By Robert Koehler
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life begins, all too appropriately, with a yolk-colored blob. Like a scientist’s experiment which has been fussed over until it’s lost its original hypothesis (let alone any proof), Malick’s new film is the work of a man who has so overthought his material that it has flipped, and become underthought, a welter of contradictory ideas, a toxic brew of literalism and spiritualism, an acid trip without the necessary acid. He has turned a chamber piece about a Texas family in the post-war era into a bloated behemoth. He has fatally forgotten the wisdom that in the specific lies the universal, and instead imposes an entirely unearned universal construct on top of a small story that should have a running time of no more than 80 minutes, rather than its entirely unjustifiable 137-minute length–a marker of uncontrolled hubris.
I noted in my review in Cinema Scope of Malick’s previous film, The New World, that the key to understanding his cinema is that he’s a birder. This does not apply to The Tree of Life, although there may be more actual birds on screen in the new work. It would be good to report that the key lies in Malick’s previous life (before he became a film director with Badlands in 1973) as a lecturer in philosophy at MIT, where he specialized in Heidegger. The Tree of Life is replete with philosophy, to be sure; oh, my, is it ever, all of it stated, as with every verbal utterance on the soundtrack (most of which are delivered in a nearly inaudible whispered voiceover by the various characters), absolutely and firmly on the nose. But the philosophy is now confused, amorphous, cosmic, furry-headed variations on the now-old New Age movement. Indeed, that would be a better title for the opus: The New Age.
He has made one film, interrupted by another; or, seen from another angle, two films, each refusing to meld with the other. The first is a memory narrative about middle-aged Houston architect Jack (Sean Penn), prompted out of nothing in particular–perhaps, as far can be vaguely perceived from Malick’s fractured depiction of activity, a bad day at the office–to recall his painful childhood growing up in Waco, Tx. with father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), mom Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and brothers R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan). As Jack grows up, he develops an antipathy toward his father, whom we are told quite bluntly early on represents “the way of nature,” while mother represents “the way of grace.” (In Malick’s philosophical construct, “nature” is bad, imposing, arrogant; “grace” is “never having to justify one’s self.” More on this slice of intellectual nonsense later.) Raised in a “good” home but with a strict, disciplinarian father, Jack begins to rebel as he moves toward his teen years, and flirts with bad deeds. Father, who falls on rough times with his failed attempts to cash in on his various patents, seems to try to re-bond with Jack, even as he moves the family to a much nicer neighborhood. (Even though he’s fallen on bad times, a nifty detail Malick never explains.) Later, one of Jack’s brothers dies at age 19 for no known reason (perhaps in Vietnam, or Korea, or somewhere else, who knows? Does Malick?)–a deliberate though unrealized tragedy depicted, in a true storytelling perversity, not near the end of Tree of Life, but at its beginning.
The other film? This would be Malick’s depiction of the beginning of the local solar system, the forming of Earth and the origins of life, from the microbial stage to the dinosaurs. Again, this is not where The Tree of Life begins proper, but some twenty minutes in, after Penn’s voice whispers things like “Brother?” and “Mother?”, some blobs appear and disappear, Jack’s family is introduced, Jack’s mother receives a telegram announcing the son’s death, and Penn’s adult Jack is seen rummaging around his gorgeous architect’s desk and walking amidst a forest of glassy skyscrapers (presumably The Trees of Corporate Life, given the way they are filmed at extreme low angles with ultra-wide focal lenses in identical fashion to the film’s many actual trees). For no particular reason or catalyst, Malick chooses to jump literally into the cosmos, assembling a gorgeous string of images. Derived from pictures by the Hubble deep space telescope, and processed by the Palomar Observatory and the Digitized Sky Survey at Caltech, the images show the births of stars, galaxies and then our planet, followed by a montage of subatomic particles, cellular organisms, ancient fish and then, finally, two CGI created dinosaurs.
From some closely similar music cues and planetary and prehistoric images to its leaps in time and space, this other film simply and openly begs comparison with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, let’s compare. The narrative leap out of the family film into the dinosaur film is not the kind of leap made by 2001‘s Moon Watcher ape tossing his bone weapon into the air and transforming in cinema’s greatest edit to a spaceship; there’s no expressive or meaningful transition, but rather, a seemingly arbitrary cut that may have just as well happened sooner or later. The montage of astronomical, geologic, geographic and underwater images that follow in some ways closely parallel the opening montage of primordial landscapes in “The Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001, but they soon have the feeling of a montage in an IMAX film presented in a science park, missing only Morgan Freeman’s narration explaining the development of life on earth. (Perhaps the only spot in The Tree of Life in which voice-over does not occur.) They also indicate a critical problem with the visual nature of Malick’s film, which is that the images are discrete unto themselves, picturesque rather than cinematic, producing the sensation of flipping through pages in a coffee-table photography book (or, in the case of Jack’s family, pictures in the album of a family we don’t know).
Most critical in a 2001 comparison is how this “Dawn of Life” film-within-a-film climaxes, and how it points to the film’s central philosophical defects. A long-necked dinosaur, first observed at its beach hangout, lopes into a forest where it encounters a smaller, wounded dino prey, looking for all intents and purposes like dinner as it presses a claw like a death-grip on the little guy’s head. But, in a truly Spielbergian moment (and even Spielberg couldn’t conceive of such dino-to-dino kindness in Jurassic Park), big dino takes apparent compassion upon little dino, releasing its grip and consoling it with a gentle stroke. This, we can only conclude, is the birth of love, or, at least, pity. (Compare, if you will, this image of big dino’s gentle claw with Monica Vitti’s white hand on the forehead of Gabriele Ferzetti at the end of L’Avventura for a useful contrasting expression of genuine pity.) This is pure anthropomorphism, and precisely the opposite of Kubrick’s apes-into-men. Such a depiction of dinosaur love is little more than human wish fulfillment, a fantasy–even a romance–of altruism amongst animals, and this after having just been told in blunt terms on the film’s whispered soundtrack that “nature” is bad. Kubrick’s apes, having accidentally stumbled upon the usefulness of bones as weapons, deploy their invention to kill members of a competing band of apes, confirming that man’s innately violent nature is certain to make tools into implements of violence. These, not love, are some of the elements of evolution.
A clearer difference in philosophies, between Malick’s essentially naive romanticism–which proves to gird much of what follows in The Tree of Life–and Kubrick’s Darwinian view of natural selection, is hard to imagine. Yet this probably wont stop the upcoming flow of commentary likening The Tree of Life to 2001, encouraged by the participation of Kubrick’s important special effects collaborator, Douglas Trumbull, with Malick, as well as a spate of classical music selections (John Tavener, Holst) which directly acknowledge the influence of 2001. While Malick’s early films, including Badlands and Days of Heaven, combined an awareness of class conflict and the inevitable clashes of human desire with a fascination with nature that bordered on Pantheism, The Tree of Life dives headlong into a world view that can be summed up in the Beatles lyric, “All you need is love.” Mrs. O’Brien, in one of her few whispered voice-overs as the family moves out of their old Waco house, states that without love, life goes by in a flash. Love is seen to finally bridge the growing barrier between Jack and his father. An increasing lack of love between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien can be seen to fuel his angry outbursts when he’s confronted with his boys’ disobedience.
At the same time, Malick is either uninterested, unwilling or unable to convey emotions on screen, except through the crutch of all those whispered voiceovers allowing us to eavesdrop on characters’ inner thoughts. The annoying mannerism of the whispering aside (and it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the spectacular misjudgment of the flagrant overuse of this device, to say nothing of its pseudo-poetic language, the on-the-nose obviousness and the particularly vexing issue that about 75% of what’s whispered is inaudible, even when seen in the Directors Guild’s superb big cinema), the emotional undercurrents are crowded off screen for the picturesque. The actual human dimension is replaced by bits of bullet-point dialogue; when Jack faces his father and says, “You’d like to kill me,” it doesn’t shock or resound, because there’s nothing backing it up, since there’s nothing in the father’s behavior that’s remotely homicidal, only aggressive. Malick wants to convey love’s force, and, as he deems it, “grace,” but he can’t find cinematic correlatives for it. His narrative contains all the aspects of a primal father-son conflict, but he drains it away and replaces it with New Age quotations. “The glory” is a term heard often, in a throwback to its use in The Thin Red Line to far more powerful effect, since it was tied to actual human endeavors and historical events. (The New Age effect also flows to the soundtrack: Tavener is a favorite composer with the New Age crowd, as well as the progressive Anglo-Saxon Christian crowd, with whom New Agers have much in common. This is also true of Henryk Gorecki, whose music is also periodically cued.) Even Mr. O’Brien’s real-world work at a giant oil refinery and his efforts to cash in on his various patents comes across as abstract and vacuous, materialist engagements framed in purely spiritualist terms; the refinery resembles nothing so much as a cathedral of industrial pipes, while the Texas state capitol building where O’Brien tramps around aimlessly and to no real purpose is filmed as if it were St. Peter’s in Rome.
