Decades in the making, the gestation period of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) is as epic as the film itself. After Days of Heaven (1978) was released to critical acclaim and nominated for four Academy Awards, Paramount, the studio that backed it, offered the director a million dollars for his next project regardless of its subject matter. Despite being burnt out from making and editing Days, he agreed. Malick had been contemplating his most ambitious film yet: the creation of our galaxy and the Earth as well as the beginnings of life on our planet. It was originally called Qasida (a reference to an ancient Arabian form of rhythmic lyric poetry) and eventually shortened to Q. In 1979, Malick and a small crew began shooting footage in exotic locales all over the world. The footage they were getting looked great but Paramount was nervous about the absence of a screenplay (Malick would write 40-page poetic descriptions of the imagery) and a structured shooting schedule. Eventually, the studio lost patience with the director’s methods and he not only quit the project but the movie business for 20 years.
The first signs that Malick was returning to his Q project came during pre-production on The New World (2005) when producer Sarah Green received a revised treatment for what would become The Tree of Life. By July 2007, there was a script that fused the cosmic nature of Q with a semi-autobiographical story that focused on a Texas family in the 1950’s as seen through the eyes of the oldest child Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult). As early as Days of Heaven, Malick had been moving away from linear narratives to a more philosophical tone poem approach. With The Thin Red Line (1998), he began to explore in greater detail man’s relationship with his environment and with the Earth. This continued with The New World, which embraced a non-linear narrative more than anything he had done before. The Tree of Life is the culmination of Malick’s body of work so far.
The film begins with the death of one of the O’Brien children. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is understandably devastated while the father (Brad Pitt) is stoic but eventually the cracks begin to show and he also grieves in his own way. Cut to the present day and Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is an architect, unhappy and adrift in the world, still haunted by the death of his brother. The film flashes back to his reminisces of his childhood in the ‘50s. In this first section, Malick cuts back and forth between the impersonal concrete and glass jungle of the big city in which Jack works and the idyllic suburban neighborhood of his youth.
Early on in the film, the mother says in a disembodied voiceover, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.” I believe that this passage is integral to understanding Malick’s film and it becomes apparent that the mother represents Grace, accepting insults and injuries, while the father represents nature, lording over his family.
Right from the get-go, Malick dispenses with the traditional notion of how a scene is structured and linked to another in favor of an impressionistic approach. This is no more apparent then when the narrative segues to an extraordinary sequence depicting the creation of our galaxy and the Earth with absolutely breathtaking imagery – a stunning mix of unusual practical effects (created by Dan Glass and the legendary Douglas Trumbull) and actual footage courtesy of NASA. With this sequence we are entering Stanley Kubrick territory. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Malick mixes science with spirituality, the cosmic and the ethereal, occasionally commented on via existential voiceover musings about God by the mother. He actually shows the Earth forming and early life being created on the most basic cellular level on up to the dinosaurs. This sequence and its placement so early on in the film is just one of the audacious choices Malick makes.
The film then goes back to early stages of the O’Brien family, to the creation of their children, the painful and glorious experience of childbirth, much like that of the Earth itself. Malick presents two approaches to parenting: the mother is a nurturing figure while the father is a stern disciplinarian. She is in tune with nature while he represents structure. It is this part of the film that is the most engaging as we are presented with familiar, relatable imagery: a very young boy gazes in wonderment and then jealousy at his baby sibling; the shadows of tree branches playing across a wall; the family playing with sparklers at night; kids playing in tall grass; and a tree-lined suburb at dusk with the sky the most amazing shade of purple-blue. These are the innocent, carefree days when you had no worries and would spend hours playing with other children until called in by your mother for the night. Malick has come full circle by returning to the same tranquil Texas suburbs first glimpsed at the beginning of Badlands (1973), his debut feature. These scenes will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in the suburbs or a rural environment.
As he did with Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, Malick demonstrates an incredible affinity for working with children and pulling naturalistic performances out of them. All of the kids, especially newcomer Hunter McCracken, act very comfortable in front of the camera, almost as if Malick caught them unaware that they were being filmed. McCracken has a very expressive face, which he utilizes well over the course of the film as Jack becomes increasingly rebellious, testing the rules imposed by his father. Malick documents the children’s behavior and all of their idiosyncrasies, like how they interact with each other and how this differs with their interaction with adults, especially in the ‘50s when they were much more respectful. Much of the film is seen from a child’s point-of-view with low angle shots that look up at adults, trees, and so on. It’s only in the scenes with other children that the camera takes a more level position.
At one point, the father tells Jack that his mother is naïve and that “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” Brad Pitt doesn’t play the stereotypical strict father figure but one with layers that are gradually revealed through the course of the film. He works in a factory, a labrinythian maze of metal machinery but we learn that he wanted to originally be a musician but it didn’t work out. He had to become responsible and lead a more traditional life in order to provide for his family. He still plays piano and passes this ability on to his children. Pitt delivers an excellent performance that grounds the film. The actor has aged well and grown into his looks, relying less and less on them as he gets older. There is a nice scene where he accompanies one of his sons playing an acoustic guitar with the piano that is brief but does a lot to humanize his character. The mother, in comparison, is a more elusive character, more of an ethereal figure as played by Jessica Chastain.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of The Tree of Life is how it may be Malick’s most personal film to date. The parallels between him and Jack are quite striking. Malick also grew up in Texas during the ‘50s and was the eldest of three sons. Like Jack, Malick was known for his “precocious” behavior growing up. Most strikingly, the director had a younger brother who died. Larry was an accomplished guitarist studying in Spain. At one point he had an accident that damaged his hands and became quite upset over his studies. Their father asked Malick to go to Spain to be with his brother but Malick refused. Larry committed suicide and Malick has felt guilty about it ever since. Is this film a way of the director dealing with the loss of his brother after all these years?
You simply cannot engage The Tree of Life in a traditional way. The first section is a little impenetrable at first as one has to leave the concept of traditional narrative behind and get acclimatized to Malick’s approach. One has to let the film wash over you and let his poetic imagery work its magic. Like all of his films, this is one that people will either passionately love or hate because of its ambitious, unusual approach. It will be seen as pretentious by some but any film that strives to tackle big themes like life and death and what it means to be human on such an epic (and also intimate) scale runs that risk. What prevents it from collapsing under its own thematic weight is Malick’s sincerity. He really believes in what he is showing us and treats it with the solemnity and weight it deserves. The Tree of Life has the kind of lofty ambitions most films only dream of reaching and it is easy to see why it is being compared to 2001. Like that film, Malick’s will undoubtedly reveal more upon repeated viewings. There is just so much to absorb that one viewing is not enough because you are too busy trying to make sense of what all this breathtaking imagery means. It will take repeated viewings to fully appreciate what Malick is trying to do and say. This is an important film by a master filmmaker.
New York magazine takes a fantastic look at the decades in the making history of the film.