Your guide to Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life"

The year's most puzzling film has viewers scratching their heads. Here's a primer that should help

Published July 2, 2011 4:54PM (EDT)

How does one watch Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"?

That is the question. Malick's domestic epic is the most talked-about movie of the summer, and surely the most divisive -- a two-hour-and-18-minute sound-and-light show that doubles as a nostalgia piece. Avoiding a strict linear plot, it instead offers a rush of images, sounds and sensations. It consists of fragments of a life remembered (and in a few cases, imagined) by its hero, an architect named Jack (Sean Penn), with special attention paid to Jack's boyhood in 1950s Waco, Texas, where he was torn between the old-line machismo of his father (Brad Pitt) and the angelic, almost childlike openness of his mother (Jessica Chastain).

With this piece, I was aiming to write an "explainer" similar to this checklist of Spielbergian elements in J.J. Abrams' early-Spielberg-eseque sci-fi adventure "Super 8," but Malick is working in a different mode, or on a different intellectual plane, and is after different things. And he has over the years become a director that one cannot "explain" or otherwise pin down. Although Malick's filmography has recurring themes and images and situations just like any other director's, those aspects are not self-contained enough to be excavated like artifacts, labeled and put on display. One element tends to bleed into, or overlap with, others, in a way that makes the individual parts inseparable from the whole. More so than most directors' movies, Malick's films are all of a piece.

Although the film is released by Fox Searchlight, a boutique subdivision of 20th Century Fox, it has less in common with the typical studio film than with the tradition of European art cinema. It has a spectacular 20-minute sequence that re-imagines the creation of the universe, the forging of the planet and the gradual evolution of humankind, from multicelled organisms on up. There are a couple of scenes involving dinosaurs, with special effects by Douglas Trumbull ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), and lots and lots of searching voice-over that sounds like the hushed, poetic version of direct address in a stage play ("Father...mother...always you wrestle inside me"). It even has what a friend of mine calls "a 1970s head-scratcher ending" whose exact meaning no one can seem to agree on. No wonder that there have been walkouts -- a lot of them, apparently -- along with hosannahs from critics and quite a few civilian moviegoers.

The movie's premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival drew a few boos, countered by enthusiastic applause. "The Tree of Life" is, in other words, the sort of film that either seizes your imagination or leaves you cold. It's not the sort of movie you leave thinking, "Well, that was okay, I guess." And it's not typical of any filmmaking tradition except the uniquely personal one created by Malick, a mysterious figure who has made just five films since 1973, and hasn't given an interview explaining himself in almost 25 years.

As regular Salon readers know, I'm a huge fan of Malick -- I even did a five-part series of video essays on the director for the Museum of the Moving Image, which you can see by clicking here. So it's no huge shock that I responded very positively to "The Tree of Life," even more positively than my colleague Andrew O'Hehir, who had some misgivings about the film but praised it for being impressively different from most American studio pictures. But I also understand that your mileage may vary. And I believe there is no "wrong" or "right" way to watch a movie like this except to keep a completely open mind at all times, and that "The Tree of Life" is, by virtue of all the factors mentioned above, a different kind of picture than we're used to seeing in U.S. multiplexes -- a work more in the spirit of "2001: A Space Odyssey" (a film whose galactic panoramas Malick invokes in the film's creation sequence) than 99 percent of the star-driven films being made today.

So what is Malick trying to do with "The Tree of Life"? 

It's impossible to say for sure, and the film is constructed in such as way as to deflect and even undermine one-size-fits-all explanations. But I've come up with a series of questions and answers anyway, culled from conversations I've had with friends and colleagues over the past few weeks.

Bear in mind that none of the "answers" are meant to be definitive. They're just my take. Yours will be different because "The Tree of Life" is designed to elicit unique, personal responses in viewers, as unique and personal as what Malick is putting onscreen. Nobody gets points for liking or not liking the film. It's not a litmus test. And I doubt Malick intended it as such, because all his movies radiate a benevolent acceptance of difference, and show different people, groups, institutions, even nations and religions coexisting and clashing on the same planet without ever coming out and saying, "X is clearly superior to Y, therefore you should root for X," or "This means exactly what it seems to mean and nothing more."

With those caveats in mind, here we go. 

