This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning Tree of Life is the story of three young brothers growing up in 1950s Texas, told in flashback from the perspective of one of the grown sons looking back on his childhood from the present day. It is also the story of the beginning of the Universe and the development of our cosmos. It is both.
Liquidy light emerges from the black. Simple-celled undulating creatures appear. Lava flows and burns. Dinosaurs emerge and interact. The boys run across the yard in 1950s Texas. A meteor crashes into the earth from space. The grownup son stares at dizzying skyscrapers. Glaciers cover the earth. Different voices whisper in voiceover. It seems they are talking to God, asking Him questions, but at other times it seems they are talking to one another. Maybe it’s the same thing. Malick puts all of this together into an emotional ongoing collage simple and grandiose at the same time, a meditation on what it means not only to be alive, but to be a part of the flow of time. It’s a bold film, ambitious in its scope, yet you can feel how personal it is in every frame. The experience of watching it verges on the profound. Hell, it is profound. Tree of Life isn’t like anything else.
The story, as it is, is relatively standard, and on the face of it you might mistake it for The Great Santini or any other son-coming-to-terms-with-cold-father film. Sean Penn plays Jack, the grown son, navigating a mirrored world of gleaming skyscrapers, filmed at every conceivable angle to give a sense of their scope and dominance. These images meld into the flashbacks of 1950s Texas, which take up the majority of the film. A father and mother Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) raise 3 small boys in a small clapboard house in the kind of neighborhood where boys roam through the woods in their free time, and mothers hang the washing out on the line, barefoot in their house dresses, while father waters the grass. It is a pastoral upbringing, infused with Malick’s nostalgia for lost innocence (one of his themes as a director), and yet there are dark undercurrents. The father is very stern, and sometimes rough with the boys, slapping his big hands on their wee shoulders and necks in what seems to be a loving touch but is actually a clamp keeping them in place. The mother spends much of her time in the side yard, playing with the boys, whirling them around in dizzying spins, and admiring the grass and the butterflies. She is childlike herself. She rarely speaks, but her presence is palpable and complicated.
Tree of Life is not interested in diagnosing the family’s problems, or putting a label on the relationships. It’s not a family therapy session. How could it be when a prosaic moment of weeding the garden is followed by an image of a vast unpeopled prehistoric landscape belching with active volcanoes? When the father is home, the boys sit at the dinner table, hunched over, trying to answer his questions in the right way, but never really understanding what sets him off. We learn, eventually, in the languid time-flow of the film, that the father is disappointed by life. He holds “27 patents” for machines he has invented, but no one will recognize or reward his genius. He is angry at the rich neighbors, they make him feel inadequate. He plays the piano at home, passionately, lost in the music, and tries to teach the boys to hear what he hears in Toscanini, pointing out what they should be listening for. They don’t get it. They’re too afraid of him. He reveals to his son his old dream of being a concert pianist. We put him together in our minds, in the same way the boys do. He is rather frightening, not because he’s violent or abusive. He is frightening because he withholds tenderness. When he goes away on a business trip, mother and sons tear through the house, screaming and laughing, chasing each other, exhilarated that the somber force who rules over them is absent.
The Texas scenes are filmed in a way that feel like memories. They are not presented literally or linearly. We get glimpses, fragments, we see the same images repeating, repeating, yet each time they appear they have a deeper resonance. It is as though repetition grounds the memory in the consciousness, as though the grownup Sean Penn continuously goes back to the same things in his mind, the same childhood fragments: his mother whirling in the side yard, her bare feet with blades of grass stuck on them, the arc of water from the sprinkler, the crunch of grass in the yard, as though the accumulation of sensory details can help him receive the whole picture of childhood, of his life. I thought of Proust more than once, and how his Remembrance of Things Past evokes layers and layers of memories through one sensory detail, a scent, a sound of music, images and fragments rising to the surface and submerging again in the blink of an eye. But the entire universe is in such images. Life is not plot. Life is images, fragments, scents, light, feel. Malick’s camera catches the three boys’ unselfconscious behavior. He hasn’t made a film featuring children before, not like this. There’s one tiny (funny) cliffhanger when the oldest boy tries to scoop a piece of meatloaf onto his knife without using his finger to push it on, under the watchful eye of his father. Small moments of behavior take on enormous importance, and often, these are the small memories that stick with us forever.
The universe-creation montages are spectacular and odd, with breathtaking images carrying a strange familiarity (haven’t we all imagined what the beginning of the universe must have been like?). Our first image in the film is of blackness with a puddle of liquidy golden light starting to flow and swirl, intensifying. “God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.” There is something Biblical about the progression of events, suggesting that there is a force out there guiding everything, the same force creating the bond of the family, the same force everyone whispers to, in supplication and pleading.
Malick’s constantly undulating collage of images (I don’t think there’s one stationary shot in the whole film) has a cumulative effect. The rhythm of the film is insistent. The cuts create a juxtaposition of specific images and are not meant to ratchet up the tension or keep the audience on edge. It’s a neverending flow. You must succumb to it or you will be lost. With Malick, the power is not in what he shows us, but how it is put together, why one image is chosen to follow another. We are used to a certain kind of conventional pacing and shot progression. Long shot, medium, closeup, end-scene. None of that is in evidence here, not surprising considering Malick’s history as an artist, having created such visually arresting films as Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and New World.
There is a fascinating moment in Tree of Life which has received a lot of chatter. The moment occurs between two dinosaurs on a riverbank. One lies injured, its body heaving up and down with painful breaths. Another dinosaur appears out of the woods and its body language changes when it sees the injured creature. We have been trained by Land of the Lost and Jurassic Park to think of nature as being only red in tooth and claw so I waited for the slaughter. Instead, the predator dinosaur hops across the river and stares down at the injured dinosaur. It puts its clawed foot out, and rests it on the fallen dinosaur for a moment. Instead of attacking, it then hops down the river, leaving the injured dinosaur by itself. Malick, as was seen most clearly in The New World but is evidenced in most of his films, has a longing for innocence, a romantic yearning for a time before civilization came along and messed everything up. It’s a strictly Rousseau-ian view, and not one I share. However, it is a compelling fantasy, and one that obviously drives Malick, obsesses him. Nature as a benign force, every tree, every blade of grass, every ray of sunshine, whispering the voice of God.
Grace is a difficult concept to put into words. There is grace in the divine or religious sense, but there is also grace in the physical sense, as in the movements of ballerinas or stallions. Grace is present in the silent feelings between people, the ties binding us to each other, however painful or unresolved. Love is transcendent, or at least it can be, and loving another person provides for the possibility of compassion and empathy, one of the ways the human race distinguishes itself. I thought of all this as I watched the violent creation of the universe, billions of years before any of us showed up. If I had to define grace, I would say grace is those moments, oh, so brief, when a sensation flows into me, and something in me – or outside of me – says: “This. Here. Right now. Is perfect.” But that’s not really a definition, is it? This is the problem with – and the beauty of – grace.
Tree of Life isn’t about grace so much as it is a representation of it.