Meaning of Life weekend, part 2: “Tree of Life” (2011)

26 June 2011

Do you remember how it felt as a child to misbehave — to behave so badly that you wondered if your soul had turned permanently bad? For me it was sometime around age 11. I became a horrible person, and I couldn’t stop being that person. I was mean to my sister on a new level, outdoing my previous triumphs at cruelty. Worse, I could not stand my mother. We entered a short period in which I was unbearable to her in a way that I still cannot quite understand, intellectually or otherwise.

If I had been Terrence Malick and had grown up in 1950s Waco, Texas, I’m quite certain I would have understood this part of my life through a biblical framework. How could you not? The bible is full of tales of fathers and rebellious sons, brothers who battle one another — and distinctions between those who are chosen and those who are fallen. Good and evil; choices; fateful acts. In that context would I have seen myself as evil? Would I have asked whether one be saved from evil, or regain grace? Instead, I grew up female, later in history, and without religion. Thus I wonder, are these questions of Malick’s, so beautifully captured in The Tree of Life, not just Christian but male ways of seeing the world?

I loved, loved The Tree of Life — and because none of you needs yet another critical assessment of the film as a whole, let me don my gender hat instead. I do so in part because Malick’s work always struck me as painfully, extraordinarily sensitive to women and the strange, dark, inexpressible relations between women and men. Even just thinking of the voiceovers by Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973) and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven (1978) breaks my heart. Tree of Life seems different, male. This is the most amazing film about childhood I’ve ever seen; but it seems to me not a universal story but one about boys.

This film is deeply, profoundly concerned with manliness and patriarchs. “There are two ways through life,” his mother (Jessica Chastain) tells Jack (Hunter McCracken), “the way of nature, and the way of grace.” So close to grace that she’s nearly angelic, she infuses her young son with close attention to the wonder of nature and protects him from the world’s terrors. In one scene she dances with a monarch butterfly, which lands on her hand; in another short clip, she spirits her son away from the disturbing sight of a man having a seizure on their front lawn. Yet ultimately her way of grace can’t protect them from the husband/father (Brad Pitt) whose dissatisfied, striving character makes the “way of nature” so impossible to ignore, and so interchangeable with “feet of clay.” Surrounded by brothers and those neighborhood boys who run in packs, Jack is utterly focused on his father’s quickly changing moods, on the project of being male.

Pitt’s jaw juts out just a little bit more than usual in this role — it’s so subtle, so evocative of the resentment and cussedness always simmering below his steely surface. (This is the best acting I’ve ever seen from Pitt; it’s crazy good, and he’s absolutely found his match in the exceptional Hunter McCracken as the young Jack.) He can be such a loving father, but the love is overshadowed by terrifying moments in which he educates his sons in manliness. “Hit me!” he says to his sons when he tries to teach them how to box, simultaneously glaring and smacking his own jaw to indicate where to aim. In another, rare confessional moment he admits his mistakes to Jack: “Don’t do what I did.” He rules the dinner table with an iron fist; it’s tricky even to know how to pass the mashed potatoes, so Jack watches his father closely. Everything about his father’s physical presence — those heavy glasses that serve as a mask, the military-trim crew cut, the beefy hand with which he grabs his son by the neck in an expression of simultaneous affection and control — bespeaks a man constantly wrestling with himself. Kartina Richardson puts it most succinctly: the film shows that “to be white and male is not only to be in a prison, but to be the prison itself,” over at her elegant blog, Mirror.

Malick spins outward from this personal story — especially the tale of the older Jack (Sean Penn) still disturbed by the death of his brother at age 19, a moment we only see via a telegram arriving at his aged parents’ house — to the biggest questions we have. In breathy voiceovers, we hear Jack at various ages asking, “Where are you?” “Why am I here?”, that universal set of questions about existence we keep asking over and over. Is he asking God these questions? Is he asking his dead brother? “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will,” the younger Jack whispers to us. But it’s really Father, isn’t it? And beyond that, isn’t Malick really wrestling with a Christian god?

