Skip to content

Genesis or abiogenesis? Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

July 29, 2011

Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, has, like all his recent films, divided critics. In fact many of the reviews are divided against themselves with writers unable to decide whether the film is a masterpiece or a folly. Of course, reviewers who are normally sent to pass judgement on movies about polymorphic robots or child wizards are hardly equipped to write about art. It is rather like sending a pop critic from the NME to review a new opera by Harrison Birtwhistle.

The tree of life which appeared in On the Origin of Species

An appreciation of the film must start with the title which has two clear references. The first is the biological concept of the tree of life, the family tree of all living things derived from the Darwinian theory of evolution. The second is religious and refers to the tree of life found in the Garden of Eden and, according to the second chapter of Genesis, capable of granting immortality to those who eat from it. Similar myths are found in many religious traditions around the world and trees clearly have an archetypal ‘super-symbolic’ significance. These two meanings are emphasised by the film’s insistence on a dichotomy between nature (cruel, competitive and tending toward death) and grace (selfless, loving and tending toward immortality). The film is prefaced, however, by an epigraph from the Book of Job. As it is soon revealed that the main thrust of the film is the effect on a family of the death of one of its members the film can also be viewed (like Job) as an attempt at theodicy.

The film begins with the arrival of a telegram bearing news of the death of the second of the O’Brien’s sons at the age of nineteen. The grief of the parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) is depicted along with the alienation of the elder brother, Jack (Sean Penn), still struggling to come to terms with his sorrow on what may be the anniversary of the tragic event. At this point the film seems largely concerned with geometry. Jack, an architect, is seen in aggressively angular modern buildings, all triangles and right angles. This is contrasted with the chaotic geometry of nature, rock formations, waves, etc, the kind of geometry which mathematics still struggles to describe. Indeed the curves and irregularities of Penn’s face look increasingly out of place in the rows of triangles he may himself have designed.

This sequence of mourning leads into the most (in)famous part of the film. As the soprano from Zbigniew Priesner’s Requiem repeatedly sings the word ‘lacrimosa’ (tearful) we are taken on a cosmic journey from the beginning of the universe to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The key to this seems to me that repeated ‘lacrimosa’. What are tears compared to the vast expanse of time and space? Or is the universe itself tearful? In a version of the anthropic principle we can see grief, resulting as it does from love, as investing meaning in the whole of creation. Psalm 148 says “Praise ye him [God], sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light” (verse 3, King James). Perhaps this sequence suggests that the stars should also join in mourning the death of a nineteen year old man. It is this sequence which has prompted comparisons to Stanley Kubrick but the similarity is, I think, rather superficial. Malick is unique and if this film is to be compared to anything it is perhaps closer to Tarkovsky’s Mirror than 2001.

When we return we find Jack watching a tree being replanted in the centre of the office complex. This is certainly not a ‘tree of life’, cut off as it is from the rest of nature with no chance of reproducing. The image sends him into a reminiscence of his childhood which will make up the bulk of the film. It is at this point that one first thinks of Proust. The evocative nature of the following scenes and the fact that they are not an objective flashback but a subjective series of reminiscences reinforces a reading of the film as a Proustian exercise which may be important later.

This long, central section of the film begins with Jack’s birth. There follows a depiction of ‘toddlerhood’ which is the best, if not the only, cinematic attempt to capture the world of a young child which I have seen. In fact, the only similar thing I can think of is the opening of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Much of the effect is achieved by the simple, but surprisingly rarely used, technique of shooting at the child’s eye-level. We see the world as an alien, Brobdingnagian place and the adults in it as giants and, in the case of the father, rather remote.

It is at this point that I must confess to a personal interest. As Jack grows up there is a montage set to Smetana (‘Vltava’ from Ma Vlast). This happens to be a piece which I have known since childhood and is perhaps the most evocative piece from the whole repertoire for me personally. Combined with the fact that I am, like Jack, the oldest of three brothers this meant that the film seemed to speak to me directly and to be about my own childhood. From hearing other people’s reactions, however, it seems that this is a common experience. Many people have written or spoken of the intense connection that the film made with their own memories of growing up so it seems that the credit for this does belong to Malick and not to a musical coincidence. (I do not know if there is a gender divide here. The film is so much about boyhood that it might not have the same effect on women.) This might be the place to comment that Malick, like Kubrick and Tarkovsky and almost all truly great film-makers has an unerring ear for music. The use of Bach, Brahms, Mahler and others in this film is worth the ticket price alone.

