A week or so ago I witnessed a sixteen-wheeler truck careen off the side of the highway into the woods. Now that I’ve got your attention, let me take you to the beginning of this. I was on the road late at night returning from NYC. For quite some time through the murky and lifeless interstates of Connecticut the only sign of life my friends and I were able to glimpse was one truck, huge and imposing, barreling down the road just as it probably had through countless other states that very same day. Trucks are always, admittedly, something of a fright for a driver in a comparatively measly minivan, but in this instance we hadn’t thought much of it because it was a reasonable distance away. Suddenly, we heard a loud bang. A second later, I saw the truck sifting up a large cloud of debris as it skid towards the median, hobbled across the (thankfully empty) other side of the road, and nosedived into the trees. The whole encounter was but a flash in my mind just after it happened, a moment of such surreal devastation and mayhem that the concrete details escape me – something out of a movie, come to think of it. Even now, it’s perhaps even more abstracted, a mere wisp of physical trauma that we were fortunately able to avoid. My immediate reaction was that I had just confronted the concept of mortality, the idea that chaos can ensue and it’s totally inscrutable, that the larger forces of nature are just utterly indifferent to the lives of individuals. The driver was gonzo, I assumed.
The following morning, after calling the police department for the second time in 24 hours (the first time being of much greater immediacy), we discovered that the driver had only suffered “minor injuries”. There were suspicions of a blown tire – a freak accident that surely seems exponentially more likely in the context of an all-day truck service – but the details had yet to be parsed out. Ultimately, we were more concerned with whether or not this man had survived. By the end of it all (although of course there’s never really an “end” to such a thing), I had to ask myself: was I somehow relieved to know he was alive, or was that initial assumption of The End so devastating that it overpowered the belated realization of survival? I’m still wrestling with that question, but secondary to the topic of life or death is another inquiry the experience offered. This lumbering truck, basically a killing machine anywhere over 10 mph, somehow crossed an entire highway without killing one person, not even the driver. At the risk of devolving to some simplistic live-life-to-the-fullest mode or some vague Monotheistic justification, I must admit the encounter at least was able to propose a sizable chunk of optimism amidst all the shock and despair, an openness to some unknowable form of supernatural chance. For lack of a better word, that might be called “grace”. Actually, grace might be exactly the right word. If nature is the force that caused the tire to pop, grace was perhaps that which dictated the absence of travelers on the opposite side of the highway, or the unlikely survival of the man who is probably now so scarred, yet also humbly elevated, by the experience.
I gesture towards discursive association because I think that’s what Terrence Malick encourages, or at least that’s what The Tree of Life manages to summon to the surface. Because, as it happens, nature and grace are the two axioms around which his latest feature outspokenly revolves. At first seemingly embodied by a stern autocratic father (Brad Pitt) and his loving, judiciously playful wife (Jessica Chastain, who explicitly mutters this theory in one voice-over) in their home in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s but eventually more appropriately reflected by the two films that are nestled inside one, The Tree of Life attempts to view these two energies as being the essence of life on Earth, the primal matter that guides both human and inhuman behavior. It’s not a black-and-white dialectic, Malick insists, but rather one where each is constantly informing the other, playing a subconscious role in decision-making and instinctive action. It’s also not, contrary to the concerns of naysayers, some finality that Malick is imposing on the universe. Like the baseballs that Pitt and Chastain’s three sons toss up into the sky and watch return at one point, Malick is merely throwing a potential hypothesis into the ether as an impetus for a film, testing it and watching it evolve through his collaborative, spontaneous filmmaking practice. The Tree of Life has no meaning other than what the viewer brings to it, since Malick is chiefly interested not in espousing great philosophies but in asking the kind of big, unanswerable questions that flickered in my consciousness after the sixteen-wheeler bit the dust.
If I was told a year ago that I would be able to see on the big screen and within the same week a piece of shiny garbage (the latest Pirates of the Caribbean flick) and a work of such ingenuity and purpose that it singlehandedly argues for the survival of a questionably dead medium, I might not have believed it. That it has happened is both a confirmation that the idea of cinema as a platform for serious exploration of the world is still alive and kicking, and a testament to the sheer variety in our cultural sphere. Coincidentally, the variety of culture and the seemingly limitless capacity for human experience, as well as the ways in which these facets of knowledge are shielded as a result of our upbringing, is something Malick is interested in more than ever in The Tree of Life.
One of the film’s several (perhaps even infinite) narratives maps out the gradual realizations of life’s complexity in Pitt and Chastain’s three sons, particularly in Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken), who is given the most screen time and grows up to become Sean Penn’s confused, contemplative architect. Malick traces his progression from a newborn baby to a moody delinquent, peering in along the way on the moments of heightened confusion and introspection that contribute to an increasingly realized sense of self and understanding of the world. At one point, Jack wanders around his neighborhood alone when he is suddenly drawn to the sound of a married couple screaming at each other and witnesses through the dining room windows from afar what is practically the mirror image of his own family. Later, when the O’Briens head into the Waco town center, Jack and his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler) mock a stumbling drunk before having their childishness turned against them when a crippled man produces a similar gait. Jack’s sense of individuality and privilege are challenged, and it’s just the beginning of a slow unfurling of details that forces him to accept, as all Malick characters do, that he is merely a small speck in the universe.
