With the rumblings and portents of world’s end and apocalyptic speculation, The Tree of Life could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. Granted, it does not dwell on the End as much as it does the Beginning, but it still shows us glimpses, with a dead and barren Earth as the white dwarf sun overlooks. There is an intuition of Eternity set on desert shores, the waves rolling in the water being the same images we saw earlier in the picture, after the cataclysmic meteor fell to the planet and destroyed the previous Earth governors—the dinosaurs. In this end of the world, which repeats ad infinitum to beings innocent of its interruption by Hegelian Great Goals, there is marked staticity and acceptance: Calm. Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) walks on the Ice Age terrain, just as he will walk through the desert toward Eternity’s ocean shores. We should say it is removed by millions of years, but it is not. Time is illusory, a veil, an accident. There is then no movement. Only this calm. After the dinosaurs, so there are us. And after us—? Malick ends his film with the same mysterious shape, the form of formlessness that begins and ends the world, which prompts our human eyes to read human shapes into it, like a face behind a thin veil of fabric.
This enigmatic image that begins and ends The Tree of Life makes me think that it is ideally viewed as a loop, the same way that Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is read. Joyce’s book was a dream, his book of the dark, of dream logic and sense (and so is often inscrutable), its characters archetypes and binary forces. In completing the book, the reader can choose to go back to page one and dream again, the fragments and their weaving a little clearer (though never entirely lucid), or you can step out, released from the cycle of suffering, fear, desire, joy, growth and destruction. I personally see The Tree of Life’s title to be a commentary on its own form, rather than a reference to any specific tree in the movie. Its resonance crosses the synapses—or branches—of religions and scientific paradigms and human lives. The leaves of immediate experience link back, deeper and deeper, into the bottomless past, to the demiurge, the first fire. There is no straight dramatic development of the content, only rough fragments, leaving us to fill in the rest. They are impressions that gradually become more specific as Jack’s child memory grows, which then once again becomes an impression, before waking up in the present, though the final destination is in how the viewer interprets Jack’s/Malick’s binaries and absorbs his images into a contemplation of one’s own Beingness and the way one actively interprets the world. The last player is the viewer, invited to gaze at and then remember the fragments. In my life, perhaps no other film has triggered my own personal memory recall in the way The Tree of Life has. And thinking about my own past while thinking about The Tree of Life in retrospect, so too do I necessarily think of how unlikely my Being is. Malick’s memory becomes our own contemplation of the deep past, the tale that Jack’s younger brother, R.L., asks to be told: “Tell us a story from before we can remember.”
To me there is little that confuses about The Tree of Life, which is dually impenetrable as a personal reflection, confession, and requiem for a dead brother, just as it is, while burrowing into its roots, universal. Malick’s images are very specific pictures of his own biographical childhood outside of Waco, Texas in the 1950s. As time goes on throughout his autobiographical portrait and we experience the dissonance of his own neuroses rooted in the Mother (Jessica Chastain) and the Father (Brad Pitt), we fall into our own groundlessness, removed from the Creation of the World, an eighteen-minute marvel of how our cosmic canvas was sculpted, accelerating through fourteen billion years of volcanic light and lava screaming, geysers smoking, unicellular organisms coming together in the first acts of compassion, fish freely swimming, and then more complicated creatures—dinosaurs—feeding and suffering in the befuddling chain of existence. We are then born and called forth from the ocean of time, which slows down and wraps us up in its immediacy with resentments, jealousies and desires. The Tree of Life invites accusations of pretentiousness, but though many of us may scoff at one man’s presumption to link his own biography to the origins of life, Malick is in fact calling out for us to do the same, and so to wonder about our Being, rather than just being-in-the-world, where we are lulled into sleep by day-to-day work and momentary amusements. The Tree of Life is Malick’s “Song of Myself,” recalling Whitman: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