As Jack grows into a mildly delinquent boy we see the development of his relationship with his sensitive, musical (and doomed) brother and with his parents. The father starts out as a man disappointed at his failure to succeed as a musician (due, we assume, to World War II) and increasingly embittered by his failure to make a fortune as an inventor. Meanwhile, he is strict and patriarchal at home, attempting to teach his sons the hard, Darwinian virtues (in the terms of the film, the way of ‘nature’) he believes are necessary to succeed in  the world. Malick is an American film-maker so the American Dream is never far from his concerns. While the father fails, Jack will go on to succeed but, it appears, finds success meaningless. Despite a few outbursts of violence the father is not abusive. He is probably fairly average by the standards of the time and Brad Pitt maintains a thread of decency throughout his portrayal. After one outburst in which he effectively chases his family from the dining room he sits back down to continue eating in a gesture of nonchalance but Pitt’s hands show that the character is as terrified by what he has done as anyone else. This is a portrait of a man trapped by a masculinity which is in conflict with his role as a parent and consequently forced to act in bad faith. Indeed this struggle between his role as ‘man of the house’ and carer for his children is perhaps the most moving element of the film. There have been few men on screen so much in need of feminism. He does finally achieve a moment of grace when he sees that his sons are the great achievement of his life and that he does not want or need anything else.

The mother represents the way of ‘grace’ and her portrayal as a kind of angel, in touch with nature and the ‘spiritual’ has been much criticised. She is very much the kind of post-war ‘housewife’ that Betty Friedan set out to liberate and one might see her devotion to religion as an attempt to find meaning in a life that condemns her to domestic imprisonment, despite her university education. As Jack grows more like his father his idealisation of his mother becomes more problematic, especially once his sexuality begins to emerge. He adores her as helplessly as Proust’s narrator but also scorns her apparent weakness and inability to stand up to either her husband or her children. The complicated feelings of Jack are never really resolved and this section ends when the family are forced to move away for the sake of the father’s job. The scenes in which they leave the empty house are a climax to the whole section and provide an ending to what is a largely narrative-free series of vignettes.

The final section returns to the adult Jack and largely consists of a strange scene in which he is reunited with his family on a beach. This may be meant to evoke an afterlife and the ocean can certainly be used to represent eternity. If, however, we follow a reading of the film as Proustian and so concerned with memory, we might see this as something like the ending of Le Temps Retrouvé. (The scene reminded me of Raúl Ruiz’s adaptation.) Jack has discovered that the solution to the problem of grief is memory. His brother lives on as long as he remembers him. Memory allows us to regain time and, in some sense, conquer death. Shortly after the scene with the dinosaurs we see one of the boys claiming to have discovered a dinosaur bone in a field. Despite their extinction dinosaurs survive as fossils (and indeed their DNA survives in the birds descended from them) which are metaphorically the memories of the earth. We leave traces behind us and the most important traces are in the minds of those who loved us. Perhaps here there is a synthesis between ‘grace’ and ‘nature’, love and fossilisation. Darwinian evolution is not only about the struggle for existence but equally importantly about inheritance. After all, as Dawkins has argued, organisms are only machines that are used by genes to ensure their own immortality. This seems to me to be a more interesting reading than simply seeing the promise of an afterlife as the solution to the problem of evil.

I should add that the film is beautifully shot and the childhood scenes have the quality of evoking the senses of touch and smell which only the greatest film-makers are able to achieve. One’s memories of the film are often strikingly tactile. The performances of the children are simply stunning. There is no acting visible here, only observed behaviour. In one scene Jack defiantly stands up to his father but his words are half-mumbled and he leans away as if preparing to run. We see the huge psychological effort needed to make even this rather feeble gesture of independence. If I have a criticism of Malick it is that, despite his reputation for being obscure and ‘difficult’, I often find him too literal. It was not really necessary for the young Jack to explain that he had become more like his father than his mother as we had spent the last hour watching precisely that process. I hope that a shot near the end of a mask sinking in the sea was not supposed to be as clumsily symbolic as it seemed. But these are quibbles. The Tree of Life is the best American art film since There Will Be Blood.


From → Cinema, Review

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: