An ephemeral pink gaseous cloud. Stars being formed. Fire. Water. Foliage growing. Dinosaurs.
On hearing the buzz around Terrence Malick’s latest film, Tree of Life, I feared it would come off like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which tried to take on huge transhistorical themes, and which had some pretty cinematography, but ended up biting off more than it could chew. I was relieved to find that The Tree of Life avoids this, largely by avoiding traditional narrative.
Solar wind. Lush forests. A Dad playing with his children. Suburban America. A swing. Red hair.
The fragmented narrative we do get revolves around a traditional ’50s American family, A dad (Brad Pitt), a mom (Jessica Chastain), and three yonug boys (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan). We learn early on that one of the boys has died, although we don’t know how, when, or why. After this, we get what seems like a year, maybe less, in the life of this family, which features a stern but loving father and head of household (known only as Mr. O’Brien) and the effects his emotional distance and harsh discipline have on the family. Kind of.
Dad coming home and scrutinizing the job eldest son has done tending the lawn. Dad saying Grace before dinner. Dad squirting kids with a hose. Mom sitting on the porch.
Women are an afterthought in this film, more a part of mise-en-scene than actual characters. The voiceover, however, which frames the film during the cosmic interludes, is that of the wife, suggesting an organizing presence if not a strong influence in family affairs.
Pleas to god. A small attic room. A doorway in the middle of a rocky landscape. A desolate beach out of time where the dead and mingle. The son grown up (played by Sean Penn) as an architect.
Religion plays a large role in this film. The patriarchal system of Malick’s ’50s goes God–>Father–>Son. The father says grace before every meal. The mother asks in voiceover “What are we to you?” as we see the creation of the universe and evolution of life over millenia. The answer, it seems, is that we are an infinitesimal part of an immense universe.
Malick manages to situate this family drama in the context of all of (what I will call for lack of a better term) creation but simultaneously to convey a melancholic urgency to this tiny story. He makes us feel small but makes us care about this family.
This film is difficult. I saw it a week ago and have since let it settle into place. Good films teach the viewer how to watch them early on, and this succeeded in training me to sit back and not to try too hard to make sense of it right away, but to let it wash over me. It is absolutely gorgeous, from the grandiose computer-generated cosmic sequences to the shots of everyday ’50s suburbia, but it is impossible to follow. There is little dialogue, and many scenes are probably less than two minutes, with shots lasting no longer than 5-10 seconds. There is no discernible chronology. All I’ve been able to do over the last week is gather impressions, which, I think, is the point. Malick is mimicking memory in all its fragmentation. We don’t remember in strict chronology, but impose narrative on disparate memories. Nothing makes sense as it is happening. Rather, we impose sense after the fact, through memory or religion or a rigid value-system.
One of the issues that this film foregrounds is the role of fatherhood. In my opinion, the father in this film is overbearing and overly strict, as evidenced by the hatred his son begins to feel for him. This interpretation is easily contradicted, however, by the numerous examples of affectionate interactions between father and son(s), and his semi-apology to the eldest son late in the film for being so hard on him at times. Pitt’s character is complex and complicated, and I think he acts as Rorschach test for what are commonly seen as largely generational differences in the interplay between child-rearing, masculinity, religion and tradition. This ambiguity is a testament to Malick’s realistic portrayal of this period, and his ability to (re)create without judgment. He leaves that up to the viewer.