In Whitman’s exploration of his own self, which we shall assume with him and so get to the “origin of all poems,” we meditate with our subjectivity, a gift of evolution allowing us to observe ourselves, feeling sympathy and gratitude as we reflect on impulses even as we still fall prey to them. Is it solipsistic? Megalomania? Ego inflation? New Age bullshit? And how are we defining God? The “You” which is in fact that feeling and sentient part of ourselves, with us since memory stirred us awake, has been buried deep in the past. “If piety is the being penetrated with the importance of the self,” wrote Thomas Mann, wrestling with his own brethren in a series of books following the Biblical Joseph, Joseph and His Brothers, “then worship is piety’s extension and assimilation into the eternalness of being, which returns in it and wherein it recognizes itself.” In being subjective, we are recognizing portions of the self that are lost, very often, to impulses and immediate moments. We’re finding ourselves in the same way Joseph works his way back to his jealous brothers and loving, bereaved father, Jacob (whose ladder becomes a huge motif in The Tree of Life). Mann, Malick and Whitman are all emulating a transcendentalism seeking to change our ocular focus, and thereby consecrate our awareness of seeing. This is why cinema is so important, because it calls attention to our seeing. As frustrated as many viewers may be with this film, it is deliberately calling our attention to the act of seeing and the subsequent imaginative interpretations that follow, the rough brush-strokes of binaries meant to waver back and forth in our own dialectic during and after the experience. The film screen is a window and doorway through which we are invited to look at strangers. They are fragments that become mirrors in which we glimpse our own lost time.
We may be off-put by what we see: couples fighting, frogs and birds’ nests being destroyed, implied masturbation following trespassing, the temptation to kill a parent. Malick’s child alter-ego, excellently played by Hunter McCracken, could be dismissed as a too-logical precursor for the eccentric many people see Malick as being. He is not the warm and inviting youth of a Spielberg fantasy, attempting to reconcile the move into adulthood with the blissful childhood being left behind. Whereas Spielberg is always looking for the absent father, Malick’s father is too present, an Eye of God, a Yahweh demanding devotion and jealous love. The child’s feeling for the father is a mixture of love with hatred having something to do with characteristics he also sees in himself. Jack narrates words to describe his father: “Tells lies. Makes up stories. Insults people. Doesn’t care.” The Mother is ethereal, almost too sweet and loving a portrait of the Eternal Feminine.
With Jack’s erotic awakening, his shame increases. The appearance of the women attracting him evidences a kind of striving to get away from the mother, as they all have dark hair: the girl whom Jack likes at school; the neighbor woman whose bedroom he invades; his wife as an adult; the smartly dressed woman he notices walking past him as he speaks on a cell phone. Significantly, we do not hear him utter a single word to any of these four women, just as he cannot talk to his own mother about his burgeoning—and illicit—adolescent desires.
Language is the manifestation of freedom or repression, whether imposed by parents or by oneself. The Father controls language utterly, using it to erect a framework he then approves of as the truth. The Father recalls many other Malick characters: certainly Kit in Badlands (who tells Holly to replace the word “loneliness” with “solitude,” because “it meant more what I intended to say”), and Col. Tall in The Thin Red Line, who does not have dialogue with his underlings, but commands them. Jack’s father is not “dad,” but “Father.” He demands on being called “sir.” He cannot be interrupted. He tells R.L. at the dinner table, “Will you do me a favor? Do not speak unless you have something important to say.” Or to Jack: “Not one more word out of you.” The way his children fight back is by disobeying his strictures of language. Jack will interrupt and continue interrupting. At the dinner table, briefly after the father instructs R.L. to limit his words to significant content, R.L. interrupts: “Be quiet.” “What did you say?!” Father becomes physical, grabbing R.L. and then throwing Jack into a dark closet. Mother holds closely the frightened youngest child, Steve (who never seems to talk at all), pressing him to her chest. When the episode concludes and the mother stands over the sink, the father accuses her of turning his own children against him. Her rebuttal is physical instead of verbal, though it relates to how he uses language: she extends her hand to his mouth and says, “How do you like it?” He swats it away and clutches her into submission.
