt to illustrate how small and random our lives must seem to anything that might observe us. Large windows throughout the movie remind us that people are watching, and being watched, just as we are watching through the cinema. Malick gives us scope – vast, unimaginable and almost incomprehensible scope. It’s like you zoomed out to the point where the details all blur together.

A rocky father-son relationship...

To have the entirety of reality presented, the life of any given human being must seem a jumble and a mess, composed of big moments and small, archetypes and symbolism and meaningful echoes and raw emotions, sometimes without context. I’ve always thought it folly to believe you can compress an entire life into two hours, and Malick’s opening seems to be intent to prove that – it feels like that’s a real life cut down as much as possible, to the point where there’s no continuity of adventure or story, but rather theme and imagery.

Which makes the strange transition to the central plot so jarring. Being entirely honest, Malick could have served up that middle section of the movie on its own and presented us with a fairly well-made Oscar-bait domestic drama. I know my mother, for example, would enjoy the middle section, but she’d struggle through the abstract bookends. While Malick’s skill remains (in one sequence, illustrating all we need to know about the family’s father over the course of a church organ solo), it does feel a bit more standard and conventional, which seems a little uneven.

Yes, this is from the same movie...

It is great when you get back into the groove with it. I love the complexity that Malick gives the father, as played by Brad Pitt. “Don’t do as I do,” he honestly instructs his kids, being remarkably candid. “He says don’t put your elbows on the table,” his son muses, “but he does.” If the character is intended for a stand-in from Yahweh, it’s an interesting take. After all, while the Old Testament God delivered his Ten Commandments to Moses, he was never bound by them – understandable, as he was a God, after all. While it was a sin for man to kill, the Old Testament has God wiping entire cities off the planet. And yet he creates arbitrary rules for man – don’t eat the apple! – that are as hard to gauge as the invisible and indistinct line that divides neighbours’ gardens in this American story.

And yet the father doesn’t seem like a bad person. He wants his kids to do well. He wantsthem to be better people than he was, a loft goal. In his own mind, he believes that he’s creating a legacy that will stand tall. And, of course, when he’s away – just as when God and Moses were busy on the Mount – his worst suspicions are proven correct. The children act like heathens, breaking windows for no reason other than its there, stealing and strapping a frog to a firework. With the threat of his punishment lifted, the children are at their very worst. In a way, Malick seems almost sympathetic.

Can't see the wood for the trees...

On the other hand, he makes it clear that this is learned behaviour. It creates a cycle of violence and anger. At one point, his son storms out, and – when his mother attempts to stop him – treats her with the same disregard her husband does, “What are you going to do?” he asks. “You let him walk all over you.” And so, as if that makes it right, the son is convinced to walk all over his mother. At one point, the boy concedes that there’s more of his father in him than he’d like to believe. Hell, his son ends up living in a fairly similar house, with lots of windows (only his son paints the house shades of innocent white). So this harsh treatment and cruelty begets further harsh treatment and cruelty.

At least, that’s the most sense I can make of it. It’s not as arthouse as most people would have you think. It’s quite thought-provoking and does ask for a little bit of interest, but it’s fairly straight-forward (and well-made) for most of its runtime. It’s just the opening and closing sections that might alienate certain viewers – and, while I like both, I have difficulty reconciling (it feels like a family drama trapped inside a BBC documentary at times). But it’s more than worth a go. Even if you hate it (and, believe me, there will be those who hate it with a passion, and undoubtedly with very good reasons), it should still provoke a lot more than you’d expect.

The end...

I don’t think it’s a cinematic masterpiece or anything so bold, but I do like it a lot. I think it suffers from a strange tonal shift, and from being two great movies crammed together, resulting in one very good one. I think I fell just short of loving it, but I really liked it. I think the most interesting and complimentary thing about this is that I’m actually really curious about Malick’s six-hour cut.

5 Responses

  1. What did you make of the “Heaven on a beach” scene towards the end? That part of the movie was probably the most confusing, and most of the critics were pretty split about what it meant, with most saying it wasn’t supposed to be an interpretation of heaven at all.

    I had pretty much the same reaction to the movie as you, although I think I liked it a little more. While that first 20 minutes or so is completely out there, it’s just so well done, and still connects to what Malick is trying to say. It’ll drive many people away, and the film could’ve done without it, but I can definitely see why it would’ve been hard for Malick to exclude it.

    • I’m not even sure. I figured it was “the great beyond”, where we’re all reunited with one another, and we see each other as we have always seen one another (that’s why Brad Pitt didn’t age, and his brother was still a boy). But I can’t even put any weight or logic behind it. It could have been a dream or an introspection – the aspects of himself, created from all these influences – I honestly don’t know.

      More I think about it though, more I want to see it again.

    • For me it resonated with Foucault’s end of man with just footprints in the sand.

      I reviewed it also.

  2. I couldn’t get access to this over the summer and now eagerly awaiting some sort of rental option. I never know what to expect with Malick and would love to have something provoke me awake.

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