Terrence Malick has defined his own kind of filmmaking. His use of visual imagery, voiceovers, philosophical and religious contemplation, his contrasting of the natural world with the technological, of agrarian and industrial dimensions, his study of the meaning of consciousness and human identity--not in the meaning of culture or ideology but of pure self--these set him out as distinctive. It’s interesting to see how his films have progressed, from the early Badlands (1973) to the most recent, The Tree of Life (2011). One could almost view the last three films—The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and The Tree of Life--as a coherent piece, with their emphasis on the individual in nature, their contrasting of the inward contemplative nature of the individual against the destructive forces of the outer, modern world. As an example, all three films use trees as unifying iconic symbols.
The contending forces that most interest Malick are laid out for us in the opening scene of The Tree of Life. The quotation from the Book of Job (“"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?") focuses us in particular on the calamity that is the starting point—the death at the age of 19 of one of the O’Brien children, for reasons probably war-related, delivered through a telegram. Mrs. O’Brien questions why God would allow her son to die. The quotation from Job suggests that there are reasons for events on the earth, that there is a greater scheme of things into which the small details of individual human lives fit.
Mrs. O’Brien’s voiceover comments about grace and nature in the opening scene set down for us the struggle between mother and father in the film, Mrs. O’Brien representing grace, and Mr. O’Brien, nature. “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life. The way of nature, and the way of grace,” she tells us. “You have to choose which one you will follow.” (We cannot schematize Tree that easily. I’m deliberately oversimplifying.) The O’Briens’ oldest son Jack, the focus of much of the film, is the product of these contending parental forces.
The Tree of Life is recognizably a Terrence Malick film, but it is different from his four previous efforts. Set in a small Texas town during the 1950s, it focuses on one family that is in many ways a standard 1950s small town family. The father returns from the second world war to marry his wife, and they have three sons. Jack, who by expression and behavior seems constantly disaffected once the birth of a younger brother shatters the harmony of his world, bears the brunt of his father’s willful attention, and even from an early age he is caught up in a battle of wills, as are in one way or the other his brothers and mother, with their strong-minded father.
The telegram’s arrival in the opening scene becomes the center of a fluid movement between past and present, between the early days of the family’s life, and the efforts of the mother and father to come to grips with their son’s death. But the past isn’t merely the human past of a single family. It’s the history of the world, of the entire universe, of life’s development. How does Malick show this dimension? Literally. With images of the big bang and the birth of the sun and the earth, some of them digitally created, others digitally altered images of Hubble photographs, he shows the movement of the universe towards that one moment in time when the telegram arrives and the parents learn of their son’s death.
The point of this must be to contrast with the birth and development of the universe the mother’s questioning of God about why he allowed her son’s death. It suggests that in the grand scheme of things the death is a miniscule detail, yet at the same time it shows that in the life of the parents, of the family, of the surviving brothers, it is calamitous tragedy. It is also shows that in Malick’s view his death is part of a divine grand scheme.
An inevitable comparison to Malick’s film is Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Both films link the lives of human beings with a encompassing vision of the universe. Both question the meaning of human experience cast against the sweep of cosmic history. In von Trier’s film, the character Justine expresses his view that “Life is only on earth. And not for long,” as the planet heads for its inevitable collision with the earth. There is no existence beyond this final moment in this film. Malick’s view is the opposite. Though he doesn’t consider the issue of life elsewhere in the universe, his film suggests, at least implies (unless we are dealing with scenes of pure metaphor), a life after death where his characters are reunited with one another and where reconciliation, redemption of some sort, is possible. Malick’s view is a Christian one, while von Trier expresses a decidedly naturalistic one.
It’s pointless to ask which film is “better.” I can’t rank them on the basis of my agreement or disagreement with them. I found Melancholia a powerful and sobering experience the first time I saw it. With my second viewing I continued to admire it but was less moved and was bothered by the film’s stylistic dogmatism—von Trier not only expressed his message but also insisted that we understood it. Both films are beautifully made. I wondered why Melancholia was set on an elegant seaside estate somewhere in the United States, and why its first half was devoted to a serio-comic disaster of a wedding while its second half focused on the preparation of the main characters for the end of the world. The two halves of the film, titled “Justine” and “Claire,” suggested two conflicting treatments of character, yet Justine dominated the film.
While I tend to agree with Melancholia’s view philosophically, The Tree of Life impressed me more. Stylistically, Malick’s film is not dogmatic. It presents a particular view of life, one that is undoubtedly religious in nature, but never presses that view. It simply displays, and with the long sequences showing the birth and development of the universe, and the final scenes where family members reunite on a heavenly beach, we are left to our own explanations. It’s possible to come away from The Tree of Life with a naturalistic view, and it’s possible to come away religiously inspired. Maybe both feelings are possible. In Melancholia Kirsten Dunst as Justine stands out. Deeply mired in depression, then passively accepting of the annihilation she knows is coming, the authenticity of her performance is compelling. Yet it’s a monochromatic performance—she doesn’t have to do much more than act convincingly depressed. In The Tree of Life Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain give performances more complex and nuanced. The children in this film are truly outstanding.
While the swank seaside estate where the wedding collapses and the world ends in Melancholia may give von Trier a vehicle for suggesting disdain for a human existence that measures itself on material possessions, one is tempted to wonder whether the estate also gave him a setting for the beautiful images that proliferate through the film, images that in themselves are distinct and stunning but that may also be gratuitous—they’re part of the intentional artifice of the film. One could make the same argument about the small Texas town where Malick centers The Tree of Life, yet there is a logic to the setting anchored in the film’s treatment of a family in the 1950s of Texas. One never has to wonder why Malick’s film is set where it is, while in Triers’ film there’s always the question.
Key images in The Tree of Life are trees, doors, portals, dividing lines (land and sky, under water and over water, inside and outside).
Finally, given my interest in films about the American South, I must consider whether this one fits the category. Because the South is associated with nostalgic notions of childhood (To Kill a Mockingbird), family (The Sound and the Fury), and an idyllic past (Trip to Bountiful), I would argue that Tree of Life fits tangentially. It is not about the traditional “Southern” issues that many other “Southern” films address, but it does use mythic associations of the South with family and childhood and small towns to provide a context for its larger philosophical ruminations.