Everything about the Father has reference to rules, boundaries, limitations and circumscriptions. The only thing that is limitless for him is how inadequate something can be. In the steel web of his work, an environment of straight vertical and horizontal lines of grey and lifeless blue, he—wordlessly—taps his watch while passing by a hard-hatted worker, who nods. At home, he calls attention to the yard, drawing lines for his children to not cross. And of course he draws out a precise syntax for them to follow at dinner table discussion, of which he governs. That kind of verbal syntax finds parallels in both the linear directions for how one carves out a professional existence (“through fierce will” and adapting to “the world’s trickery”), and exhibits compassion (the way he instructs Jack and R.L. to give him a kiss and hug). Being a man who catalogues everything, the lines drawn up in binaries for the father are definite. For him, “the wrong people go hungry” and “the wrong people get loved.”
Those steel-webbed walls of the father are juxtaposed with the freedom laid out by the mother, and indeed when dad is away on business, all three children erupt in euphoria. With the mother, the three boys run freely through tall grass and listen to fantastical stories unrestricted by time (“Tell us a story from before we can remember”) or probability (the anthropomorphic tales of Kipling). This contrast of circumscriptions colliding with freedom comes back to subjectivity, such an important theme for Malick. Significantly, we overhear the father define “subjective” for his children: “Subjective. It means in your own mind. It cannot be proven by other people.” The key conflict in The Thin Red Line was Witt’s dialectic with Welsh, where one sees “another world,” while the other only sees “this rock,” where a man, by himself, is nothing. And yet for Witt, a man himself is the whole world, limitless. The Tree of Life takes subjectivity to a new level, as the mind of one man—in a reflective thought one present day afternoon—goes back to his youth and the source of regrets, disorder and early sorrow. He digs into the well of the past, going back to, quite literally, the very beginning. His life is the whole cosmos and the expanse of Time: the transcendent horizon for the question of Being.
As autobiography, The Tree of Life is most immediately a requiem for the dead brother, Larry Malick, a practicing guitarist reportedly compelled by his own sense of inadequacy to break his hands and kill himself after failing to become, as he must have seen it, a better guitar player. The feelings of inadequacy were implanted by the father’s demands, which was misplaced love. “He used to hit himself in the face for no reason,” the Father mumbles during the mournful beginning. “Did I make him feel ashamed?” This man, after all, speaks reverentially about Toscanini, who recorded a piece of music 65 times and said: “It could be better.”
Much of The Tree of Life is elliptical, though, and many critics have assumed that the death of the son, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), given the time, is related to the war in Vietnam. I think we are allowed to intuit the actual death of Larry Malick as the place from which we start our contemplation on death, meaning and the guilt of survivors. In the present day, it is implied that Jack has said some hurtful words to his father about R.L., dead all these years. The shame of saying hurtful words—from “you’re fat” to “your bad parenting resulted in my brother killing himself” and everything in between—to people close to us is something harder to run away from than would be expedient, even if we are objectively correct, because so often our harshness mirrors our own insecurities, and so nurtures our own self-loathing. Jack is haunted by the realization that he is more like his father than he would like, something Peter Biskind’s 1998 Vanity Fair article on Malick implies may have also been the case for the director. Talking on a cell phone while in an elevator, Jack apologizes to his father “for saying what I said,” adding, “Yeah, I think about him every day.” The whole film is a meditation brought about by whatever he said to his father, an endless free-floating association of memory climaxing in reconciliation. “I’m just as bad as you,” he tells his dad in the 1950s, though in actuality I think we should interpret this scene as the present talking to the past. “I’m more like you than like her.”
We cannot leave alone the question of R.L.’s death, though. As a suicide, it is much more significant than random death in military combat, since it relates to the sorrow and meaninglessness of existence. The question of suicide, Camus reminds us, is the most important one we face. And though we may distract ourselves well enough with day-to-day tasks, hopes and glimmers of beauty, perhaps falling prey may mean no more than to succumb to despair’s truth. For Nietzsche, the prospect of suicide acted as a comfort; no matter how bad life got, there remained at least one viable option of escape. I think Jack’s memory of R.L., his playmate and childhood companion, coupled with the reality of his suicide, provokes his own existential quandaries, just as Larry Malick’s suicide is a ghost haunting Malick’s thoughts on meaning in his films. Kit in Badlands, Witt in The Thin Red Line, the Farmer in Days of Heaven, John Smith or Pocahontas in The New World: all point to the lingering wonderment with which the individual takes her fate in her hands.
