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.