The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we’re going to examine the decades-spanning career of one of the most important filmmakers of this generation and generations prior: Terrence Malick.
Was a pattern emerging in Terrence Malick’s career? After The New World‘s divisive reception, it certainly felt like history was repeating itself. Much like how the universal praise for Badlands was followed by the fragmented reception of Days of Heaven, the same happened with The Thin Red Line and The New World. Now only one question remained: Would this result in yet another disappearing act for Malick?
It’s also worth noting that within that 20-year time-frame of no Malick films, he was working on a project entitled Q, which was meant to be a 2001-level epic that depicted the origins of the universe. As you would expect of such an abstract project, it never went through, and many contribute this to be the reason why Malick embarked on his two-decade absence. Drawing even more parallels to this pattern was the news that Malick’s follow-up to The New World was going to be a film entitled The Tree of Life, which was already reported to be using many of the script-notes from Q as a basis and also featured the birth of the cosmos as a primary set-piece. Would history repeat itself and keep The Tree of Life from being made? Or would it finally see the light of day?
Well, spoilers for real life: The Tree of Life was released in 2011, winning the coveted Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or in the process. And despite the film’s rather divisive reception (less so for critics; especially so for audiences), it still received three Oscar nominations; for Cinematography, Directing, and Best Picture of the Year.
And among those praises, I have to confess that it’s the most recently made film in my Top 10 of all time. I know, I know, two Malick films in one Top 10 list, one of which was released a mere two years ago. Go ahead and take away my credibility badge. Either way, the film is one of the most emotionally affecting and profound experiences of my life, regardless of how recent the film is. And I believe that what distinguishes The Tree of Life as one of Malick’s true masterpieces (in a filmography that may as well be 90-100% masterpieces, depending on your mileage) is that it is not only one of the most personally made films of all time, but that it also symbolizes a kind of “rebirth” for the filmmaker.
Considering the aforementioned “pattern” was repeating, The Tree of Life was almost like the final test of whether Malick’s return was either all for nothing or the beginning of his masterwork. Whereas Q failed, The Tree of Life sprouted from its ashes. And on today’s Terrence Malick Retrospective, we’re going to climb that very tree, as we delve into the themes, and even some of Malick’s personal history in the process. This is The Tree of Life.
“Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to Your door.”
The main “flaw” I always see people bring up regarding The Tree of Life is the usefulness of Sean Penn’s character. “He’s useless.” “He detracts from the film.” “He’s a distraction.” To me, that’s like hearing complaints that Django Unchained‘s final 30 minutes could’ve been shaved off, caring only for the technical conventions of how a film should work rather than what makes it important to the film’s themes, structure, etc. Sean Penn, I’d argue, is actually integral to The Tree of Life‘s success, because he supplies a context for the film’s stream-of-consciousness flow, and its unreal ending. If anything, he’s to this film what Linda Manz was to Days of Heaven. He’s the voice that echoes from the future, lacing all of the film’s events with the looming presence of the inevitable future.
But then again, that’s just my interpretation.
The film’s first 25 minutes introduce us to the two narrators of the film. First, we see Jessica Chastain’s character as a young girl living in a farm surrounded by sunflowers. The only guardian we see is her father, whose face is never revealed. The film then cuts directly to her all grown up, a mother to three boys. She is called only by the name of Mrs. O’Brien. Her monologue begins with the now somewhat infamous line that “There are two ways through life. The way of nature. And the way of grace.” Chastain represents grace. The father, played by Brad Pitt, represents nature. It’s Malick’s most obvious metaphor, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s beautifully told thanks to its gray dichotomy, which we’ll get into later.
After that, we cut to Sean Penn in the present-day, who plays the older version of Chastain’s son, Jack O’Brien. Living as an architect, he mopes around the glass buildings and high rises like a wandering ghost, a permanent frown etched across his face. He and Mrs. O’Brien, in completely different periods of time, are doing the same thing: Mourning the loss of one of the boys. A brother to Jack. A son to Mrs. O’Brien. It’s clear from the start that this is a loss that has profoundly impacted the family.
And yet… the film never gives off any clear indication as to which of Jack’s brothers died.