Thus, as much as I loved, loved, loved the film, I ultimately found it oddly disconcerting that for him, the universal questions have that Christian overlay with its oppressive, problematic manliness. As important as my father is to me and was to my childhood, his role was so non-patriarchal that I feel all my own hard questions were inflected by different problematics than Malick’s. I knew when I walked into the theater that Malick infused his story with some of those piercing, unanswerable questions; but when I walked out I felt a little bit farther away from my own questions, those which troubled me so deeply and which still occasionally wake me at 3 a.m.

The Tree of Life seems ultimately to tell a story of a particular kind of man looking backward. But whether or not it portrays something universal, it produces a sense of wonder in the viewer — by means of those amazing shots of nature, astronomy, bubbling volcanic magma, mysterious fires — such that I spent all afternoon today hiking in those beautiful rare wild parts of New Jersey with all five senses heightened. Sometimes the beauty of a bird flying, light shining through a canyon, or a shot underwater of waves crashing up above is enough to humble you to the core, to break your heart at the passage of time.

Oh, the back and forth between the divine and the specific. Most of all, the scene that stays with me is that of the boys racing out to greet the DDT truck that wandered the streets in the 1950s to eliminate mosquitoes with a delicious cloud of fog. My mother tells an identical story from a different 1950s childhood (indeed, she and Malick are nearly the same age). Somehow the specificity of this scene creates the same delight as the waves and canyons and cathedrals. It’s in that cloud of whispered questions, lost innocence, half-remembered moments, and that fog of shots that you lose yourself. All of it, including the autobiographical parts, seem to show the world from a child’s height, as the camera looks up at Jack’s parents or at the dome of a beautiful building: spectacular. This film may be the story only of one boy’s life, his own patriarchal Christian questions, but you won’t leave the theater quite the same.

21 Responses to “Meaning of Life weekend, part 2: “Tree of Life” (2011)”

  1. FD Says:

    Good review…Except, regardless of your religious orientation, gender, or the time period you grow up in, I think Malick’s central questions still apply. There is always a struggle between your father and your mother’s influence as well as as the struggle between your natural instincts and your sense of something beyond hunger, fear, dominance, and love. Even the dinosaur decided NOT to kill the weaker opponent. Why?

    • Didion Says:

      I loved the way the film is layered with things we don’t know. We had a long debate afterward about what the scene with the dinosaur was supposed to signify — and we disagreed violently. (And who can really know what goes on in the minds of dinosaurs, anyway?) We also disagreed about what we thought the film was telling us about the brother’s death — was it essentially caused by the authoritarian father or not? I think ultimately Malick wants to shower us with many, many things we can’t know but which tweak our brains and propel us forward anyway.

      Maybe I’m being too literal about the “wrestle inside me” narrative. For Malick, his parents represented polar opposites; I’ve never seen my parents in that light. And I agree that what I loved so much about the film is the weird intersections between the biggest questions, especially about how to find meaning after his brother’s death, with the incredible specificity of that childhood at that time and place. You’re right that in some ways it doesn’t matter where or when my childhood — some of the same questions obtain. But don’t you think that some of his questions — maybe 40% or so — are dedicated to a particular kind of Christian worldview? And even during a brief moment in puberty, when I really wanted to believe in a God, I just couldn’t buy into a lot of the stuff necessary.

      • JustMeMike Says:

        Hi Didion – again thanks for your insights and perspectives on these two films.

        As you wrote on my site – this is certainly not an easy film. As an example, some one I know had a completely different take on the dinosaur. His take was that the larger of the animals put his foot on the smaller one and crushed its head – I saw it the way you did – it merely placed a foot on the neck to hold the animal in place, then decided to not kill and went on its way.