[Caution: Spoilers from here on out.]

What are we looking at here, exactly? What is "Tree of Life"?

I think this is a 20th and 21st century cinematic memory piece in the tradition of such literary works as Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" and James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," but constructed in a much more fragmented way. I've had a number of arguments with fellow viewers about whose memories, exactly, we are seeing. Are they Jack's? If so, how do we account for the parts of the film that seem to delve into the consciousness of his father and mother, and the images of the Big Bang and the creation of the earth, which obviously he could not have personally witnessed? 

The obvious answer is that everything is happening inside the mind of Jack, and the images he could not have personally witnessed are his imagining of things that happened when he wasn't there. 

Honestly, though, I suspect that a lot of the reviews of this movie are mistaking it for a puzzle that one can eventually solve, and that's a mistake because it's really not that kind of movie. If there's a puzzle aspect at all, you probably have to think of it as a puzzle that you discover in the back of a closet, a big bag of several hundred loose pieces in a bag, minus the box with the picture on it that tells you what the finished image is supposed to look like. Each shot or scene is a piece of the puzzle, and the pieces sometimes cohere into distinct patterns or panoramas that you can look and say, "Oh, of course, this is the creation of the universe, which ties into the creation of Jack's own personality" or "this part is about the love-hate relationship between Jack's mother and father and the traumatic effect that their conflicts had on the children," or "this part is a freestanding sketch of the dad's personality that gives us insight into who he is."

I think what we're seeing is the contents of Jack's head during a particular day. He's at an undefined crisis point, maybe just a typical midlife crisis, or maybe something more specific -- he's a architect in his late 40s or early 50s (Penn's age doesn't jibe with the chronology of the flashbacks, but that wasn't a dealbreaker for me). This crisis might be due to divorce, or because the anniversary of his brother's death just happened (the film starts with a flashback to a childhood scene that occurs many years after most of the stuff depicting in the childhood portion). But Malick leaves the exact fulcrum for all this reminiscing unclear. I like how this strategy runs counter to the mainstream Hollywood tendency to tie flashbacks to distinct events. My dad just had a heart attack, therefore I flash back to memories of my father. 

I don't need an anniversary or a traumatic event to trigger thoughts about my past. My own imagination is constantly racing through the past and the present and projecting into the future, with side trips into fantasy. I've even thought about the creation of the universe and dinosaurs a lot during adulthood, and not just because of this film. How about you?

What does Jack want?

I don't think Jack "wants" anything, in the traditional, goal-directed Hollywood movie sense. The only thing he wants, I think, is to understand himself and his past a bit better, and impose some order on the chaos of his imagination without oversimplifying or falsifying any part of it. A big part of his journey -- and I mean "journey" in the sense of a trip from cradle to grave and beyond, not "journey" in the Screenwriting 101 sense of "What does the hero want and how does he eventually attain it?" -- consists of grappling with the fact that he doesn't really understand all the forces that shaped him and probably never will, and that when he looks back on his life, he doesn't really see a clear pattern there, a clear pathway guiding him from childhood through adulthood and into old age. Nor can he separate out the influences (nature vs. grace, mom vs. dad, the religious/cosmic vs. the mundane). It's an ongoing process that stays unresolved, unfinished.

This is the first Terrence Malick film I've ever seen. Are they all like this?

Yes and no.

Over time, Malick's films have become increasingly dense, lyrical and abstract. His 1973 debut "Badlands," about a couple of young, dumb killers wandering through middle America, had a strict linear narrative, two main characters and one, somewhat unreliable voice-over narration. His second film, "Days of Heaven," was much more elusive and allegorical, with a young narrator who was disconnected from the main action, and a story that invoked the Bible as well as the creation myths of other cultures. His 1998 film "The Thin Red Line," based on James Jones' novel, was less a traditional war picture than an inquiry into being, nothingness, mortality and love, one that just happened to be set in the World War II Pacific theater; it had multiple voice-over narrators and dipped into and out of them like the angels eavesdropping on mortals' thoughts in Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire." And his fourth movie, "The New World," was in some ways a continuation of "Days of Heaven," with three narrators, a sprawling story, and a searching, reflective style that linked the birth, adolescence, marriage and eventual death of its heroine to the cycles of life that affect civilizations as well as individuals.

