Canon Entry - The Tree of Life (2011)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
My first time watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was not an ideal experience. I arrived 20 minutes late to the theater, so I didn’t know until much later that the film had started out in the real world where most of the film is set. Also, I saw no fewer than six people walk out of the theater during the creation sequence when the film was at its most abstract and (seemingly) inaccessible.
Yet what I saw of the film has stuck with me more than half a decade later when I am revisiting this film for the first time. When the film finally returned to the real world for the extended middle, I could barely hear a whisper, a shifting in the seat. I rarely am aware of other filmgoers in a theater unless they are guilty of some obnoxious behavior, but I could feel their reverie. In this film, I felt what Malick was doing was visionary yet intimate, bold yet gentle. Either Malick was the most egocentric person in the world or the most respectful and in awe of creation.
Watching it again, and in full, I realized that if you wanted to reduce Malick’s intentions and ideas in his film to just one thought or sentence, you easily could. There are also scenes that, if taken out of context, look absurd. Jack idealizes his mother so much that she literally floats. Or he sees her as a victim, lying in a glass casket like Snow White. Any scene with a dinosaur. Even the abundance of classical music could be interpreted as lending the film an importance that it wouldn’t have otherwise. For a filmmaker whose work has a reputation for being difficult, he is definitely not a subtle one.
What I think that what Malick does better than any other filmmaker is to immerse his audience in a certain point of view, in this case, Jack’s (played as a youth with serious precociousness by Hunter McCracken and as a weary adult by Sean Penn). In a film that covers both creation and an afterlife, it still remains surprisingly grounded in his point of view. One of Malick’s key tools, the voiceover, is so striking that it has been imitated endlessly. In this film, the voiceover is much more disjointed, consisting of half-uttered prayers and emotional declamations, reflecting Jack’s identity in flux, with the voices of his mother and father cutting in and out of his consciousness.
Malick, along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, succeeds in finding other ways to evoke a very intimate and relatable point of view. The whole film is bathed in natural light lending both realism to the most intimate moments and a jarring otherworldliness when the film ventures into the surreal. The alternation between handheld and Steadicam reflects both Jack’s jittery, natural boyishness and his tendency to observe deeply. Even the decidedly non-diegetic classical music makes sense since Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is an avid classical music aficionado, and it is not a stretch to imagine that Jack would constantly have these pieces running through his mind, even when he is feeling some very Oedipal emotions towards his father.
Even when we see images of the Earth being created and the first signs of life, they do not belong in a different film. By starting with a verse from the book of Job, Malick puts us in the mindset that we are to contemplate the nature of God, and since people are part of Creation, it would be natural that individuals and their lives would reflect Creation as a whole. In fact, you could make a convincing argument that Jack’s relationship with his parents is the same as humanity’s relationship with God, both loving and tender yet strict and conflicted. This is not just philosophical or ecclesiastical noodling either. This intent to reflect Creation in such a specific story is underlined constantly in this film. Many of the patterns and structures that we see in these incredible images, courtesy of Douglas Trumbull of 2001: A Space Odyssey* fame, are repeated either obviously or subtly in the more grounded world: the large expanses of water, the juxtaposition of tenderness and violence, etc.
Even if you do not follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, I still think you could feel the impact of this film. The longing to understand one’s place in the universe is not limited to religion at all. And even if you think that the universe is the result of a series of random events and coincidences, you can still admire Malick’s grand attempt to wrestle with the nature of the universe and make sense of something that could never be fully encompassed by human understanding.
Malick is clearly not a stupid man. He knew exactly that many people would call his film pretentious - the sign of an ego left unchecked. He also knew that he was one of the few filmmakers who had the balls to make such an expansive film and not leave us with any definite answers. He would rather leave us in a certain state of mind and perhaps make us more likely to speculate on our place in the universe. And for the people who still remain unimpressed and unconvinced of The Tree of Life’s greatness, I have to wonder if they have ever created something with as much vision and power as Malick did with this film.
*I see The Tree of Life as the true heir to 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than that bloated pretender Interstellar.