        Maybe this was a bit of gamesmanship on Malick’s part. The predator (the larger one) did not kill the smaller one. It simply walked off. So this part of ‘nature’ actually exhibited ‘grace’.

        Oh that Malick…

        As for the other question – was the Boy who died at 19, he was the one with the skin ailment on his scalp – or was that a wound – or was it the result of some sort paternal corporal punishment? You asked if Malick was again playing with our heads by asking us to think about what was the cause of that death,

        I think we have no information on that at all – so if that was Malick’s intent (to make us think or to toy with us) he succeeded.

        But I believe that questions, which are less like questions and more like events, that aren’t answered, or more accurately – not explained, are not really questions. They’re merely optional choices, like forks in the road that we may elect to look at post viewing.


      • Didion Says:

        Oh, I thought it was one of Jack’s brothers who dies, neither of whom is the one with the scalp problem. We don’t even know which it was. My partner thought he killed himself; I was baffled by the whole telegram thing — had this brother become estranged from the family? it’s one of the many mysteries.

        And the dinosaur! There could be a whole website called WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE DINOSAURS at which people speculate.

  2. Z Says:

    You’re so much kinder to the film than I, I feel misanthropic! I was really amazed at the beginning, the first scenes of magma, it seemed this was going to be really original … then the trope started to get repetitive. At the end those New Mexico shots, ladders to heaven, seemed not just hackneyed but also cheap.

    What else — the mother kept being barefoot, so I knew that meant she was both natural and dead. And the architect son kept just standing there in a kind of daze. And what with Nature and Grace I wondered briefly whether the older son was supposed to be Evil (and the artist one Virtue).

    It did do a good job of evoking the prison/imprisonment of Southern Christian masculinity, yes, but the idea that Dad was nature and Mom was grace is soooooo hackneyed here, to make it interesting it would have to be done with some sort of irony, I feel.

    I get the point of why we don’t know how he was killed but there was so much that was not followed up upon and so much dwelling on the same metaphors that I found myself wanting *some* sort of plot development. And also – was it possible in the Dad’s kind of job to live that well then? The house, the furniture, the clothes, my memory of the 50s is not good but I remember the 60s clearly and you’d have had to have real money to have that stuff then.

    The film is pretty I will say and tells you to appreciate beauty, yes, and it’s good to a frightening degree on the violence of these Christian men, so I shouldn’t be so impatient — maybe I just thought it needed more editing.

    What I liked: the father’s truncated musical career, this was interesting … and the idea of the magma scenes before they got overdone … and there was all this real love among the characters … and the scene on the beach at the end.

    • Didion Says:

      Maybe I’m extra forgiving of Malick because of Badlands and Days of Heaven. Maybe I was gentle because I knew what I was getting myself into before I got to the theater. I know what you mean about the repetition — my partner was much more critical of the film for exactly those reasons. Maybe I forgive him for the film’s length and self-indulgence because I, too, want to achieve the kind of catharsis and grace Malick seeks. Maybe I forgive some of the droning on because the portrayal of his childhood was so remarkably touching to me — in fact, I forgot to wax on about the inklings of sexual awakening when he sneaks into a neighborhood house and steals a woman’s silky slip.

      I will say that the audience with whom I watched the film was SO cranky, so resistant to it that it almost ruined the experience of watching. The senior citizens behind me had a hoarsely whispered conversation through the entire thing, and the husband kept joking, “Is it over yet?” (If this had taken place at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, TX, I would have had them expelled. I can’t believe I’m celebrating the courteousness and civility of Texans.) A wave of about 10 people left after about the 20 minute mark, and people were still leaving in the middle of the film’s central tale of Jack’s childhood. So you’re not the only one to be cranky and impatient at the film.

      • Z Says:

        I saw it at the River Oaks in Houston which is very genteel/hip and they did throw someone out. I think I was under the influence of reviews in organs such as the Houston Press and the Chronicle according to which it had “filmed God” and shown us a mother who had perfect dedication to her children. I’d rather see it again under the influence of the review you linked to which emphasizes the representation of childhood, how it feels to be guessing at the meaning of the situations you’re in and working with them / trying to fit in with them as you also try to grow and figure out the world. Seek that kind of catharsis, so do I, and the repetition makes sense from that point of view.

