The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick has been referred to as an American who makes films with a European sensibility. A former student of continental philosophy who dropped out of his PhD at Oxford over an argument about Wittgenstein, Malick has never had much to do with the Hollywood establishment, and his status as a mythic recluse is enhanced by a glacial production rate of just five films in nearly 40 years. Like just about everything Malick has directed, The Tree of Life is an enticing and unusual combination of the sort of highbrow narrative experimentalism one associates with European art-house cinema, infused with a lush, and occasionally heavy-handed romantic lyricism that connects it to a more classically American pastoral tradition. The result is something like a Calvin Klein advert scripted by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and inter-spliced with outtakes from the Discovery Channel. Sound strange? It is, pretty. But it somehow works.

The film takes as its subject a 1950s suburban American family, a married couple and their three young sons. Malick has never been shy about employing rigid gender roles in his films, and the parental characters are classically Freudian. The opening voiceover from the mother of the family speaks of the eternal metaphysical (materialists: this isn’t for you) conflict between grace and nature. This sets up a framework through which to view the warring maternal and paternal principles, and their formative effect upon the three boys; however, though the mother’s monologue sets this conflict up as a clash between the ruthlessness of nature and the redeeming spirituality of religious grace, the forces at play could also be interpreted through a Nietzschean Apollonian/Dionysian paradigm, or indeed as some sort of negotiation between rationalism and empiricism. The uptight, disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt), is the realist, empiricist and pragmatist: a military engineer who is also a talented musician, he runs a borderline-abusively tight ship in order to toughen up his sons in preparation for the demands of the real world. The mother, meanwhile, is an impractical dreamer, both idealistic and idealised, who is inadequately equipped to deal with life’s more prosaic demands.

Telling the story of the family through a cryptic succession of fragmented flashbacks, The Tree of Life weaves together several key thematic threads: an investigation into the formation of personality, a study of bereavement, a recreation of the distortions to which memory subjects childhood, a rumination on, yes, the origins of the universe (Malick is nothing if not grandiose), along with a subtle interrogation of traditional film narrative methods and their shaping effect. In classic Malick style, the premises of the narrative remain shrouded in mystery, the audience left to do much of the interpretative legwork in piecing together a narrative that is primarily visual, a fragmented chain of heavily stylized images overlaid with various more or less cryptic voiceovers. What we can readily gleam is that an older version of one of the sons (we infer it to be Jack, the eldest), a disillusioned architect played by Sean presumably-not-paid-by-the-word Penn, lapses into an extended reverie concerning his childhood and his deceased brother when he sees a tree being planted outside his New York office.

 

Towards the beginning of the story we learn that one of the sons –strongly hinted to be the middle of the three – dies at the age of 19, a period not otherwise touched upon at any point in the film. This immediately reverses a cinematic norm; we are hit with the emotional crescendo at the very beginning of the film, before we have any real context for it, and we spend the rest of the film trying to work out what exactly has happened, when, how and to whom. Malick has a penchant for this kind of concealment and indirectness, like the sudden and psychologically unexplained murders that are central to both Badlands and Days of Heaven. If we are to come to somehow empathize with the characters, we must do so incrementally and indirectly; Malick refuses to give us the sort of easy, sham access to their thoughts and emotions implicit in traditional spoon-fed characterization, and instead imitates life by keeping us insurmountably on the outside. We are consequently denied the facile emotional release of a head-on confrontation with the circumstances of the parents’ grief, which to devotees of Hollywood convention may be interpreted as perverse. We instead experience their grief as a mere spectacle shorn of its context, a series of outward gestures without an established cause. By refusing us the summary objectivity of the classic realist narrative eye Malick draws us into the plot, activating us by making us piece together the causes and referents of the dissociated reactions we observe.

In fact, many of Malick’s effects are dependent upon his subtly eroding the contractual trust that we place in the nature of the sequence of images we are watching. In place of a more classic unreliable narrator figure such as those used in Badlands or Days of Heaven, a dialogue is taking place throughout between the very sequence of images Malick places before us, and the norms, conventions and assumptions that we use to interpret them as a recognizable narrative whole. There is a sense in which Malick’s approach amounts to a critique of realism, in a way that is far more closely engaged than in a surrealist such as David Lynch. Whereas late Lynch films such as Inland Empire or Mulholland Drive reject the conventions of realism wholesale and instead move in phantasmagoric, dreamlike chains of vaguely associative images, Malick mostly confines himself to more traditional and circumscribed scenarios. It is the manner in which he reveals a chain of events, rather than the chain of events themselves, that forms the basis of his engagement with cinematic convention.

