‘The Tree of Life’ is Great. Is It Worth Asking How Great? Or Is ‘Great’ an Absolute Adjective, Like ‘Unique’?

Alex: I saw The Tree of Life five days ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Writer-director Terrence Malick has made five feature films in 38 years. (Worth mentioning: He has a sixth coming out next year, according to IMDB.) I love all of them. I can’t think of a filmmaker who has ever come close to Malick’s lyricism. I can think of a handful of films — Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (to which The Tree of Life owes a lot) — but no filmmaker has ever established a style that so beautifully mixes voice-over, steadicam, music, and multiple points of view.

Malick seems to me the cinematic equivalent of John Cage: always searching for silence. Each note calls attention to the notes that aren’t there. Malick’s voiceovers — which come from every main character in The Tree of Life — are usually whispered. They would be soporific — they’d lull you to sleep — except that the entire collage is so mesmerizing it invites you to fall awake. Malick’s juxtaposition of images, and his characters’ direct addresses to God and/or nature, demand of the viewer alertness and attention.

Even to describe the story of the film is to spoil it. Most of it is about a 1950s Texas family, but those characters are placed within…let’s just say a larger sequence of events. Much larger.

I’ve never been able to pin down the nature of Malick’s religiosity. Sometimes his films invoke a Judeo-Christian god, but more often they worship the natural world (and, too often for my taste, associate women with it). He’s a transcendentalist who’s wrestling with angels.

When I think about The Tree of Life, my mind goes first to one brief scene: the last moment of a fight between father and son in their yard. The oldest child (an extraordinary young actor named Hunter McCracken) shouts at his father (Brad Pitt in an Ira-worthy performance), “She only loves me!!”, as his mother (Jessica Chastain) looks on. The kid really screams that “me” in his face before stomping away. (I’m not even sure that’s the line. It might be “He only loves me.” We move in and out of dialogue throughout the movie, often fading out on lines that continue to be spoken in silence. Point being, I’m not sure whether the kid is claiming the love of his mother or of God. Aaron, you’ve seen it twice — do you know the moment I’m talking about? Did I just not catch it, or did Malick want me not to catch it?)

Anyway, what I’m getting at is: the look on Brad Pitt’s face as he watches his son stomp off is one that was so painfully familiar to me that I literally shuddered in the wake of recognition. It’s a mixture of amusement, bemusement, and anger. He’s marveling at his son’s audacity, at the amplitude of this tantrum, but the look also promises punishment once the kid cools down. There will be consequences.

The outburst reminded me so much of my own childhood tantrums — and the boy’s frustration and simmering anger resonated so loudly with me — that I wasn’t sure I could handle whatever the movie was going to make me watch next. (Nothing in movies upsets me so much as domestic violence, physical or emotional. I always leave the room, for instance, when Carlo beats the shit out of Connie in The Godfather.) And the look on Pitt’s face was a look I saw a thousand times on the faces of the targets of my pre-adolescent rage. (Usually kids at school who were picking on me. No, dear readers, don’t worry: there was never any violence in my home. Quite the opposite — which is why, I think, depictions of it upset me so much. They threaten everything I know to be safe and stable.)

It’s just one of many scenes that ring agonizingly true. But every time I worried I wasn’t going to be able to handle the domestic drama of The Tree of Life, the movie evolved into something else. Again, I don’t want to say too much about that, and I’m not even sure it all adds up to some greater whole. What I know for sure is that I love it.

Aaron: OK, so first things first, I totally agree with everything you say. I think this is a magnificent film that is both totally fresh and original, and also totally classical in its thematic structure. I don’t know where to begin because I can’t really argue with you (unless I make up some bullshit we can argue about like the crazy women… er… the women I date do).

I think you’re right about the lyricism of the film, but I think you don’t totally go far enough with that. I see the structure of the film as unlike basically anything I’ve seen onscreen ever. It’s not just that there’s a framing device (Sean Penn) and a series of flashbacks (with Pitt as his dad in the ’50s) with an epilogue/dream sequence/transcendental timeline. It’s that the structure of the film has much more in common with a symphony than a film. It has movements (more than acts) and small motifs that repeat throughout and small moments that come and go. (In fact I think the problem many people are having with the film is that they’re not expecting this structure and it’s very uncomfortable for them because it’s not a three-act story.)

I think the ‘steadicam’ thing that you mention is important because it feels almost different from any other use of steadicam I’ve ever seen. It’s not that he uses it for more freedom in tacking shots; it’s that the whole narrative side of the film is shot with it. It feels almost somewhere between a traditional steadicam and a normal hand-held camera – it almost floats more than a steadicam would. It’s always just over the shoulder of the characters in question and generally shoots looking downward at them. There is a lot of symbolism in this technical detail (it’s the view of God – there. I said it.), but it also gives an ineffable dreamy sense to the whole film.

Alex, are we allowed to talk about the religious stuff here? Why do you hate God so much? OK – I’ll stay quiet about that.

I totally know the scene you’re talking about where the young Jack shouts at his father “She only loves me!”. He definitely says “She” and it comes after he’s been scolded for something… I don’t remember what exactly. At any rate it does suggest possible Oedipal stuff in the family… but I think that’s a bit too simple. I think it’s about Jack being in love with his mother’s grace rather than desiring her sexually. Ugh – this is getting into the deep discussion you didn’t want to get into, Alex. Sawwy. You read Pitt’s face correctly: he’s bemused and angry – but it’s really because he’s been training his son to be like him, to be hard and cruel and unforgiving. This moment shows the dad that Jack aspires to be graceful like his mother. Dad sees this as a defeat, which is bad in his eyes.