Malick has always gone to great lengths to visualize this idea of human smallness precisely by emphasizing natural vastness, and that tendency is taken to its logical extreme in The Tree of Life’s early montage of the birth of the universe and the beginnings of time on Earth, a digressive episode that spans some twenty to thirty minutes of the film’s run-time (it’s the least he could do for such a calamitous event that took billions of years). From an amorphous balloon of orange light in the center of the screen begins a series of Brakhage-like gyrations of color that culminate in a representation of the creation of the solar system that slowly morphs from abstraction to recognizable forms. Within this are certain blobs that resemble inner body fluids, perhaps an attempt to link the macro processes of the Big Bang to the micro processes of human birth. After a meteor strikes Earth, Malick drops in to observe the primordial stew of liquids and solids on the planet’s surface that eventually produce oceans and landscapes. The images created in this sequence – advised by special effects legend Douglas Trumbull, referenced from NASA, and shot using either 65 mm or the massive IMAX format – are impossibly high-fidelity, giving the whole sequence the uncanny sense of actually floating over this universal phenomenon rather than just witnessing cinematic images of it. It’s a bracing, almost paradoxically uncomfortable effect, because it’s as if a few times Malick is more smitten with taking the audience’s breath away as in a Discovery Channel doc than providing a truly cinematic montage.
This segues into the first stirrings of life on Earth, a sequence involving dinosaurs that has quickly become the tipping point for viewers eager to accuse Malick of pretentiousness, hypocrisy, or plain ridiculousness. Having seen it once, none of these accusations really seem fair given the brief modesty of the scenes, and any claims of silliness are surely attributable to the fact that Jurassic Park already exists in our collective consciousness in such a way that any cinematic stab at dinosaurs is either going to live up to it or pale in comparison. However, I will admit to feeling a small pang of bewilderment at Malick’s head-scratching decision to employ such transparent CGI. Given his affinity for all things natural, not to mention his career-long thematic acknowledgment of the folly of human ambition, the dinosaurs come across as something of a sharp left turn in his alleged sensibility. Granted, other than miniatures (which would have forced him to work independently of his beloved natural landscapes), there’s no other way to whip up remotely convincing portrayals of these creatures, and one particular interaction between a prancing raptor and a wounded little one washed up on the shore makes an argument for the indispensability of the scene in the film’s thematic framework. The raptor hovers its foot over the smaller dino’s skull on the rocks, flirting with killing it before inexplicably pulling away. More on this later.
The entire segment is perhaps The Tree of Life’s weakest addition, never quite gelling organically with the flow of the rest of the film, but at the same time its presence bolsters the discursive philosophical inquiry that Malick is attempting. Because, it seems, aside from one symmetrical composition of a planetary eclipse that bluntly recalls the film that it has been most commonly compared to (2001), Malick’s latest cine-essay is actually closer in spirit to Tarkovsky’s sublime The Mirror than Kubrick’s detached, cerebral science-fiction (as if acknowledging the affinity, Malick even has Chastain in a fleeting scene of levitation somewhere in the film’s majestic flow of images). The Tree of Life, to me, seems essentially emotional rather than intellectual, a symphony of uneven personal memories and dreams whose illogic cannot be justified by rational argument but only by the elusive nature of sensation. Like Tarkovsky, Malick suspends his central characters in what is very likely a recreation of his own biography (though we can never quite be sure), with Jack as the presumable director surrogate (something his architectural career as an adult might substantiate). Also like Tarkovsky, Malick alternates without warning between different points of view, different subjectivities, including what is perhaps a Godlike vantage point. Once the film settles into its central timeline – that is, the upbringing of Jack and his brothers in their 1950’s suburban home – one can never be sure who the film is being dreamt up by, if the depicted events are indeed real, and if that factor of authenticity even matters. Several critics have suggested that it is Sean Penn’s character who envisions the entire narrative in his mind as he experiences a mid-life crisis, but that seems too reductive and easy an encapsulation, and doesn’t account for all of the drastic temporal and perspectival shifts that Malick includes.
Malick’s greatest achievement here is his dreamy recreation of childhood, which is by no means a standard or objective expression but a deeply intuitive one that manages to capture something primal about the actual experience of growing up. If suspicions of autobiography are correct, and I have no doubt they are, this is a disarmingly personal, even confessional historical surgery, a parsing through of all the shameful moments of sin, sexual desire, and immaturity that any self-respecting person tries desperately to repress. Here, Malick has laid these tricky and conflicting emotions bare through his open and intimate style, an onslaught of tactile low-angle steadicam shots that imitate the vantage point of a young child. When Jack is born (another achingly poetic sequence that Malick shows, characteristically, through the act of swimming), his first impressions of Earth are displayed via a collage of fragmentary images: Chastain’s angelic face, wiggling fingers reflected in a mirror, an old man’s face (a neighbor?) blown-up in grotesque close-up, among many others. Malick is attempting to replicate those initial sensations of the world that are so difficult to grasp in retrospect, as if locked away in a special chest for fear of diluting them amongst the more cogent understandings of physicality that rapidly develop in infants. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s liquid steadicam shots increase in duration as Jack ages, suggesting the world’s inscrutable fragments gradually forming wholes. In one atypically unbroken shot, the camera observes with ecstatic discovery as the toddler Jack stares at his baby brother in awe.