 

On a formal level, The Tree of Life in many ways resembles a cinematic equivalent of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Simon. Indeed, central to the theory of the nouveau roman was Robbe-Grillet’s distinction between the classic realist novel (of which Balzac, as in the eyes of Barthes and Becket, is the prime exemplar) that places the reader in a passive position, and the ‘new novel’, which activates the reader by forcing him to take on an active role in piecing together the adumbrated form of a fragmented and incompletely revealed narrative.

The (novel) author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work – and the world – and thus learn to invent his own life. 

Countless works of modern narrative art – from Beckett’s Molloy to Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur and Le Clezio’s The Interrogation, to films such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Michael Haneke’s Hidden and The White Ribbon – use the trope of the detective story as a way of activating the reader, and bringing to the surface the process by which we, as the consumers of a work of narrative art, are complicit in its effects in our role as the solvers of the mystery. Yet in The Tree of Life we are faced with something less playful and more mystical, cryptic and abstract. We may try and find an answer to the mystery but one senses that, as in a Thomas Bernhard novel, all we are ultimately likely to find there is a painstakingly achieved aesthetic effect that is held together by the very absence of any definite answer to the questions it raises. The film styles itself as a flashback, placing us in the mind of the central character as he remembers his childhood, but contains events he could not have witnessed. It gestures at a completeness that it never fulfills, refusing to differentiate between potential interpretative angles and provide the one thing we normally expect film to provide: an objective representation of events. As in life, that is something we must construct for ourselves.

All of this played out just fine at Cannes, where Malick won the Palm D’Or, but it will be interesting to see how it goes down with the cinema-going public. The relatively lavish budget and the presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn on the bill is likely to draw plenty of punters who have little interest in the tricks and ambiguities so central to Malick’s engagement with his subject matter, his ongoing dialogue with narrative modes and conventions, and the overreaching bombast of his pseudo-metaphysical enquiry. The near-unanimous audience reaction at the screening I attended in New York (it doesn’t come out in the UK until next month) was one of bemusement, boredom and mistrust. There were most of a cinema’s worth of audible sighs of relief when the film came to its abrupt end, alongside a smattering of ironic applause.

The skeptics had a point in the sense that Malick lays it on pretty thick. This is a film that leaves itself open to accusations of pretentiousness at times, in which whole sequences seem to have been shoehorned in purely because they look good without serving any particular narrative function, and I’ll never know what was going through Malick’s mind when he decided to reel out the dinosaurs. But nonetheless it would be a shame if the reputation of the film suffers for the disparity between its high profile and its relatively obscurist pitch. The Tree of Life contains some of the most visually stunning sequences I have ever seen, and for these as much as its narrative cleverness one can imagine it being studied for years.  What’s more, whereas Malick’s stubborn refusal to grant us simplistic access to character and motives could have resulted in sterility, his fragmented and dissociated reconstruction of childhood contains enough vivid scenes and glimmers of personality that he ends up achieving a hard-won empathy that is somehow more valuable for the lack of shortcuts. It isn’t often you see a big-budget film replete with Hollywood stars that has genuine artistic ambition. And ambition is one thing that nobody is likely to accuse The Tree of Life of lacking.

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  1. I was just commenting on this at Cellar Door. I applaud the ambition, but as I said there I do fear that even so I’ll hate it (for cod-mysticism which I have little time for).

    My larger concern though is how it’ll work outside a big-screen context. On my home tv the visual sumptuousness will be if not lost at least much reduced.

    Nice points on the erosion of contractual trust. That does make it more interesting.

    You do remind me that I really should watch The White Ribbon. I watched La Jetee last week. After that films seeking to push boundaries may all seem a bit tame for a while, but even so Cachet was so good that The White Ribbon rather begs to be seen.