On top of that, it’s never revealed how he died, where, or even when. The movie gives a couple of hints for two of those questions: He was 19 years old when he passed away, and Mrs. O’Brien was informed via mail. Considering the film’s childhood segment takes place in the 1950s, this could most likely mean that he died in the Vietnam War, but it’s not much to go on, and it still doesn’t answer which of the brothers it was that died.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter one bit. Through this one simple omission, Malick transforms their loss into something more abstract, personal, and intimate. The loss isn’t just connected to the individual, but it’s become a force of its own, like a snake slowly coiling around the hearts of its characters. And it is this grief that looms over the next few parts of the film.
After introducing these two narrators, the film enters its first act, which is told through Mrs. O’Brien’s narration. And this is where the film either loses the viewer entirely or ropes you in hook, line, and sinker: The “Creation” sequence, which chronicles the birth of the universe in much the same way that Malick’s Q project was meant to.
“Are You watching me? I want to know what You are. I want to see what You see.”
Here, the film’s ambitions make themselves known in the most bombastic of ways, with its huge scope, grand imagery, meticulous attention to detail, and the operatic musical accompaniment of “Lacrimosa”. It is here that Chastain progresses from wallowing in her grief and directs herself toward the existential root of her coping with death: The birth of life itself; for without life, there is no death.
What makes this particular segment of the film even more fascinating is the fact that this is the film’s apotheosis of the Way of Nature theme, yet it’s being told to us through the character of Mrs. O’Brien, who represents the Way of Grace. Conversely, when we delve into the film’s finale later on in the analysis, which is a representation of the Way of Grace, it is told through Jack O’Brien, a man who has in some ways given himself up to the Way of Nature by way of his father’s domineering influence.
But I digress. It is through the Creation sequence that the film’s most important parallel is made. As we see the universe’s most magnificent creations birthed one by one (stars, nebulae, planets, water, land, molecules, etc.), Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien pleads to the Creator, “Did you know? Who are we to you? Answer me. My soul. My son. Hear us…” Of course, her cries remain unanswered in the direct sense, yet the images themselves seem to be trying to tell her something.
With so much of this majesty surrounding the universe, what importance do we have in the first place? Much like how the world didn’t stop turning for the numerous deaths in Badlands, or how nature continued to outlive every murdered soldier in The Thin Red Line, or how young Linda simply moved on with her new friend after the destruction of her paradise in Days of Heaven in much the same way that Pocahontas moved on in The New World… all of creation continues and moves on just as humankind does. One child believes he’s been abandoned by his father. In reality, all of life has been abandoned by its creator. All experiences are universal.
It’s also at this point that I noticed a sort of evolutionary path for the Malick-ian voice-over that’s so prevalent in all of his films. In Badlands and Days of Heaven, voice-over signified its narrators looking back at the past with regret. In The Thin Red Line, the voice-overs were like internal monologues running through the characters’ heads, contemplating their actions and the significance of said actions. In The New World, the monologues sounded very literally like prayers, with lines like “Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother. You are our field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.”
Now with The Tree of Life, the voice-overs are amalgamations of all of these traits. At one point, “My soul. My son. Hear us.” At another, “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.” And at certain points, “I see me as a child… I see my brother. True. Kind. He died when he was 19.”
Much like how the spiritual and the natural are at odds in the “Grace vs. Nature” dichotomy, Malick himself and his many characters are torn by the two, sometimes turning to the Heavens, sometimes kneeling towards the soil. Mrs. O’Brien meanders through the origins of Nature when it feels as if Grace has abandoned her in the death of her son. And it is through Nature that she sees a universe where Grace simply isn’t enough.
And it is through this revelation that we move onto the second narrator, Jack, as he searches the origins of a different kind of life: His own.
“That’s where God lives.”
It is in this third act–the longest one in the film, taking up the majority of it–that The Tree of Life shines brightest. Here, Malick effortlessly chronicles over a decade of the life of the O’Brien family, before standing still in the film’s “final year”. It takes place within the small suburb of Waco, Texas in the 1950s, but there are really no cultural references or obvious indicators that point out we’re in that era of time, aside from the clothes, the technology, and a single mention of Pan Am airlines. Outside of those rather minute exceptions, the Childhood segment of the film can easily be taking place in a timeless vacuum.
Here, we are introduced to a younger Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, who end up bringing life to a baby Jack O’Brien. As all infants are, he is pure and good. Yet before little Jack can fully grasp language, he already starts to give way to feelings such as jealousy when he’s given a brother shortly after. But he still retains some of that innocence and wide-eyed wonder, even after he’s given a second little brother. Now he, the Mother, the Father, and the Brothers are frolicking in their own Garden of Eden (You really thought I’d go this far in a Malick retrospective without dropping references to Eden?), existing in a purely blissful state.