      • Didion Says:

        See? I’m such a nonbeliever that it never occurred to me it might be a film embraced by evangelicals, even misguided ones.

        Yeah, to me it’s a film that condenses all kinds of wonder and knowledge into a very short span of a boy’s life. I wonder if I’d like the film more or less on a second viewing?

  3. Hattie Says:

    There is a rave review of this film in the New York Review of Books.

    • Didion Says:

      Oooh, just finished it — had no idea that Malick was a Rhodes scholar and nearly completed a PhD in philosophy. Not that it doesn’t fit with his films, but PhD types are usually not terribly creative or eloquent.

  4. Z Says:

    The review is very interesting but now I am confused. Which son is Sean Penn the grownup version of and which son died? (Clearly I need to re-see the film.)

    • Didion Says:

      Penn is most certainly the grownup version of Jack, the oldest child and centerpiece of the film, but we don’t know which brother dies. I’d guess the middle child, he of “I trust you” and the finger scene later on (and the angelic face) but that’s just a guess.

  5. […] Tree of Life does a good job of filming the dreamlike experience of childhood. It is set in the fifties, but I experienced the world that way, in clips and images, in the sixties. I remember very clearly the day JFK was killed. We prayed and saluted the flag in school. The teachers and upperclassmen had dark suits with white shirts and red ties. It was not entirely clear to me who Kennedy had been, or what Washington, DC was. […]

  6. tam Says:

    Another view of this viscerally compelling but also perplexing movie:

  7. Richard Gill Says:

    The mother is clearly (through outsiders’ eyes) *too* angelic. We see her through her son’s eyes. Actually, she is too soft, too weak. Might have been very hard in the early 50’s to be different, but I feel it was also an excuse not to do stand up and protect her children from her husband.

    For a (boy) child, mother is the Mother Goddess, father is the Father God. Later both turn out to be merely human. First there is anger, and also anger at oneself. Later, hopefully, compassion (also for oneself, also merely human). That’s how it goes. Excellent review of a unique and moving movie.

    • Didion Says:

      Many thanks, Richard — and you’re so right that the mother is so angelic she almost seems to have butterfly wings when Jack is a child. The shift from focusing on her and her soft, mystical statements about life and nature to focusing on the hard, changeable father is so pronounced, so dramatic. I’m still wrestling with that contrast, just like the protagonist … still resisting the exaggerated quality of that gender divide. I’ve got to see this film again.

      • Richard Gill Says:

        I’ve got to see it again too! This time on a dvd at home without the distraction of the audience who just don’t get it…

      • Didion Says:

        Ugh, sorry to hear you had the same kind of audience I had. (And I must say that my lovely partner also resisted the film and found the sounds of audience resistance all around him to be persuasive.) I loved it, though, and even though I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen I’m looking forward to a more reverent viewing next time.

  8. P. Says:

    “Grey, my friend, is every theory / And green is Life’s golden tree.” (said the Devil)
    Malick is not a Christian, not even a believer.
    And if you want to know what he thinks about humanity, search in Stroheim’s “Greed”, or something similar: “The world’s gone to the dogs. People are greedy and just keep getting worst.” This is Malick.

    “Tell us a story from before we can remember”, R.L. asked mother. “I went for a ride in a plane once. It was a graduation present.” Do you know what poem inspired this?

    Once when I was young
    I went for a ride on a plane
    And I stopped believing.
    For where else can Heaven be
    If not on the tops of clouds?
    A kingdom that vast,
    Cannot be invisible.
    Angels are not cruel enough to hide.
    Where did the castle made of clouds
    And miracles go?
    Was it ever even there?

    Something more about this here:

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