  2. I think it’s probably a film that needs to be seen on a big screen. Given that there is very little dialogue, it depends on visual impact more than most films. And the cod-mysticism aspect is occasionally slightly annoying, but for me there is so much more going on than that. People talk about The Tree of Life as if its some sort of iconoclastic anti-film that was made to annoy people who like blockbusters. But actually I don’t think Malick could really care less about subverting genre conventions, it’s more that he’s trying to create a piece of art that operates within a different paradigm. I’d liken that, narratologically, to the philosophy of the nouveau roman. Robbe-Grillet also disliked being termed an anti-novelist, because the phrase implies that the well-made realist novel of Balzac etc was somehow more real and natural than telling a story in a different manner – whereas literary realism, as Barthes demonstrated, is as contrived and fabricated as any other form of literary representation. I think the same goes to an extent for Malick. By fragmenting his narrative and keeping us on the outside of the story he achieves a different range of effects that don’t necessarily depend on their relationship to Hollywood convention.

    The problem with the sensationalist critical reaction to this film is that it means it has been interpreted in such broad brush strokes, as if it’s a barometer by which to measure one’s attitude to non-linear narrative in general. But there’s really nothing going on here that’s going to shock or challenge someone who has some familiarity with the likes of Fassbinder, Tarkovsky, Resnais, Godard, Bela Tarr, Antonioni, Cassevettes etc etc etc. Certainly if you’ve recently watched La Jetee (I’ve not seen it but apparently it’s pretty apeshit) then The Tree of Life isn’t going to feel too shocking. But like I say, I don’t think that’s the primary reason for watching it. The sensationalism has meant that most of the reviews I’ve seen have been devoid of nuance, either defending the film against detractors or taking an outraged stance against its self-indulgence and obscurity. I think it’s brilliant and flawed and interesting but ultimately not as radical as people are making out.

    And yes, The White Ribbon is superb – for me one of Haneke’s best three alongside Cache and Code Unknown.

    • Sorry for the belated reply. I had feared it was a widescreen film. I’ve not seen Badlands which I may try first Malickwise.

      Part of why I may try that first is what you refer to in your second para. This sounds like a good, but not great, film. Neither fatally flawed nor shockingly different. Given that if I’m catching it on the small screen (and I would be) it’s just not such a priority.

      Critics sometimes underestimate mainstream audiences. They managed fine with Memento, but if that film hadn’t happened received wisdom I’m sure would be that general audiences wouldn’t watch a film with reversed story chronology. I’ve not heard of shocked cinemagoers leaving Tree of Life weeping for lost paradigms or raging against abstract intellectualism.

      I have heard of people laughing at screenings, but the line between the profound and the silly is often narrow and personal.

      La Jetee is only 28 minutes long and it’s not as difficult as you might have heard. My review is here: http://www.videovista.net/reviews/sept11/lajetdvd.html – I have a review of Sans Soleil at the same site.

      • Apparently Mark Kermode’s new book argues that mainstream audiences will put up with a lot more mould-breaking and experimentation than producers give them credit for – his main example was Inception, but Memento would serve just as well. Thing is, Memento does have quite a juicy plotline to carry it, just not one that’s told in the right order. It’s held together by a pretty simple, albeit clever idea, whereas the Tree of Life is much more cryptic and abstract. I think the main problem from a mainstream-accessibility point of view is that there isn’t much of a plot (linear or otherwise) to speak of, so the pace is pretty slow. Memento and Inception are quite original in their way, but they still rattle along.

        I would definitely recommend checking out Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line by Malick, all of which I would probably rate higher than the Tree of Life. I wrote about the first two here https://dannysbyrne.wordpress.com/2010/06/06/days-of-heaven/ and here https://dannysbyrne.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/badlands/. They get progressively more abstract, but Badlands is a Bonnie and Clyde story with an unreliable narrator – very smart, accessible, and beautifully shot. Also, if you’re in London there’s a Malick season on this month at the BFI, so you haven’t missed your chance to see Tree of Life, plus all his other films, on the big screen.

        Thanks for the link to your review, I’ll comment on it properly once I’ve got round to watching La Jettee – i hadn’t realised it’s only 28 minutes long.

  3. I read an article by Kermode which was extracted or adapted from the book. Memento and I understand Inception (I’ve not seen it) do have strong plots but all that shows is that audiences want something to keep them going if they’re going to make an effort. I doubt it needs to be plot (though I admit that’s the easiest hook). Sumptuous visuals would probably do the trick too.

    The heartening point is that mainstream audiences will try films that depart from formula. They may not always take to them, but they’ll try them. The rather less heartening point is that despite that Michael Mann movies are still generally a better commercial bet.

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