The other two brothers–referred to in the credits as R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan)–are hardly ever distinguished. Much like how Malick refused to reveal which of the two brothers died later in his life, he further refuses answers by almost making the two brothers one whole entity; in much the same way that the various soldiers of The Thin Red Line were considered just parts of a whole. Again, no matter which brother was lost, that sense of loss is equal. The grief stemming from that loss continues to exist in its own state, even as the film flashes back.
As for the parents, any analysts and critics of the film tend to refer to the Mother and Father as two gods looming over Jack; the mother being a kind, gentle, forgiving New Testament God, and the father being a stern, punishing Old Testament God. It’s as obvious a comparison to make as it is an easy mistake to make. The parents are in no way god-like figures, even though they are the rulers of young Jack’s world. How can they be gods when they too are as human and imperfect as Jack is? Even they sometimes call out to their gods, wondering how they came to their respective points in life, making the mistakes they continue to make.
Instead, as their representations of the Way of Nature and the Way of Grace suggest, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are “forces”. They aren’t so much the Gods of Nature or Grace, for they are Nature and Grace personified. They can be manipulated in much the same way the moon’s gravitational pull can move the tides, or how Zeus would summon lightning from his fingertips. And soon, their children shall give way to either become one of these forces or realize which one was in them from birth.
“He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?”
What’s of utmost importance is that, like The New World before it, the film doesn’t take sides. At first, it seems like it is Grace that trumps out Nature, for it is loving and kind and played by Jessica Chastain, a.k.a. all that is good in this world. There’s even a line in the opening monologue of the film in which Chastain explains “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
That seems like a well-enough reason to side with the Way of the Mother. And indeed, the film gives us what we and the O’Brien children want when Mr. O’Brien is away on a business trip and Pitt is entirely absent for a considerable duration of the film. Yet even then, Malick subverts our hopes by showing many instances in which the children, after their brief respite from their father’s wrath, end up plunging further into emotional chaos because there’s no force to keep order.
And when Pitt finally does return, he himself laments how he couldn’t see things through his wife’s eyes, in much the same way that Mrs. O’Brien attempted to see through her husband’s eyes in the Creation sequence. “I wanted to be loved because I was great,” he says in voice-over. “A big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.”
Yet his stern nature isn’t entirely forgiven either. The scars left by Mr. O’Brien on Jack can’t be taken away. While it’s entirely certain that Jack had more love for his mother, when he’s an adult, he’s in no way defined by her Grace. And yet he hasn’t succumbed entirely to the Way of Nature either. He is continually at odds with the two forces, even when he’s as old as his father was when they lived in that suburban Eden in Waco, Texas. All that’s left are wounds from what he perceived as a war within his heart.
“Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
And now, like all Malick characters, he’s banished from that Eden he knew so long ago. All that’s left for him to do now is look back at those memories and attempt to make sense of the angst that arrived after the bliss and before the end. The difference in The Tree of Life however, is that Jack’s banishment from that time of long ago wasn’t brought about by himself, his family, or any single person of blame. Instead, Eden is gone through circumstances that are beyond their control. Whereas the wheat fields of Days of Heaven were destroyed by mankind’s own doing, the innocence of The Tree of Life is just swiped away by unseen forces. Nothing is to blame but time and nature.
Why this sudden change in the thematic structure of Malick’s “formula”, though? I still haven’t seen To the Wonder, so I can’t say for sure at this point whether this truly is an evolution of Malick’s thematic obsessions or not. What I can say for sure, however, is that it represents the true nature of The Tree of Life: That of all of Malick’s films, this is the one that’s most important to him specifically. The Tree of Life may be one of the most personal films ever to be made, sitting alongside Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. It’s an autobiography of both Malick’s childhood, and his psychological state–something rarely captured on film.
Some backstory: Malick himself grew up in the suburb of Waco, Texas. He too had two younger brothers, named Chris and Larry. His mother was named Irene. His father was named Emil, and he worked as a geologist–a man of nature, if you will. His brother Larry attended a school in Spain to study music. He played the guitar, an instrument that is featured prominently in The Tree of Life. It is also the supposed cause of tragedy that came to Larry Malick, who had apparently been pressured so much from his musical studies that he broke his own hands intentionally. Emil Malick went out to Spain to help him out, but he died shortly after, allegedly through a suicide, but we can never know for sure.
