Five Keys To Understanding The Tree of Life

Five Keys To Understanding The Tree of Life

May 27, 2011

The Tree of Life is not a movie that anyone else can understand for you.

And yet, a number of the more conflicted responses I’ve read suggest that some viewers are unwilling to understand the movie for themselves. I don’t mean that to sound quite as condescending as it reads, but rather to draw attention to the idea that the film’s myth and mass may have convinced otherwise astute audiences to second-guess their reactions. Of course subsequent viewings will yield greater or revised understanding and a more exacting appreciation for the smaller sinews of Malick’s opus, but my Twitter feed -- that infallible fount of information -- has been absolutely overrun with anachronistically humble sentiments like “I’m not really sure what it’s about” or “It was beautiful, but I’m going to have see it again before I weigh in.” This from people who routinely unloose opinions with all the caution of Harold Camping predicting the weather.

Perhaps some viewers fear that their reaction might seem reductive in the face of such a mammoth work, or maybe the shifts in the movie’s somewhat non-linear narrative are so seismic that people are struggling to reconcile the film’s deceptively different movements into a coherent symphonic whole. Of course you’re free to see that as a fault of the film and not its audience, but I’m of the mind that The Tree of Life isn’t a riddle to be solved so much as it’s an article of empirical faith that writes beyond the margins.

The latest gasp to escape from the cinema’s great bearded recluse -- Terrence Malick’s fifth feature immediately struck me as an enormously simple thing that contains infinitudes,a fluid work of filmic pointillism that collects a universe from its tizzy of tiny details. At the very least, The Tree of Life is immeasurably easier to summarize than even the first act of the new Pirates of the Caribbean, and yet people will grapple with its implications until we’re no longer anguished by existential crises (or until Super 8 is released, whichever comes first).

Here we have a film in which literally everything happens -- a film in which we see the birth and death of the universe used to bookend a particularly fevered bout of introspection. A man named Jack struggles to understand the death of his younger brother some years earlier, and sifts through the scattered memories of his idyllic Texan childhood in search of peace and perspective. Everything is in service of this idea. For proper context, Jack’s road to achieving self-actualization begins a little bit before he was born, namely with the Big Bang. To vitalize the warm relief of Jack’s epiphanies, Malick wraps things up with a Lost-like stroll along an incorporeal beach. In some respects, that’s really all there is to it. There’s no code to be cracked. This isn’t Inception, or a David Lynch puzzle box.

Concluding his essay on Carl Th.Dreyer’s similarly searching and enigmatic Ordet, Roger Ebert wrote: “The film stands utterly and fearlessly alone. Many viewers will turn away from it. Persevere. Go to it. It will not come to you.” The same sentiment applies to The Tree of Life. The point is not that you align yourself with Malick’s philosophies or co-opt the interpretation of another viewer, but only that you arrive at something that does the trick. This is truly a film for everyone, a search for meaning that’s universal in every sense of the word. All it asks of you is to tie its various dangling threads together into whatever knot you can -- whatever hitch or twist might allow you to more lucidly appreciate your place in this world.

Here are some more keys that I used to engage with The Tree of Life, relayed here in the hopes that my experience will free those of you overwhelmed by the film might be spurred to reach an understanding of your own design.

1.) “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth... When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

The Tree of Life opens with the above excerpt from The Book of Job (for those unfamiliar, it’s one of the least funny chapters in The Bible), in which God is savaging his most pious devotee for having the nerve to presume even a rudimentary understanding of the universe beyond that which he can see for himself. God only knows how to ask rhetorical questions, and the unsolicited answer to this one is: “Your punk ass was nothing and nowhere.” To be born in the here and now is to be a punctuation mark plopped into the greatest story ever told, eons into its telling. All that you can hope to understand is the context you provide.

Every adolescence is different, and every adolescence is the same. Each begins somewhat solipsistically, in an Eden of your own limited understanding, and each ends with the troubled recognition that the world isn’t quite so tidy as you’d thought. Between being disciplined by his stern father (in much the same way that Job was tested by God), the drowning death of a neighborhood boy, and stealing a neighbor’s blouse, Jack begins to feel a few cracks in the veneer of his suburban utopia. In Malick’s own words, “[for Jack] The world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth.” With that in mind, it’s not much of a stretch to see Jack as like a philosopher’s riff on Where the Wild Things Are -- Max, if he weren’t an only child. Forbidden Games in peacetime.

2.) “You’ll be grown before that tree is tall.”

In the beginning, there were steadicam shots of Jessica Chastain looking all sorts of sad because she’s just learned that one of her sons is dead, and moviegoers saw that it was good (and very pretty). There’s some stuff about Sean Penn riding an elevator up a contemporary Houston high-rise, and then, in a moment that amounts to the greatest cinematic record scratch I can remember, we cut to The Big Bang.