The death of R.L. drives the heart of The Tree of Life’s opening moments, as the mother talks about her youth and we see warm images of a rural landscape, her father holding her tight and animals—lambs and cows—being fed by her. John Tavener’s Funeral Canticle plays as she says, “When I was young the nuns taught us there are two ways through life. The way of Nature. And the way of Grace. You have to choose which path you’ll take.” What is Grace? “It accepts all things. It does not mind being slighted, forgotten, disliked, insults, or injuries.” Nature, on the other hand, “only wants to please itself,” much like the world described by Tall in The Thin Red Line. It “finds reasons to be unhappy” and wants to lord over others, have its own way, find things to dislike when all else is shining with “the Glory.” There is bliss in these opening moments, as we see the O’Brien family together: Father (Nature) at the garden, Mother (Grace) on the swing set, and the three children climbing a ladder and rope on a large tree. The mother’s voice says, “No one who follows the way of Grace ever comes to a bad end.”
And yet it is implied that R.L., who is associated with the Mother as Jack is with the Father, will indeed come to a bad end—the ugliest. Malick cuts to another house a decade later, where the mother gets a Western Union telegram with the bad news. The Funeral Canticle music goes to silence as she crumbles on the floor with a loud cry that cuts to an airplane engine (one of the most ingenious cuts in this film, which is not only one of the best exhibitions of cinematography I’ve ever experienced, but also of film and sound editing). The Father is on the phone. We cannot hear what he says or hears as he’s framed in close-up (Malick is using the close-up in marvelous abundance, further accentuating that juxtaposition of the micro and macrocosmic). Francesco Lupica’s Cosmic Beam thunders on the soundtrack, drowning out all other sound completely, as the Father is left alone with the space within himself.
The Mother’s voice drifts in as a prayer of mourning to God, as the camera floats over R.L.’s room: paints and the conspicuous guitar we will see him play throughout the film. “I will fear no evil,” her voice says, but then there is an opposition: “What did You gain?” The prayer is not acceptance, but a plea for it: “My Hope. My God. My Son.” It’s a meditation upset by a grieving parent’s great question: “Why did You take him?” The Father’s own shame results in a confused walk underneath trees, a stark contrast to the well-kept suburban lawn. He stumbles forth, lost and confused, in the wilderness of his sorrow.
Years later, the blur of technological modernity glides as an abstraction on the screen, confused and blurry. Jack wakes up in his sterile but ornately constructed house. Nature surrounds it outside, but inside the walls are neatly dressed and arranged. Jack’s dark-haired wife sits on the opposite side of the bed. They share no words, each preparing for the day by walking linear paths that seem designed to never cross. The only time she looks at him is when he lights a blue candle and stares into the light, an image that will be echoed later on when his father does the same at church. The Fire in Malick, in all of its manifestations—whether natural or electric and man-made—is the eternal fire of consciousness and Self, the activating element of Pure Being. (We may recall Witt and his spark in Thin Red Line). During Jack’s childhood erotic activation, as he gazes longingly at a dark-haired, dark-complexioned classmate, the two words given by the teacher for the spelling test are, very significantly, “Volcano” and “Socket,” two images prominently figured in this picture—both being references to Light and Creation.
In his modern day life, Jack speaks of a greedy world “gone to the dogs.” Words are everywhere, but meaningless. As an architect, Jack is also an activating Creator, and Malick makes us wonder about creation in all of its forms here in a downtown metropolis as both interiors and exteriors are photographed with wide-angle lenses. The building where Jack works is streamlined to perfection, beautiful in its own way, but also denoting greed and estrangement from anything Eternal, an omnipresent Now of isolated moments. The biblical connotation is to the Tower of Babel, where architectural genius elevated humankind to the height of God, but resulted in a confusion of language. Jack is struggling through this disconnect. On a cell phone, he tells someone, “When you’re young you’re only focused on your career”; a beautiful, smartly dressed woman passes him by, reflexively making him do a double take (which finds echo in how he voyeuristically gazes at women later on, just as he avoids their gazes, like with his wife, or turning his head away from his classmate who looks back, or in his shame telling his mother, “Don’t look at me”). Jack feels like he is “running into walls,” the camera arcing up to a huge transparent window. Indeed, everything is transparent here, the mystery of framed cinematic gazing into private spaces eliminated. Like in Babel, words go nowhere. A coworker tells Jack about a girlfriend who wants to get back together. “Chapter’s done, book’s closed,” the coworker says. “What are you going to do?” Jack asks. “Experiment,” the coworker answers. People are closed off even while transparent; selfishness is mandated. Maybe Jack’s father was correct about how “the world lives by trickery,” and a rich man is “like the fourth person in the Holy Trinity.” Outside in the concrete sculptures of man’s own ingenious creations of urban sprawl there is room for only a few neatly planted trees.
Woven throughout this segment are pictures from Jack’s interior journey, his hand on a desert wall, his shadow, his awareness of Being and struggle to identify with Ground Concepts. In this urban environment, all is being-in-the-world, which conceals Being, or “the Glory.” We see short fragments of the Shores of Eternity, shadows photographed upside down, as if to visually communicate phenomenology leading to the Self’s realization. “How did You come to me? In what shape? What disguise?” he’s asking. “What are You thinking?” He has to ask these childlike questions of a forgotten self from before he can remember, as though God only made his appearance known through personae or masks (and we will see one such mask floating through Eternity’s shores near the end of the film).
Jack’s mind—that of an architect—is building its own necessary bridge between the Office and the Shores, the Immediate and the Timeless, the Beginning and the End, Objective and Subjective, Nature and Grace, Father and Mother. Everything is encapsulated in the demiurge, the God stuff of the big bang. The river’s edge where Jack plays with his brothers is the same river’s edge where dinosaurs enacted their unconscious and wordless drama. The shores of Eternity, where he is reunited with his brother, and his mother’s grief is relieved, is possibly the same shore on which a mortally wounded plesiosaur had contemplated the gash on its side.
Interpreted, the plesiosaur here has two major references. It might recall the way of Nature as a reference to Leviathan, the sea monster from the Book of Job. Philosophically, the Leviathan can also be associated with Nature, insofar as Thomas Hobbes adopted it for his book on political systems, Leviathan (1651). Hobbes’s view of Nature and civilization was a bleak one, where beings are each individual units, driven by self-interest, “the appetites” and “aversion.” The Father could be seen as the governing monarch in the Leviathan, whose strict boundaries are necessary to forestall the war of all against all.
But through the prism of Grace, the plesiosaur could also be seen as a Christ reference—the lapis or Fish, an archetype of the deep unconscious (the ocean) with a gash on its side (like Christ crucified). R.L. is linked with Christ (who also, essentially, chose death) in the scene at church when he looks up at the stain-glass image of Jesus, his hands bounded, relating not only to Malick’s recurring motifs of boundaries and cages impeding freedom, but also the hands his brother broke. As the family moves house in the 1950s, we see quiet R.L. in the backyard underneath the tree with its ladder, his brother looking over him, burying personal objects. On top of everything he places a dead pet fish, covering it with neatly wrapped cloth. At the end of the film, Jack finds R.L., his mother, her younger self, his father, his other brother Steve (Tye Sheridan), his friend with a badly singed head and countless other strangers going through similar reunions, on that same beach where the plesiosaur/Christ had suffered. Cut into the sequence and accompanied by the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God—Christ—who takes away the sins of the world) music from Berlioz’s Requiem are more bizarre and enigmatic images: a desert town where two corpses are wrapped in cloth—like the fish. Malick also cuts to crypts where beautiful Sleeping Beauties (also evoked earlier in the film) resurrect. The apocalypse has happened. Earth is now dead and the sun going out, but this is not Judgment Day. It is resurrection and calm forgiveness. More images of Jacob’s Ladder (to Heaven), along with a bridge that seems to lead into the sky take Jack through his spiritual education. He has imagined his own Genesis, Exodus, Ecclesiastes, Job, New Testament, and final Revelation. Richard Brody, in his New Yorker blog on The Tree of Life, points out that when the mother twirls the young R.L. around in circles and points at the sky, saying, “God lives there,” the music that erupts is Smetana’s “Ma Vlast” or “The Moldau”—from which Israel derives its own national anthem. The myths cross branches into our humble lives, the processes of death, birth, suffering, and joy all present at once. The epiphany—perhaps only grasped for a slight instant—is the very miracle of Being, and the paradox of one’s simultaneous insignificance and Glory.