Suicide or not, the death of Larry Malick is clearly something that affected Terrence and has shone in his subsequent film work, most evidently in The Tree of Life. Like anybody who loses a childhood friend, Terrence probably remembered the days of innocence he shared with his brother so fondly that the tragedy stung even more. Again, I must remind you that I can’t say that for a fact, but his Tree of Life seems like evidence enough.
“I didn’t know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me.”
Indeed it was the self-inflicted pain that contributed to Larry’s death, whether it was suicide or something else. And in every one of Malick’s films, Eden is destroyed by mankind’s own self-inflicted doing. The characters of all his previous films fail to see the glory that is their perfect Garden, and demolish it as a result. But with The Tree of Life, it isn’t man’s own hands that bring about the destruction, but something beyond human understanding. What it is, even Terrence Malick doesn’t know.
Instead of merely just grieving the loss of Eden, Malick also attempts to find what seed was planted that brought about its demise. It’s almost like Malick is meta-analyzing his previous films with this one. Sure it was the faults of Richard Gere and Brooke Adams that Days of Heaven‘s wheat fields were destroyed, but what was it in these characters’ pasts that brought them to act in this way?
At first it seems like it’s the fault of Father Nature that Jack is the way he is as an adult, but as stated before, he isn’t to blame. So Malick looks back at Jack’s sexual awakening (symbolized beautifully by nothing more than a dress) and that is as innocent and natural a part of life as they come. He looks back at Jack’s occasional acts of cruelty, from the time when he planted a firecracker in a bird’s nest, to the time he accidentally shot his own brother’s finger with a BB gun.
All of these fragmented memories converge together to create a portrait of Malick’s own childhood, seen through a lens of both wide-eyed nostalgia and deep remorse. And still, there is nothing to blame for their leaving Eden, both the physical one represented by Jack’s suburban paradise, and the innermost one that was his innocence. If he can’t solve the loss within his heart, surely the loss of his brother can’t be solved.
The only thing he can really blame is God–whichever one he believes in–that brought misery to this earth in the first place. “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” says a bitter young Jack in his prayers. Even to his dad, he has these very same thoughts at first.
So where else does he look to next? The stars. The cosmos. The rocks that are as old as the entire planet’s life-cycle. Earth had its own period of Eden just as much as he did. If the abandonment of an entire universe from its Creator can be solved, surely the hole in Jack’s heart can too. Terrence Malick’s own father was a geologist, a person who studied the earth and its origins. He of all people should know that abandonment is ingrained in the very DNA of this giant sphere that he and every human being has lived in. Even without the presence of a Creator or the belief of a God, the Big Bang itself is the very definition of Creation acted upon and then abandoned: There for only a flash before fading away entirely, like fireworks in the night sky.
And indeed, looking through the Way of Nature can’t seem to fill the hole of loss for Terry and Jack’s brother, as well as their losing of Eden, in much the same way that it couldn’t satisfy Mrs. O’Brien as she peered into it. All it proves is that we are all alone together; the universe just one large organism searching for something that exists beyond.
“Brother. Keep us. Guide us. To the end of time.”
So Malick takes us beyond. And with that, we’re brought to the film’s most divisive portion–more divisive than the part with the dinosaurs, even. No longer able to look through his memories, an old, defeated, adult Jack ascends in an elevator in his work building and then… I can’t quite say for sure. Even if I knew what it was that happened, I can’t say what I believe its meaning to be for fear of tampering with someone else’s personal interpretation. But whether he’s actually experiencing it in his head or in his reality, one thing is absolutely clear: Jack needed an answer. Just one thing to offer him brief respite. One thing that can fill the hole in his heart, torn for so long.
And so, he finds himself in a desert. Wandering alone. He sees his childhood self, and chases after it until he’s transported to a heavenly beach, the ocean so shallow everyone appears to be walking on water. Here, not only is he wandering, but numerous others are along with him. Some are faces he doesn’t know. Some are from his childhood. Two of them are his brothers. Two of them are his parents. One is himself as a young boy. One is that kid whose hair was burned in a house fire. One is a man who had a seizure in his front yard when he was an infant. All are no longer away from him. For this single moment, outside of time and reality, they are together again.
