What is Life?
Watching a solidly Christian film about the existential questions like what is life and the nature of grace is a weird experience after my recent encounter with the Christian right wing. When it’s a Terrence Malick film, it becomes all the more weird because Malick’s poetic, abstraction-filled storytelling leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. The questions tend to be somewhat fundamental by nature, like “What the hell happened?” I went in to see “The Tree of Life” convinced that I wouldn’t understand about 70% of the film. I was wrong, but only by about 40%. I’d like to believe I got the bulk of the stories Malick tells in “The Tree of Life”, which means that for about 2 hours of the 2 and a half hour film, I think I know what was going on. That’s huge. I’m wildly impressed with myself. It’s another matter that I probably got it all wrong. But what the heck? It’s all a matter of interpretation, right?
While attempting to untangle — or perhaps tangle — the knotty question of the origin and purpose of life, Malick uses, among other things, the following: a boy named Jack, his mum and dad, two dinosaurs, Saturn (the planet), space (as in that final frontier that Star Trek explored), an oak tree, a Thomas Wilfred clavilux, modern architecture and the Texan landscape. It is a spectacular film. Not because I could make sense of all of it (I couldn’t) but because it is so incredibly beautifully shot. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has an incredible eye. You’d never guess this man can shoot scenery as amazingly as he does in “The Tree of Life” if you see his earlier work like “Burn After Reading”, “Sleepy Hollow” and “A Walk in the Clouds”. At least I didn’t. Without Lubezki, “The Tree of Life” couldn’t tell its stories. Lubezki is able to capture the feelings and turmoil of the characters and express them in the cinematography. His camera is sometimes steady as an unblinking eye and sometimes it swings like the gaze of a nervous prey. Lubezki catches the light and follows shadows with such elegant stealth. Early on in the film, there’s a brief bit where you see children playing on a road. He’s shot it so that you essentially see their shadows as they lengthen and stalk one another in the evening light. My heart skipped a beat. Spellbinding stuff.
The superficial plot of the film goes like this. A nameless family lives in (or in the outskirts of) Waco, Texas. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain live in a roomy house with a garden. At the beginning of “The Tree of Life”, we learn that the couple lost a son when he was 19. We don’t find out how. At the time, Pitt is working at a place that has an airstrip. The news devastates both of them and Pitt is consumed with grief that he didn’t tell his son that he loved him and instead always criticised him. Chastain is not consoled by a neighbour/friend telling her, “At least you have the other two.” The death haunts the family for decades. Sean Penn is the adult avatar of one son. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he is the eldest, Jack, the only major character who has a name in “The Tree of Life”. Even as a grey-haired adult in an American city (San Francisco?), he tells his father on the phone that he thinks of his dead brother every day. The bulk of “The Tree of Life” is Penn’s memories of his childhood with his two brothers, with segues into space and the age of dinosaurs. As beautiful and calm as the setting might be, family life isn’t peaceful. The father is a frightening combination of a bully and a protector. I’m no diehard fan of Brad Pitt but his performance is outstanding. A thwarted musician who ends up being a failed businessman, he wants his kids to grow up strong. This means locking them in closets, hitting them at the slightest provocation, teaching them to fight, urging them to hit him when he makes them practice their punches. He’s also the man who wants a hug and a kiss from his son at the end of the day. He tells them stories, plays with them, hugs them close to his heart both figuratively and literally. The three boys’ relationship with his father is troubled. They’re all mutinous and Jack seems to be more so than his brothers. They all suffer for their rebellion and they see their mother, a fragile thing, be dominated by their father. There’s only one scene in which Pitt uses force to silence Chastain but it leaves a tremendous impression. Chastain as their mother is amazing. She has the most incredible, shimmery eyes. It is through Chastain that Malick voices most of his Christian faith. She is his Job. Her husky voice, rich with melancholia and faith, mourns her son and pleads for a divine explanation to why her son was taken from her so soon.