Many viewers might well be turned off by how Malick approaches God, but his film is not a testament as to whether or not a supernatural Supreme Being exists (like Whitman, “the ineffable remains”); God is that You within. Malick does not seem to resent his religious upbringing, and for him religion is taken in its literal meaning, as from the Latin root, relgio, or “linking back.” This is Malick’s song of himself, of his brother, of his mother, and of his father, and likewise we too live out our own myths on a day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade basis, if we subjectively “link back.” The Past is a reformulation and reflection set in the present, and this is interesting in noting the Christ references and linking them to Job, and so to the harsh Father and the release of forgiveness in Agnus Dei.
The opening quote of the picture is Job 38:4:7: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth … When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Malick’s film may be accused of self-importance, but it is sincere in its questions and imagery, which will chime so harshly in a movie theater surrounded by Cadillac commercials and comic book franchises. Few films awe as much, and the receptive viewer may even be moved to tears while watching the creation of the world, scored to “Lacrimosa 2” from Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem. In a film layered with death music, is it ironic that in the beginning of all things we are given the part of the requiem—the lacrimosa—that classically has the function of making us cry and reaching catharsis? Meanwhile at the end, following the obliteration of the planet as souls are imagined in peace and atonement on Eternity’s shores, we are curiously unmoved, gazing curiously back, as Jack does, at the accidents and erosions of life. Creation mourns, harshly laying its base on death. Volcanic lava collides with rocks into which it is impossible not to read suffering human faces.
The boys have been brought up by their mother to read themselves in nature. There is a storybook about rabbits in human clothing, and there is Kipling’s Jungle Books, with the story of Ka, the rock python, and his skin—which is not a coincidence, being that the snake, much like the fish, is another Christ reference, shedding its skin, its mask, then dying and being born again, ceaselessly in a cycle of death and rebirth. Reptiles certainly have a special place for Malick, who began The Thin Red Line with the sublime saltwater crocodile, a relic from the dinosaur age. Here, in addition to the actual dinosaurs, we have snakes, lizards and cousins to the reptiles/dinosaurs, interspersed among Malick’s expected abundance of birds and amphibians (frogs). As a toddler, Jack’s mother has him play with some wooden blocks of crocodilians: “Two alligators.” The blocks are later used as a weapon when a jealous toddler Jack throws one at the infant R.L. While exploring the grassy land, one of the boys takes a grasshopper and offers it as food to a dog (who declines), then Jack finds a dinosaur bone. The episode underscores the theme of timelessness, in addition to the consuming, self-pleasing and impulse-driven character of Nature, which is certainly seen in children. As that wordless world looks back at us—or does not look back—we make it more like us: dogs, cats, reptiles, grasshoppers, rabbits, trees, etc., just as the Mother mourns under the weeping willows. During the Darwinian sequence, we see a fetus’s heart beating fast (presumably a dinosaur), and the mother’s voice saying, “My hope. My child.”
The most tender and evocative sequence of the film is that which follows Jack’s birth up through his adolescence, which plays like a dream in making us wonder about how our consciousness comes around to recognizing itself. The sequence begins symbolically, but the abstractions are not forced. For me, they seemed to recall memories from before I was aware of who I was: a child’s room under water, lakeside environments populated by tender figures whispering in my ear. To Holst’s “Ode to Dionysus,” the children are shooed forth as Malick’s camera moves in on a cave with a monster’s face. This cave is the Door to Hell, located in Bomarzo, Italy’s Park of the Monsters, a Renaissance sculpture garden created by Pier Francesco Orsini, a creative ground that was, much like The Tree of Life, designed to astonish more than to please. The Door to Hell is a Hell-Mouth, an archetype in Christian mythology—which also corresponds to the Leviathan from Job (the Leviathan’s jaws are often referred to as the jaws of Hell). To enter Life is then to enter Hell, and yet the moment is filmed with such lushness and tranquility that we feel like we are being birthed into an earthly paradise. Jack’s quest, like everyone’s quest in the struggle for realizing Being, is to find this place before Time began, “before we can remember.” There is magic in these early years, like a chair moving by itself, the mother floating on air, and then the mysterious stairs leading to a dark attic, where a coffin seems to lay in front of the window. The sequence is uncanny.