The Tree of Life begins with a quotation from the Book of Job (Chapter 38, verses 4 and 7, in which God puts Job in his place), and references Job’s trials with God later during a pastor’s sermon. Nods to God and Job and references and quotations do not, however, by themselves earn meaning. Nor does a train of images early on of the family grieving over news of the son’s death conjure up a Job-like struggle. A detectable pattern emerges: Ideas are stated, and then not explored in cinematic terms. Worse: the ideas contradict one another. Take the matter of grace vs. nature, which Malick clearly intends as his central dialectic. The ways in which these two states of mind/existence are defined by Malick has little to do with any recognizable view of either. Grace is typically associated with either the comforting power of a supreme being, or in Malick’s Pantheistic view, an equilibrium between humans and nature. As for Nature, philosophers have clashed for centuries over it’s essential meaning, ranging from the kind of anthropomorphism dramatized by Malick with his dinos or poets’ use of “the pathetic fallacy” to a more scientific view that sees Nature as an amoral process of birth, life, death, decay and regeneration–the view, if you will, of “2001.” But Malick has wholly confused his terms. Two direct literary influences on The Tree of Life are William Faulkner and D. H. Lawrence; Faulkner for his fracturing of narrative into a stream-of-consciousness, better to convey the unstructured momentum of inner thought and emotions, and for his fascination with the eternal battle between fathers and sons; Lawrence for his concern with the conflict between what he viewed as “nature” and “will.” Mr. O’Brien is a purely Lawrencian character, which Malick proceeds to utterly misread. Rather than representing nature (that would actually be Mrs. O’Brien, who’s constantly depicted outdoors, under the trees, walking barefoot in the grass, dipping her toes in water), Mr. O’Brien is pure will, and he states it as such in a few lines of dialogue while advising his sons on the cruel ways of the world. His entire character can be viewed as a man trying to exert his will on his sons to follow in his path; the middle son’s interest in music draws him closer to the father, who regrets aborting his own music studies (now channeled into some organ playing of Bach and record-spinning of Brahms and other composers at home), and which seems to spur Jack’s jealousy. This is not nature, but it’s opposite, the human forces impinging themselves upon nature, exactly as Lawrence viewed it.
Ultimately, Malick discards these matters for something far more amorphous: Adult Jack’s quest for meaning, conveyed in a manner that can only be described as graduate film school surrealism. In the early reels, Malick inserts strange footage of Sean Penn in his business suit traipsing through what may be a desert in California or Utah; trippy and maybe a bit silly, but quickly forgotten what with the dinosaurs and Jack v. dad tale that consumes much of the film. But then, in the final reel, it all comes back, with Penn’s Jack still traipsing, climbing over rocks, walking through a door standing alone in the wilderness (I’m not kidding), then the roofless family house (or a small section of it replicated by Malick’s longtime production designer Jack Fisk in the desert) and finally reaching a long, flat beach with lots of folks blankly wandering around. They include, in a true stroke of Kitsch, Jack’s family as they were when he was a kid; these are, it seems, the living dead, or ghosts of Jack’s past, or perhaps something else, since almost nobody in this gaggle of beachside wanderers outside of the family is recognizable from the rest of the film. Nothing much happens; Penn and Pitt walk silently together in the film’s only superstar moment, the kids receive a few hugs, the water laps ashore, and then it’s over.
And to what end? It might reasonably be expected that this sequence should be adult Jack’s final cathartic release of emotional memory, an expunging of familial toxins, a recognition of impending mortality as well as a reconciliation with the past. Whether this was Malick’s intention can only be guessed at, since none of this happens, and nothing else either, expect a bunch of images of various people walking on the beach. Literally, and nothing more, pictures. This is important, since endings are important, this is where he ends the film, accented by such postcard Kitsch as a shot of a field of sunflowers. Nothing more clearly points to a film run aground by undeveloped ideas in contradiction than this.
The tragedy of The Tree of Life is the film itself, a project of such profound importance to the filmmaker that he worked on concepts and images for it ever since he’s been a filmmaker–nearly 38 years. He clearly based the family story on his own memories growing up in Texas as a boy in the late 1940s and 1950s, and this is best preserved on film in the many wonderful, Wyeth-like moments of rambunctious boys playing indoors and out, having fun for the sake of it. (The sole moments of anything like lightness in a film utterly devoid of humor, irony or inference.) He sweated out several 200-page drafts, and when producer Bill Pohlad told him a decade ago that his script contained two films that weren’t joined into one, he worked on it some more, making The New World in the interim. It’s now clear that Pohlad’s criticism was precisely on point; what hardly makes any sense is why the film was subsequently funded and produced when the very problem Pohlad defined was never resolved. Like the New Age itself, The Tree of Life is an aspirational quest that can’t come full circle, since it never determines what it is in the first place, and concludes as a cinema con.