With each new feature, Malick moves a bit further away from what we're used to seeing at this budget level of filmmaking, edging closer to experimental cinema and the exceedingly private, delicate, figurine-like memory pieces of the English filmmaker Terence Davies ("The Long Day Closes," "Distant Voices, Still Lives").

But they always maintain a sense of what you could call "intimate immensity," and are constantly connecting the evolution of individual lives such as Jack's and his parents' to the evolution of a community, a country, a world, and the universe itself.

You could say that Malick is thumbing his nose at the American studio film's commercial imperative to be understood and liked, if indeed there were any evidence that Malick cared about such things -- which he probably doesn't, otherwise why would he make these kinds of movies? I think he's got more in common with the American Transcendentalists, and in fact there's a particular passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "History" that for me sums up Malick's philosophy of life as expressed in his movies pretty well.

"If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred million of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages and the ages explained by the hours. Of the universal mind each individual man is one more incarnation. All its properties consist in him. Every step in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done, and the crises of his life refer to national crises. Every revolution was first a thought in one man's mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era."

Are the voice-overs meant to represent actual thoughts that people are having in real time? Because they sound very affected, like the business about "the way of nature vs. the way of grace" or the line about how someday we will "understand it all" and fall to our knees and weep.

This is a sticking point for a lot of viewers, even some fans of Malick. His first couple of movies had what I call "contrapuntal narration," meaning narration that works in opposition to, or that runs parallel to, the images, rather than verbally restating information we can already see or perhaps undermining or contradicting it. But that narration still bore some resemblance to real speech. It sounded like what you'd hear if you could put a microphone in front of those characters or read their journals or letters.

But the narration from "The Thin Red Line" onward is more along the lines of theatrical soliloquy or poetry. It's like when a couple of characters in a play are speaking to each other in the context of a scene, then one of them turns to the audience and confides private thoughts. It also reminds me of song lyrics sung by a first-person narrator who's summing up something that happened to him in language that's meant to be stripped down, metaphor-laden and provocative, maybe a bit obscure or oblique.

In any event, I don't think it's supposed to be taken as real speech, or as "natural" in the sense that word is typically used. My pet theory about this sort of narration is that over time, as Malick's sense of camerawork and editing has grown increasingly adventurous, he's started to distrust the ability of speech to convey anything except a sense of what people are feeling at any given moment. The more formal and lofty the speech becomes, the more likely that the characters are trying and failing to use language to express something that cannot be boiled down into a few words.

In the Moving Image Source article "English Speakers," about the dialogue and voice-over in "The New World," Bilge Ebiri writes, "In Malick’s world, language often becomes a kind of prison, driving us further away from the transcendental truths the director’s films have increasingly endeavored to convey." He continues:

"The classic voiceover — as heard in films like 'Goodfellas,' 'A Clockwork Orange,' 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' 'Brief Encounter,' even 'Badlands' — usually represents actual thoughts of which the characters are presumably aware. ('As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,' 'I was cured, all right,' etc.) But in Malick's later films, these thoughts are often half formed. One might even wonder if the characters are aware of them; they certainly don't quite know or understand what they're trying to express. Consider how much of the narration in both 'The Thin Red Line' and 'The New World' consists of questions without answers: 'What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself?' 'We were a family. How'd it break up and come apart, so that now we're turned against each other?' 'Who are you whom I so faintly hear? Who urged me ever on? What voice is this that speaks within me... guides me towards the best?' It appears that the words are still dancing around something inexpressible, trying to approximate it with the limited power of human language."

Why is there a creation sequence? What does it mean?

It's probably in there because Malick has been imagining the creation of the universe since he was a boy, and always wanted to see it depicted on a big screen.