I was struck throughout by feminist story that develops. What appears to be a movie about a boy and his father, really might be about a boy and his mother. Dad is a natural force (he’s not abusive, he’s just tough) and mom is a graceful, holy force. Jack is more like his father (and his younger brother is more like his mother), but he appreciates his mother’s way more than his father’s. I think the film is his journey from his father to his mother.

I do have to say that as brilliant as the film is, I have two minor gripes: 1) In the final beach scene, Pitt is wear a watch that is clearly just the watch Brad showed up on set wearing that day – some sort of plastic digital running watch. It’s a shame because up to that point the character had worn an appropriate gold watch. This is just a silly flub; 2) There is no need for the third brother. I imagine he was a bigger part of the story and got cut out of more and more scenes as the editing went along, but he shouldn’t be in there. Not a big problem, but not great either.

Alex: Oh, Aaron, you Woody Allen protagonist, you never fail to find stuff for us to fight about.

The Oedipal stuff is not at all the “deep” conversation I “didn’t want to get into.” What, so now you think I’m shallow? Honey, do we have to have this fight in front of the readers? It scares them.

That you find feminism in Malick’s treatment of the mother-son relationship makes me think of Andrew Sarris’s comparison of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin: “Keaton accepts woman as his equal with clear-eyed candor, whereas Chaplin’s misty-eyed mysticism is the facade of the misogynist.”

This has long been my (only serious) complaint about Malick. Women are salvation, they are nature, they are purity … but they’re not really characters.

True, it’s the Jessica Chastain character who sets up the central tension of the movie: her definitions of nature (insistent and stubborn, like Brad Pitt) versus grace (like her, just going with the flow, if you’ll pardon my glibness). And as the kid tells us late in the film, “Mother…father…always you wrestle inside me.” He identifies with both, behaves at times like him and at times like her. And there’s no question he worships the ground she walks on and despises his father. (I held my breath during the scene when Brad is fixing his car and his son is thinking about releasing the jack.)

Meanwhile, I’m totally with you on the symphony-like nature of the movie. In American film, only Stanley Kubrick has come close to such a style/narrative structure, and his success with it was less consistent than Malick’s. (And more dependent on literal music.)

The wristwatch thing is so egregious one wants to give the film the benefit of the doubt. Were we meant to notice the inconsistency? If the beach scene takes place “at the end of time,” is there some symbolism or irony in that wristwatch? Please? I hope?

And I don’t agree about the third son. We may not get to know him as much as we get to know the other two, but he’s this ghostly presence, the “special” one, the one who can’t/won’t throw a punch. We’re so caught up in the drama(s) of the central quartet, that we sometimes forget there even is a third son — perhaps the very source of your objection — but the moments when we’re reminded of him make us complicit in the family’s own neglect of that kid. (Neglect being the flipside of extra attention. When we realize he’s in the room we sort of go, “Oh yeah. Hi. And so, how are you?”)

Aaron: I think you’re right that his woman aren’t very full characters, but he doesn’t really make movies about women. I would say that Sissy Spacek was more complete in Badlands as is Brook Adams (omigod, she was so beautiful there… how is Tony Shalhoub so lucky?) in Days of Heaven. I don’t think there’s any evidence that he’s a misogynist. He just makes movies about men. I do think he hates all the women in The Thin Red Line.

Maybe I should rephrase what I said and say that it’s a feminist view of God and grace. The idea in Judeo-Christianity is that God is a man and there’s a holy trinity of father, son and spirit. Malick here shows that you might think that’s what this is (Pitt, kid and some supernatural thing that might be the camera floating above, the disembodied memories of these things by Penn or some collective unconscious of everyone and the Big Bang and all), but it’s really that there is a holy trinity of women: Mother, mother as a child and Jack’s teen girlfriend who we see in a Pieta on the beach. There are a lot of conflicts here, with Old and New Testament, nature and grace, male and female, old and young, mother and father. All of this shatters the male domination of Western religion, in small ways.

I think you’re wrong about accepting the third kid. He does absolutely nothing to advance the story and taking him out totally wouldn’t change a single thing. On top of that, it’s confusing with so many young boys – and when the kid at the swimming hole is drowning, it’s unfair that we think that it might be that brother. It just muddies the water. Again, I imagine the role was cut out of the film more and more as the editing continued and that they were left with him in a handful of necessary shots, so they couldn’t eliminated him totally. There’s really no “trinity of kids” or something.

Alex: Yes, you’re totally right about Days of Heaven, which, now that I think about, is unique among Malick’s films in that it’s the only one told from a female character’s point of view (Linda Manz).

And at the risk of picking nits, the holy trinity is not a Judeo-Christian idea, it’s a Christian idea. But details aside, I like your comparison of the religious trinity with the movie’s narrative one.

I’m also sure your speculation about why the third son is so absent from the movie is right on the money. But I still like him.

Also, your mention of Brooke Adams reminds me of The Dead Zone. Which is a movie I love. And I just felt like saying that. (I had no idea she was Mrs. Shalhoub.)

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About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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