As children, Jack and his brothers ran around the neighbourhood and played simple games. Malick offers intriguing glimpses of life, rather than a neat, chronological series of events. You see them laughing with their parents. Innocent games delight them. But there’s also simmering anger. When Jack and his next brother are toddlers, Chastain has to protect the younger son from Jack who wants to throw his toy (a little wooden animal) at his brother. As boys, Jack hurts his brother’s hand with a toy gun just after his brother tells him, “I trust you to not hurt me.” He goads his brother into fighting with him. There’s also a mysterious shot of two people grappling on the lawn — Jack and his father? — and Chastain rushes the second brother away from the scene, shielding his eyes. Jack ruins his brother’s paintings, turning a neat set of shapes into a disturbing, bloody red splodge. He is one of the neighbourhood boys who breaks the windows of an abandoned house. He steals into another house and runs off with a woman’s negligee. I’m not entirely sure but I think the second brother is the one who dies. Perhaps it’s this childhood cruelty that Penn struggles with as an adult as well as the awareness that his brother was somehow dearer to his parents than him. His father and brother shared a musical connection. We see the boy playing guitar and Pitt starts accompanying him on the piano; in contrast, Jack makes records slip when they’re being played, making them skip and distorting the sound. The one time Pitt is seen attacking Chastain is when the second brother mutinies at the dinner table.
In this very earthly story of an American family are two extended detours, one into space and the other into dinosaur era. The space imagery is just breathtaking. Malick coaxed Douglas Trumbull out of retirement for “The Tree of Life” and with visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, the incredible visuals of outer space that they create make CGI imagery look so flimsy and cartoonish. You can read a little bit about the behind-the-scenes stories of “The Tree of Life” here. It’s a fantastic combination of low fi (filming dye in water and glass paperweights) and hi fi (3D reconstructions of Hubble telescope images). The theme of the earth’s creation is easy to spot in the space section, complete with the fiat lux moments. But there’s also the idea of an equilibrium being disrupted by little things. Asteroids explode and unsettle a planet’s landscape, volcanoes erupt. It’s beautiful, beautiful stuff and unexpectedly, the colours gleam in the more temporal, Jack-centric bits of the film, like in the stained glass windows of a church and a child’s painting. Suddenly, the seemingly disconnected bits of the movie are connected at a sensory level that is so difficult to articulate.
In the dinosaur subplot, we first see an enormous dinosaur on a seashore. It’s got an enormous, painful-looking gash on its side. Next shot: blood dissolving in water and a swirling colony/school (what is the collective of sharks?) of hammerhead sharks is seen. Later, one dinosaur (not the one on the beach; at least I don’t think so) goes roaring through a forest and comes upon a stream. On its bank lies another dinosaur. Dino 1 comes up to Dino 2 and places his clawed foot on Dino 2’s head. It looks like it’s going to crush the head underfoot. But then he lifts his paw. Again he part-tramples Dino 2 and then he goes off. It seemed to me like a strange mirror of Jack’s relationship with his brother, where Jack keeps provoking him but doesn’t actually wish him harm. The bit where Dino 1 scampers through the forest totally reminded me of Jack racing through a wooded area near their house. The seaside dinosaur and the sharks came back to me at the end of the film, when the adult Jack (Sean Penn) stumbles on to a wet, sandy place and sees all the figures from his childhood — mother, father, neighbours, brothers, his own boy self — walking around.
There’s no doubt that “The Tree of Life” was demanding. It’s slow and gnawing. It mocks anyone who expects a film to follow a neat, steady storytelling arc. It sticks its tongue out, with great elegance, at those who are impatient and of the expectation that a film will set out questions and answer them systematically. I still don’t know who the brown haired girl at the end is supposed to be. Or what was the relevance of Penn’s lover/wife/girlfriend bringing in the white flower. Or… it’s a long list. But despite this, “The Tree of Life”, with its steadfast and tortured Christian heart, is a breathtaking film.