But it also ties into that searching sensibility that's at the core of the entire movie, that impulse to ask, "Where did I come from? What created me? How do I fit in with the universe?" As Roger Ebert wrote in an essay titled "A Prayer Beneath 'The Tree of Life'":

"In Texas we meet the O'Brien family. Bad news comes in the form of a telegram, as it always did in those days. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) reads it in her home, and gives vent to grief. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) gets the news at work. We gather a child has died. It is after that when we see the universe coming into being, and Hubble photographs of the far reaches. This had an uncanny effect on me, because Malick sees the time spans of the universe and a human life a lot like I always have. As a child I lay awake obsessed with the idea of infinity and the idea of God, who we were told had no beginning and no end. How could that be? And if you traveled and traveled and traveled through the stars, would you ever get to the last one? Wouldn't there always be one more? In my mind there has always been this conceptual time travel, in which the universe has been in existence for untold aeons, and then a speck appeared that was Earth, and on that speck evolved life, and among those specks of life were you and me. In the span of the universe, we inhabit an unimaginably small space and time, and yet we think we are so important. It is restful sometimes to pull back and change the scale, to be grateful that we have minds that can begin to understand who we are, and where are in the vastness."

What is the significance of the Book of Job in "Tree of Life"?

Among other things, "The Tree of Life" s about suffering and transcendence -- and about carrying on with the often tedious business of life being fully aware that one is fated to die, yet still being able to take pleasure in small moments and find wonder in outwardly "ordinary" things.  The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job before delving into what you might call a "late flashback" -- the moment when the family is sent reeling by the death of one of Jack's brothers. The rest of the film keeps returning to this death (there's even a figurative shot of the boy still alive, buried in a cross-section of earth) while also bringing in contemplation of the suffering of people beyond the family, suffering that strikes Jack and other family members as unfair (such as the palsied child they see in town).

As Craig Detweiler writes in his article" "'Tree of Life': From Genesis to Job":

"Countless stories have started with the problem of pain. We wonder why the innocent suffer. Why do bad things happen to good people? Tree of Life opens with quotations from the book of Job. In the biblical narrative, Job loses his wife, his children, his health and his home. Friends offer bad advice, blaming him for his ordeal, suggesting he repent from whatever sins caused God to send so much suffering. Job is understandably tempted to curse God.

Malick has chosen source material ripe for drama. In 1959, Archibald MacLeish turned the trials of Job into the Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'J.B'. Yet, 'Tree of Life' focuses not upon the losses of Job but upon the overwhelming answer from God. Ultimately, Job is humbled by a God’s barrage of questions rooted in creation. 'Where you there, Job?' 'Did you set this all in motion?' 'Tree of Life' dares to offer a divine perspective on tragedy.

Without that framework, 'Tree of Life' may seem random and intractable. It is a poetic meditation on loss. It unfolds as a visual symphony with five or six movements centered around a core aspect of life: death, birth, the age of awareness. The sections are separated by musical cues rather than plot twists. The soundtrack includes classical compositions by Bach, Brahms, and Holst and contemporary requiems by Henryk Goreki, John Tavener and Mother Thekla. The threadbare plot flows from tragedy to creation, and from innocence to experience. A family is invited to move from grief to surrender. And viewers are taken from Genesis to Revelation."

How come that one predatory dinosaur looks like it's about to kill the wounded dinosaur at the river, then walks away instead?

I hate to cop out here, but like so much in "Tree of Life," I don't know exactly what this is supposed to mean. I think it ties in with the nature vs. grace dichotomy that's teased out in the voice over and in the images of the warring influences of Jack's closed-off, hot-tempered, disciplinarian dad and his proto-flower-child mom, who's so warm and giving and kind. But we don't know why the dinosaur walked away. We might be witnessing the very first stirrings of a moral consciousness in nature, or it might just be that the predator decided it wasn't hungry or would rather go do something else at that moment.

Malick is big on "What did that mean?" moments. In his gentle way, he likes to baffle and provoke. Such moments are of a piece -- there's that phrase again! -- with the juxtaposition of nature and spirituality/religion that runs throughout all of his films. As I asked in my video essay about "Days of Heaven," is there a God in Terrence Malick's universe? He never answers that question, ever. It certainly seems as though larger forces are at work, forces beyond individual human will, but neither his characters nor we will ever know that for sure. Maybe God is punishing the schemers in "Days of Heaven" by sending a plague of locusts and burning the wheat fields and contriving horribly violent deaths for two major characters. Or it might just be a bunch of stuff that happens, and that nobody can control.

Is the scene on the beach supposed to mean that Jack is dead and this is the afterlife?

Many critics have interpreted it that way, and some have complained that for Malick, the scene is uncharacteristically trite. Maybe so, if that's what he meant by it.