Various subtextual layers begin to pile up over the central drama as Jack and his brothers age. Freudian complexes develop as Jack tacitly wishes death upon his tough-loving father and bathes his mother in an aura of spiritual candor, once envisioning her in a glass coffin in the middle of the woods covered in flowers, an image that feels plucked from an ancient fairy tale. Other sequences offer a metafictional undercurrent: infatuation with a fellow schoolgirl blooms within Jack and he follows her from a distance through his neighborhood, a simple, vaguely predatory desire that recalls, down to specific compositions, Malick’s debut Badlands; Jack and his friends’ chaotic rampage of anger and naivete, sending frogs into the sky in rockets and breaking windows with rocks, starts to obliquely resemble juvenile delinquency films like The 400 Blows; a tall carney that appears in the dark attic during one of R.L.‘s nightmares looks like the giant in Twin Peaks; and Malick’s visual analysis of a present-day Houston (the first time in his career he’s attempted contemporary life), with his camera searching for natural shapes in mechanical architectural figures, somehow evokes Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her.
For all this implicit citation – nothing new to Malick who experimented with a dense tapestry of American historical documents in The New World – The Tree of Life remains staunchly singular, taking the formal sensibilities of his two previous films to an even more extreme level of abstraction and impressionism. More than ever, Malick is drawing loosely on the theories of Soviet montage to at once obey their tenets yet also break free from them to create a distinct cinematic language. No filmmaker, to my mind, has ever combined the use of a steadicam and handheld to such magical effect, with countless jump cuts, sudden reversals of perspective, and drastic movements. Spatial laws existing within traditional filmmaking have been shattered, as Malick seems to care nothing for the 180 degree rule that governs at least 95% of cinematic conversation scenes, the careful shielding off of certain background elements that allow most films to avoid showing crew members or equipment, or the notion of repetitive frameworks for shooting certain spaces to maintain a degree of familiarity and comprehension. Here, the camera is liable to travel anywhere and everywhere in a certain location and does, seeking to map out new understandings of the physical spaces (one potential reason why the O’Brien household never feels like the exact same house in any given scene). Malick’s style is looking to discover something ineffable, a unique emotion or sensation, and one needs to look no further, for instance, than a lovely sequence when father leaves for a trip and the kids chase their mother around the house, playfully terrorizing her with a salamander, to witness the heartbreaking beauty his technique is able to dredge up.
So it stands to question what the film’s philosophical content really is (and after only one viewing, I see that as an inherent positive). Earlier, I harped upon nature and grace, two forces the film keeps bringing to mind. It’s as if, broadly speaking, Malick is setting up two individual films – one being the birth of the universe and one being the O’Brien family history – that loosely represent these two notions, the former nature and the latter grace, and searching for the areas where contradictions arise, where the existential cliff notes overlap. To return to the dinosaur scene, when the raptor appears to show mercy towards the weaker herbivore and refrains from crushing his skull, the initial sense is that the raptor suddenly showed grace. But then the question becomes whether or not that seemingly graceful act of nonviolence might have been part of the creature’s nature. Likewise, Brad Pitt’s domineering father figure is at first equated with nature, which is to say that nature is equated with both severity and violence. I don’t think that’s what Malick intends to say; rather, when Pitt’s physical domination of his wife during an argument fizzles out and becomes something of a loving embrace, it mirrors the dinosaur’s similar detour from violence and offers the solution that it is ultimately nature that contains a regenerative element – that is, what begins with violence and severity naturally makes way for grace and love. The discovery, then, is that nature and grace are by no means mutually exclusive, but indeed that they churn within everything that occurs on Earth.
Of all the feature-length explorations of Why We’re Here that I’ve seen, The Tree of Life, despite its cosmic visions and the enormity of its timeline, is one of the least bloated and self-satisfied, and also one of the most intimate. This is because Malick has not settled on anything. Like all of his work, his latest is an endlessly searching, probing document, an artifact that offers up plentiful interpretive paths to the viewer who is willing to play along. What to make of one of the final sequences (which is not, as is falsely reported elsewhere, the final sequence), for instance, when Sean Penn revisits the film’s entire ensemble on a barren sandbar, throwing temporal reality to the wind (another moment that recalls Lynch, among other things, this time the celebratory coda of INLAND EMPIRE)? It seems an immaterial zone of spiritual rest, a place situated somewhere between heaven, the subconscious, and the apocalypse, and perhaps comprising all of them. This, as well as many other of The Tree of Life’s sometimes baffling diversions, isn’t in itself profound, but it offers a tantalizing avenue towards profundity. The film is gorgeous, provocative, and willfully messy, and as its final image of a modern-day bridge suggests – composed in such a way that it conjures up memories of the final shot of The New World – it’s always reaching for new ways to understand the world.