In these memories, we see the struggle in Jack’s heart. Roger Ebert called The Tree of Life a prayer or meditation, and he is right. Like a prayer, its words (“Love everything”) are more like mantras than commands, which we can hopefully take to heart in grappling with the impulses that imprison us. Orson Welles said the two things hardest to film are sex and prayer, but Malick here accomplishes the latter with an honesty that is unprecedented. Young Jack prays at his bedside, but the tormenting thing any believing child understands about prayer is how removed words are from action. In Hamlet, Claudius laments: “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Jack wants to be good and says so. “Help me to be good. Help me to be brave. Help me not to get dogs in fights. Help me not to tell lies.” These are choices, aren’t they? So why do we pray? Why don’t we just choose to act certain ways? One of the more beguiling lines of dialogue in The Tree of Life occurs when Jack, trying to exert rebellion to his mother, says to her, “What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.” The allusion is to Romans 7:15, when Paul says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” In St. Paul, we recognize an inflection of Nature and Grace in conflict.
And under the duress of peer pressure, for example, Jack does terrible things. He vandalizes old houses (“I say let’s break it” says his friend with the tow revolver), throws firecrackers in a bird’s nest with unhatched eggs, and ties a frog to a firecracker, then launching into the air. These are things that I suppose a lot of young people do. I still remember the glee I felt as a Boy Scout, about Jack’s age, in working with my friends to desecrate a pop machine at a campsite. One of the fathers joined us later on, long after we’d damaged the thing the most we could, and said, “It’s terrible what people do.” But as we nodded along with him, I felt ashamed. With the same friends, we would—again, with delight—throw live crayfish into a burning fire, or boil frogs and toads alive, or chuck them like baseballs into the woods and water (I once wrote a short story where some Boy Scouts take one such unfortunate amphibian and tie it up on two sticks to form a cross; the Frog Christ is then burned alive in the fire, its “eye popping with a juicy snap”). In retrospect, there’s a sense of shame and regret totally at odds with that concentrating side of one’s self, kneeling at a bed and praying, “Help me be good.”
The most disturbing sequence in The Tree of Life is probably the scene following Jack into an attractive neighbor woman’s house. Her door is unlocked. He invades the space, finally on the other side of the frame (before, he was always peering through those windows and doorways). He sees the window curtains blowing above air vents: this is the house belonging to the family that Jack’s father envies and resents, who can evidently afford air conditioning, in addition to a pristine lawn. Jack passes through a hallway (where we see a birdcage in a room), then enters the woman’s dressing room. He looks at a mirror and holds her earrings. We are seeing a young Terrence Malick’s fascination with strange ornaments, which finds its ultimate release in the woman’s slip. Jack takes it out of a drawer and lays it on the bed, staring at it, imagining. Malick does not show us what Jack does next; it is possible that he masturbates over the slip. The close-up on his face as he intensely gazes at the slip cuts to him running with it in a sweat by the riverside. At first he hides it beneath a piece of wood. Then he lets it flow down the river. When he gets home, he can neither look at his mother nor talk to her. The feminine ideal has been transmuted to the flowing River of Life.
This moment in young Jack’s life, which is so dissonant for viewers to watch (indeed, it may steer us away from identifying with the film instead of becoming closer to Jack), feels like a confession for Malick, and something that he actually did, just as I believe the bee-bee gun incident with R.L. is something drawn from his youth. We should remember that Jack believes he’s always being watched by God. Before he commits his sins, he prays, “Are You there? What are You? I want to see what You see.” It’s as if his contemplation of the God’s-Eye-View was Malick’s primer for film school, just as it was his realization of innocence slipping away.