But I drew a different conclusion. I saw the presence of all those people from Jack's past -- in some cases multiple incarnations of the same characters, and a number of people we never met or did not spend much screen time with -- as a metaphorical representation of the jumble of memories and experiences inside Jack's mind, which he's trying to reconcile or sort out during the preceding two-and-a-half hours. (As he heads into that scene, he is pursuing his younger self.)

I also was reminded of the psychoanalytic notion that we are not -- contrary to the "nature vs. grace" motif -- an either/or type of creature, we humans. We are cruel and kind, practical and impractical, mature and childish, honest and dishonest, all at the same time. There are multiple selves within each of us, a multitude of incarnations coexisting at the same instant, and depending on circumstance, one self might momentarily step forward and eclipse the others, only to recede when circumstances change. I think that scene on the beach is Jack's way of saying: All these experiences, all these people who meant so much to me, all these incarnations of me, are all ME. [Update 7-2-2011 111:30 PM:] My friend Dean Treadway just emailed me with a slightly different spin on the scene: "I think the beachside ending is Jack's imagining of the afterlife, where all life's characters meet, all questions are answered, and all things are forgiven."] In any event, I don't think we're just  supposed to think we're in Heaven now, and that Jack is dead and that the whole film was an "Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" sort of scenario. But I could be wrong about that.

Is this a religious film? If so, is the film's religious vision a Christian one?

Yes, in a sense. And no, it's not strictly Christian.

Malick was raised in Texas in the 1940s and '50s, and as anyone who ever spent time there will tell you, Texas is very much a Southern Baptist-dominated part of the United States. (There's even a closeup of an illustration of an enormous serpent in a book that evokes the serpent in the Garden of Eden -- and it's the exact same illustration that Malick used in a scene in "Days of Heaven"!)  And the film has a very strong Catholic strain. As Jay Michaelson writes in the Religion Dispatches article "'Tree of Life,' Book of Job":

"'The Tree of Life' is a very Christian, indeed very Catholic, film. Pitt is the Father God, the cliché of the Old Testament judge. He is religious, and more complex than I am suggesting here. But ultimately it is Chastain’s character who is redemptive, and who in the film’s final sequence surrenders one of her three sons in an act of unspeakable grace. She, not the macho sky-god of the oxymoronic 'Religious Right,' represents religion as Ought; as the impulse toward poetry rather than the prosaic. Of course, in the chauvinism of traditional religion, it is the feminine that is denigrated as too earthly, too fleshly. Yet here the feminine, precisely by refusing to denigrate the earth, also embodies its transcendence. As the film makes clear, both responses, and all shades of gray between them, are suitable to the sweep of cosmic time. We may emphasize the poetry of creation and destruction, or the cold mechanism of it. We may soften or toughen. But the very existence of the former tendency gives birth, we might say, to religion."

But Malick's father was an Assyrian Christian, with family roots in the mideast, which surely created a lot of cognitive dissonance growing up, and might partly account for the pantheistic vision that his films depict. Malick goes looking for God, or forces beyond the immediate, everyday world, in every frame of every movie. I get the sense that he doesn't have much use for organized religion but sees all of it as a form of spiritual searching, however imprecise or flawed.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker's film blogger, noticed something that would appear to validate this notion. In a post titled "Roots and Shoots," he writes:

"I laughed out loud at the moment when, along with a shot of the sky, one character (the mother, I think) says, 'That’s where God lives,' and the soundtrack then blares a clip from Smetana’s 'Ma Vlast,' namely, 'The Moldau'—the piece of music from which Israel derived its national anthem, 'Hatikvah.' Though it’s really funny, it’s also a nod to the 'Judeo-' part of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which the protagonist was raised."

What does that shot of the sunflowers mean?

It might be Malick's way of saying that we are all the same, yet different, and that the intent of this movie was to show you pieces of his own life and parts of his own imagination in order to spark similar reflections in the viewer. But it might just be a lovely shot of sunflowers.

What is Malick trying to tell me about life, the universe, God or anything else?

Nothing specifically. I just think he's opening up the top of his head and letting the memories and fantasies and personal anecdotes pour out, and arranging the pieces in such a way as to prompt you to remember your own life and reflect on it, and think about your own place in the cosmos, however small or large you may imagine it to be.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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