It is here that The Tree of Life becomes the film that it’s all been leading up to. An apotheosis of Terrence Malick’s decades-long filmography. It is the ultimate rumination of his two connective themes. Eden may be lost, but the Kingdom of Heaven is gained. The hole can never be filled, but we can take that emptiness and use it to make ourselves stronger as human beings. And while man’s place is so insignificant in relation to the rest of the universe, what little that goes on here is so beautiful and astounding to behold.
Water. Birth. Wind. A mother embracing a child. A son forgiving a father. An island forming from volcanic eruptions under the sea. A star being formed from molecular clouds in space. All of this is both one experience and every experience. Everything is incredible. And the fact that it’s all so awe-inspiring and yet there’s still more out there? If The New World was evoking the idea that there’s always more to explore, either in the universe or in human nature, The Tree of Life might as well be a plea that we never, ever stop. No irony to get in the way, Malick is entirely, damnably sincere.
While there is a more than fair amount to dissect and analyze in The Tree of Life, it’s a film that’s best “experienced” instead of scrutinized; and in fact, that’s what the film itself seems to be saying about life in general. We can’t ruminate on the meaning of existence without loving our existence first. The Tree of Life is Malick’s ultimate statement of his love of life. If ever a single movie deserved to be described as “a film that’s just about life”, pretentious as it sounds, The Tree of Life is the closest thing we have.
And much like how it doesn’t matter which of the brothers it was that Jack lost, it also doesn’t matter whether what he experienced in that beach was truly spiritual or just a part of his subconscious. All that matters was that it fixed Jack. We all discover our own enlightenment. Some look deep within themselves to find it. Some look to religion. Some look to art. Some look to film. And in all of these things, we find the same joy. For our lives. For others’ lives. For life in general. All life connected. A pile of rocks in Badlands is just as important and monumental in the grand scheme of the universe as its very birth in The Tree of Life. Soldiers die in The Thin Red Line, and a bird breaks its wings. A swarm of locusts heralds the loss of a human life in Days of Heaven. The New World that Pocahontas and John Smith discover lives beyond both of them in The New World.
All of life is one.
“I give him to you. I give you my son.”
Grief now relieved, sins now forgiven, Jack finds himself back in that elevator, this time descending to the ground floor. He steps out of the building just as lost as he was before. Only this time, he’s not wandering. This time, he’s deciding where to go next. Clouds reflect on the glass buildings like they themselves are a second sky. A bird swoops down a bridge. A cut to black.
The film ends where it began: With a single flame of light glowing in the darkness. I like to think that that very flame that begins and ends the film is the same that the universe began and will eventually end with. The flame is like the pile of rocks in Badlands: A monument of the universe’s history. Every single universal experience condensed into one being. Kit wanted to leave behind a legacy through his murders. Malick already has left a legacy with his films. And we all leave our own legacy just through our experience. And they are all one.
For little did we realize that what began in the alleys and backways of Ft. Dupree, South Dakota, would end in that single flame. And the mountains will go up in big flames. The water’s gonna rise in flames. And it will all just rise up. And we will look out at the things we made. All things shining. And only then, will we know where Mother lives. For she was one of many that lead us to the door.
“Unless you love… Your life will flash by…”
The Tree of Life was a surprise success in the box-office, considering how much of a hard sell it was. That didn’t stop most from immediately despising the abstract philosophizing that they saw, but it’s certainly a film that has inspired strong feelings in just about every viewer. Enough to be nominated for Best Picture in the 2011 Academy Awards, appear in the late Roger Ebert’s 2012 Sight and Sound Top 10, and inspire lots of heated discussion amongst the entire film world. Regardless of opinion, The Tree of Life is going to live on for a long while.
But whatever The Tree of Life seemed to inspire within viewers, the one it inspired the most was Malick. Whereas the waits between all of his previous films were sometimes torturously long, his latest film To the Wonder is releasing a mere two years after The Tree of Life, and Malick already has two more films lined up either in production or in post, and many more are on the way. He’s directing so many movies at this point, that he may very well make more in the next 5 years of filmmaking than he did his first twenty years of filmmaking.
And while the Terrence Malick Retrospective has come to a close, I will continue to chronicle his filmography. For this weekend, I shall review his latest film, and take a journey… To the Wonder.