Though Malick presents this stuff with a cool omnipotence (whereas D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki captures Jack’s Texan memories with a jocular restiveness, the sequences of cosmic gestation are seen from a fixed God’s eye view), for all intents and purposes we’re assuming Jack’s perspective. He’s not an unreliable narrator so much as an unreliable historian. We watch the birth of the universe, the alchemic miracles of its first living creations, the asteroid that killed a lot of them, and so on until we witness the gestation of a person from the inside -- not Adam or Eve, but Jack.

Life is bigger than he can imagine, and making it small enough to live is the great tension of his existence. From the day Jack pulls away from that house of memories at the end of the street, he’s lost in that discord, and in the phone call he shares with his father you can hear the distance to which his broken sense of scale has further strained his most pivotal relationships. By recognizing the cyclical rhythms of the universe and his own cosmic smallness, Jack is able to begin shaping himself and those he loves into sharper focus -- by sifting through the time they shared together in a sun-dappled Eden of their own design, Jack seeks to overwhelm the inconsequence of divisive forces like ego, shame, and a dictatorial father’s malformed hopes for a better future.

The Tree of Life effectively renders its hero as a being of positively zero consequence, and yet at the same time obsesses over the smallest minutia of his memories. The creases of his mother’s smile. The fine white hairs on his younger brother’s ears. It may strike some viewers as disjointed, those people who find The New Testament too conflicted to serve a single purpose, or consider Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief a wild jumble of random songs rather than a inextricably unified wail of frustration. This is not a triptych, this is dialectical montage writ large, wildly different modes of filmmaking synthesized into a sum that greatly eclipses the power of its individual parts. The Tree of Life is Malick’s most emotionally cohesive film, a spiritual exploration that refuses to be stymied by time and place, a homing beacon fired from unknown coordinates within the primordial mess.

3.) “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me, always you will.”

Malick almost immediately introduces the dichotomy between nature and grace as one of the film’s critical conflicts, positioning Jack’s father as the personification of the former, and his mother the latter (they’re not only conflated with their corresponding notions, they’re defined by them). Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are occasionally called upon to serve a dramatic task, but more often than not they’re just mediators for Malick’s opposing brands of unconditional love, tugging at Jack from either side as he struggles to achieve some sort of satisfying equilibrium.

Malick designs roles in much the same way as Andrei Tarkovsky, crafting slivers of people defined more by their inertia than their details. Much has been made of The Tree of Life’s autobiographical origins, but Jack’s father is the only stand-in who threatens to become an actual character defined by more than their eager confusions. More so than any of Malick’s previous work, The Tree of Life is a mirror and not a window -- make no mistake: Malick has made a movie about himself by making a movie about everyone else.

4.) “Someday we’ll fall down and we’ll understand it all... all things.”

Terrence Malick remains as revered a filmmaker as they come, his artistic voice having acquired a timbre of earth-shaking solemnity over the years, and yet The Tree of Life unfolds with the sort of humility that one might not expect of such a master. The film resonates so strongly in part because Malick’s confidence as a conjurer of images is a magnificent counterpoint to his shaky spiritual unease.

Malick’s avowed passion for philosophy (he once taught the subject at M.I.T.) seems to have have instilled within him a natural curiosity that directly refutes an arrogance of thought -- it demands that its students posit but never proclaim. Likewise, Malick’s films play increasingly like a breathless smattering of evidence, and not a persuasive argument. They’re contemplative to the extreme, insisting only on their finite understanding and their gentle inquisitiveness, an idea manifest in Malick’s notoriously ruminative editing process, in which scenes are sewed together time and time again until clarity emerges.

The Tree of Life is not a religious film. It’s not outwardly antagonistic towards detailed networks of schematized faith, it simply -- in accordance with the interpretation I’ve outlined thus far -- has no time for the detailed certainty of organized creeds.

5.) “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

The easiest word to encapsulate The Tree of Life’s final section is “Heaven,” but that doesn’t mean it’s the right one. Jack, having descended from his skyscraper, follows a younger version of himself to a beach on which he enjoys a sublime moment with the key figures from his life. His brothers are there, and his mother. And there’s his father, not a day over 1955. God isn’t invited -- Jack doesn’t know him, even if he’s familiar with his work. The beach is decisively one of Earthly design. These aren’t the shores of the River Styx, this is self-actualization. It’s acceptance. It’s Jack telling his father -- a sustained proxy for God -- that “It’s your house, you can do what you want to.” A palliative response, perhaps, but a sufficient one.

The film finds peace in its own limited vision. Jack has earned a sliver of enlightenment, and it’s of profound importance that his ultimate insight is confined to the people he’s known. Lubezki’s camera captures things on the fly, loose and excited but also restless, assuring us that Jack’s epiphany will be ecstatic and fleeting, something he will have to actively foment for the rest of his days. The sequence plays like a blissed out summation of the Texan chapters, effectively rooting its euphoria in Jack’s personal experience, and not exploding it into a universal phenomenon. This is what he’s been searching for the entire time, the serenity to accept the things he can’t understand, and the wisdom to embrace the love available to him. This is where Jack has always been heading, and it’s my hope that you were able to come along for the ride.

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