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The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life opened over a year ago, on 27 May 2011, and since then, every attempt I have made to write about it has failed. Perhaps it has taken me this long to work out exactly how I feel about it, although I’m still not sure I’ve done so. I’ve tried starting with a simple plot summary, as is customary in reviews; this seems inappropriate though, not only because the film is only tangentially related to its plot, but also any movie that shows you the creation of the Universe and the destruction of the earth is worth more than a paragraph of plot. (And this is not strictly a review.) I tried leading into an analysis by comparing it to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Mirror—other barely linear films that attempt to elucidate Man’s relationship with Infinity.

I should have been talking about how the movie makes me feel. That’s the real bottom line. That’s where all the aborted writing was leading anyway. The Tree of Life produces within me a deep, spiritual awareness, an awe of existence, a rapturous, rhapsodic emotion. It’s the kind of state I imagine deeply religious congregations experience during their more ecstatic moments in church. Not being religious, deeply or otherwise, I was fairly stunned to have a movie affect me in this way.

Here is the best analogy I can make, and it is still probably quite poor. In Douglas Adams’s novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, he introduces the notion of a machine called the Total Perspective Vortex. The device causes extreme consternation to those who use it, “for when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says ‘You are here.’ ” (ch10)

Viewing The Tree of Life, one feels pretty much the same thing. You get a sense of it in 2001: A Space Odyssey; that film shows you the moment mankind emerges from its simian prehistory and contrasts it with the inconceivable distances that separate the earth from every other thing in the universe. But what The Tree of Life does is make that contrast deeply personal. It really is like seeing “the entire unimaginable infinity of creation” and seeing yourself in relation to it all. It’s enough to make you feel minuscule and worthless, like the users victims of the Total Perspective Vortex.

Rather, that would be enough if that’s all the film left you with. But the director, Terrence Malick, makes perfectly clear there are entire universes of experience within a single human life. The centerpiece of the film is a recreation of small-town childhood so vivid, the feeling of nostalgia is overwhelming. Most critics dismissive of the film responded to this section the most, for it is the section most conventional—we follow a boy, Jack, from his birth to early adolescence. At first receiving the sole attention of his mother, eventually he shares her love with his two brothers, and we follow them on a number of childhood escapades, with which fans of The Wonder Years or Calvin and Hobbes will be more or less familiar. It conveys perfectly the idleness and whimsy of halcyonic youth. It is in this section of the film that we see Jessica Chastain as the mother—a loving presence full of forgiveness—and Brad Pitt as the strict, stubborn father—a force of order, structure, and rule. Jack’s childhood, as most of human life, results from the interplay and friction between these two forces. Though Jack comes of age in Texas in the 1950s, the identification of time and place doesn’t affect the universality Malick strives for. The passages evoke

wide lawns. About a town that somehow, in memory, is always seen with a wide-angle lens. About houses that are never locked. About mothers looking out windows to check on their children. About the summer heat and ennui of church services, and the unpredictable theater of the dinner table, and the troubling sounds of an argument between parents, half-heard through an open window. …Perhaps you grew up in a big city, with the doors locked and everything air-conditioned. It doesn’t matter. Most of us, unless we are unlucky, have something of the same childhood, because we are protected by innocence and naivete.

——Roger Ebert, from his review

It is not very often that you can say a movie changed the way you interact with the world. More often, one can say “It made me laugh/cry/think about something new,” etc. These are fine achievements in and of themselves, but none can be said to change you as a person. Well, I’m not quite going to say The Tree of Life changed me as a person; nothing has changed that anyone would probably notice. But when I’m outside on calm evenings, driving or walking the dog, what have you, I notice my surroundings more. The rustle of leaves, the chirp of crickets, the flutter of wings, all are closer to my conscious attention than they were before I saw them filtered through Terrence Malick’s wistful lens (and sound design). A small change, to be sure.  You must see the movie, I suppose, to understand what I mean by this.  Or, it’s ineffable and the preceding paragraph was futile.

Then there’s Sean Penn. Mr Penn gets second billing for playing the adult Jack, which is kind of a bait-and-switch tactic from the studio marketers (or, perhaps, a contractual obligation, or both), as he isn’t in the film for long. If you watched the Penn scenes in isolation, they wouldn’t amount to much. You’d see adult Jack in a house, unhappily ignoring a woman who is there with him. You would see him brooding among the large, perfectly modern edifices that populate the Houston skyline. You’d see him follow young Jack through a desert to an apparitional salt flat, where he would meet the angelic figures of his parents and brothers, their countenances unchanged by time. You’d see Jack smile at flowers and then the end credits. (None of this is a spoiler.)

The adult Jack sequences seem to perplex the majority of Tree of Life dissenters, feeling as they do a disconnect between them and the rest of the film. Sean Penn himself said, upon seeing the finished product, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add!… What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” Even those who responded positively to The Tree of Life have issues with the final sequences; says Jim Emerson: “I expressed my reservations about the material with the adult Jack at the beginning and ending, and particularly the visually unimaginative white-light-by-the-seashore ending, which I felt was a disappointing cliché…”

The final reconciliation of the family does have a very “Shall We Gather at the River” vibe to it, but it’s all for a very important reason. The creation of the universe we see, the destruction of the earth, the yearning childhood sequences, and the ethereal end-of-time scenes all happen within Jack. Of course there is a case to be made that we are seeing what Malick wants us to believe is the literal formation of creation, or the literal life-after-death scenario. But to my taste it makes much more sense, in the context of the film, that these seemingly disparate puzzle pieces are Jack trying to make sense of his life and how it fits into God’s Divine Plan. (The Tree of Life is not an explicitly Christian film, although it can be read that way.) We see the end of the world how Jack imagines it will happen.  Of course these notions are drawn from popular imagery. Penn’s adult Jack is the aspic holding the fluidity of the other sequences in place. It’s almost like Malick placed Jack square into the Total Perspective Vortex, then allowed us to observe Jack’s consciousness as the machine did its work.

But I see I have digressed from the main thrust of this post, which is how deeply The Tree of Life affected me. It goes without saying this was my favorite film of 2011, and that I recommend as many people see it as possible.* At least after reading this post, you should know what you’re in for. It should also go without saying it is probably unlike any film you have ever seen before.  This is a good thing.

I hope I haven’t made The Tree of Life sound like a laborious chore to sit through; nothing could be further from the truth. Going in with an open mind and no preconceptions can provide a wealth of gifts.


*DO NOT watch this film on a small TV screen. Blu-Ray is best (well, second to film in a cinema) with the 5.1 sound turned way up.

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