Indeed, the dissonant chords of the family melodrama in The Tree of Life threaten to uproot us entirely from the Glory of the film’s preternatural beginnings. Jack grows increasingly absorbed in his own earthy, fleshy self, pushing away from his mother and hating his father. This changes when the father loses his job and walks home defeated. He is a broken man for whom nothing has worked out. He believed in “fierce will,” and the division between individuals, working to implant a sense of distrust and resentment in his children. Instead of sharing in the Great Idea, he patents his inventions, fostering “the ownership of ideas” just as he creates boundaries in language, space, and time. He admits that he’s missed “the Glory,” which was always there, as it was for Witt and Pocahontas. More like New World’s John Smith, the Father has “sailed past” it in his devotion to social ideals. The garden and yard he’s spent so much time on, and yet has never been able to have satisfactorily, is in worse shape than it was a decade before, and now he has to leave it. Losing track of that Glory, his life has slipped by as a series of disappointments.
Malick brings us back to the present where Jack’s elevator keeps on ascending, climaxing in the resurrection of beautiful corpses and the notorious Shores of Eternity, where the mother accepts R.L.’s death and gives her boy to God. This sequence is not a literal afterlife, but a subjective impression of it. It is the release from suffering and death that taunts beings in the disharmony of existence. We notice that the waves here are those same waves resulting from the meteor crash that gave us the apocalyptic ice age (and where Jack similarly tread through tundra as he now walks through desert, looking for God). Back in the present moment, Jack can afford a smile. The Shores of Eternity function as an exercise of his sympathy for the two individuals who led him to God’s Door, R.L. and his Mother—the two figures in his life having exhibited Grace.
The resolution of The Tree of Life, if it is a resolution, may be fleeting. Jack’s reconciliation with life may be nothing more than a short-lived moment. I think of it as a prelude. The television set at Jack’s house seems to be evidence that we are in the present day, but it has been pointed out that Sean Penn is too young to be Jack—12 years old in the mid-1950s—in the present day. Bringing The Tree of Life back to its autobiographical dimension, regardless of continuity errors, I like to think of Jack’s present day disposition to be the Malick of the mid-1990s, away and estranged from his Muse for nearly 20 years, in unhealthy relationships and even possibly betraying the trust of friends. Malick’s muse was, like the image of his mother, a Sleeping Beauty lost in the wilderness and waiting to be kissed back to life. But no tree can reach heaven unless its roots descend to hell. In exploring his dark corners—even if they are merely impressions or fragments—Malick’s Muse returned to him so that he could once again finish the song of himself, and like the bridge that ends the film, a sign of human ingenuity in creation, just as Malick’s film is, the spirit of the song blows through the cinema frame like the wind blows curtains on the windows, an image repeated again and again in The Tree of Life. And in those forms we see shapes of ourselves, as Malick’s pictures coast along our faces like the curtain fabric placed over Jack’s face, a motif that recalls the enigmatic nebulae beginning and ending The Tree of Life‘s loop.
Cinema is too often an escape from reality, in which we become concealed from our own selves, and some escapists will see The Tree of Life as antagonistic to a mainstream audience, and so in turn behave with their own antipathy toward it. But the filmmaker has anticipated this. The mother’s definition of Grace at the beginning is a nod to his critics. This film is my song: you might dislike, insult or even forget it. And that’s fine. Malick’s Song of Himself is also a Song to our Selves, and to the Great Self. We are imprisoned, shackled, encaged in modernity’s forms and banal tropes, in our lives and in our arts and entertainments. But Malick wants to take us home, where our masks fall off and wash away in the collective ocean. That bridge that ends the picture is a modern Jacob’s Ladder, designed to carry us back before the accidents of being-in-the-world that make us what we appear to be in Time. At the end of Malick’s journey, we encounter ourselves, and in ourselves, we see everyone else.
Note: This article is a modified version of a blog originally posted on The Niles Files, on June 8, 2011.