Tree of Life (2011): 2011: A (Natural) Grace Odyssey

Tree of Life PosterWritten and Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn





They say that in the beginning the world was without form and void and that a darkness was upon the face of the deep. It’s not too dramatic a leap to draw a parallel between this initial state of being and entering into a theatre to see a film. Sure, going to see a film now it lights and a radio station playing before the theatre dims to show ads on the screen and what feels like an always expanding belt of trailers before the feature, but the pure idea of going to see a film remains the same: you enter into a darkened room with friends and strangers and, out of the darkness, a reality is conjured before you. This connection between the biblical and the cinematic is not new or profound and I feel safe assuming that Terrence Malick must be aware of these parallels.

A Veil Between ThemSome say that in the beginning was the word. Malick’s new film Tree of Life begins with the word, His word, even, from the book of Job where God asks Job “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4), before a voice over speaks over the shifting of a flame in the darkness. And so the audience, in darkness, is given the Promethean flame of the word, inscribed and divine, oral and human. Malick immediately establishes the scope of his vision for the picture: to encompass all finite human experience… no problem. The film’s action begins by showing Jessica Chastain‘s Mrs. O’Brien receive a notification that her son has passed away, followed by her husband’s, Brad Pitt‘s Mr. O’Brien, reception of the same news. Sean Penn is shown as a grown Jack O’Brien, grieving in a large building made of glass. Here Malick’s film begins with loss, a gesture that any story told from a post-lapsarian human perspective aiming at issues of spirituality, the eternal, the divine, etc., must make; recall Milton’s narrator beginning his Paradise Lost, “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree” (Book 1, 1-2) wherein the sense of loss that necessarily accompanies the human separation from the divine is present from the first moment. Indeed, that there is a first moment at all, is embedded with the necessity of loss. A friend once expressed that he was warned to be skeptical of “grand narratives” to which I replied, half-jokingly, that “There’s only really one narrative, man, one story of coming to be and passing away”. To come to be and to pass away is the human condition, a condition we share universally with all created things. It is a fact.

In the Beginning All Was Cool FlamesMalick’s film aims to account for this universal condition, for all that may come to be and pass away, and to illustrate the similar ways all things are inflected. The film posits a binary means through this finite condition early on, stating that there is a way of “nature” and a way of “grace”, and moves to demonstrate these means of moving through existence in a personal and microcosmic manner – in the narrative of the O’Brien family – and on a cosmic scale, covering all time from the moment of the Big Bang and its generation of matter and the universe, to the evolution of life on earth through amoeba, plant and dinosaur, returning to the O’Brien family and, perhaps, extending beyond them. Beyond the striking cosmological imagery and soaring orchestral score that accompanies this extended section of the film that directly calls to mind similar sections from the similarly loftily conceived and executed 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malick employs this section to show the manner in which nature and grace are entwined through all creation, not merely through human history.

Nature is created and life is born; that life is given agency in a universe full of chemicals and minerals, of the cold vacuum of space and the hot magma of molten rock is a gesture of grace in itself. Further, the amoeba begets the jellyfish, the jellyfish begets the fish, the fish begets the plesiosaur who moves onto land, etc. Through all instances of life evolution functions as a means for grace to enter into the world. Natural life involves predation and violence, evolution allows the plesiosaur to escape the ocean, injured, to settle on a beach, to begin life as a terrestrial animal that will give rise to mammals. Later grace is shown in the activity of a predatory dinosaur that seemingly denies its instinct to hunt and feed and leaves it, sickly, beside a riverbed.

Deep Impact... oops, Wrong FilmMalick employs these scenes to show the viewer what constituted the laying of the foundation of the earth in the title card in a manner that only cinema can. The written word can tell what happened, the origin of earth and life beginning as “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”, but it is in the domain of the cinema alone to illuminate – both literally and figuratively speaking – this activity through moving pictures. Malick’s film intends to show the viewer these happenings as explicitly as it can so that the ideas of nature and grace, their relations to life and finitude, are not merely presumed as a priori conditions, but have been demonstrated on screen. Here, again, echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey resonate. Malick and Kubrick both take great pains to establish a visual historical precedent for evolution on screen; both directors employ largely wordless stretches of film that show, rather than tell, the thematic and ideological connections between the historically disparate sections of their films, buoyed equally by majestic orchestral soundtrack choices whose flourishes speak to a cosmic language of mathematical harmony and essentially humane emotional concerns. The finitude of the dinosaurs is expressed as a loss as well; Malick shows the devastation of the dinosaurs via the meteor that plunged earth into the ice age. The catastrophic loss of life here reverberates back to the loss shown at the beginning of the film, thematically providing a return to the O’Brien family and the depiction of their lives circa 1950 in small town America.

A DDT Worse than Jake the Snakes'The tension between nature and grace plays out within the personal arcs of the characters of the O’Brien family in a way that mirrors that of the prehistoric life shown on earth. Young Jack is shown before being born as exiting a submerged door, in the manner that all life emerged from water in the earlier sequence. He is raised and played with an intense interiority by Hunter McCracken, moving from youthful innocence to the emergence of human nature in the confused stirrings of jealousy and lust in the embryo of adolescence. Malick shoots these more quotidian scenes with an acute particularity while still reinforcing the images and motifs of the previous segment of the film, focusing on circles and light sources, often shooting the sun or moon through tree branches, visually marrying the natural and cosmic together in one shot, the particular and the universal. The circle indicative of the reiterative patterns of life and the universe, moving along a path that loops back in on itself, modulated, not repeated exactly, but informed by previous cycles.

O'Brien FamilyThe depiction of the O’Brien family and their lives is radically fragmented in many ways. Vignettes of the family’s life are strung along by a narrative thread that functions more like memory, almost certainly Jack’s, than anything strictly chronologically ordered. The narrative is peppered with intensely particular, even peculiar, moments that resonate: a man having a seizure street-side and Mrs. O’Brien shielding her children’s eyes, Mrs. O’Brien giving drink to criminals being taken away in a police car, children frolicking in a cloud of DDT gas on a summer evening, the tension of a scene with Mr. O’Brien under a car and the manner in which Jack forebodingly tarries next to the jack holding it up. These scenes render the familial aspect of the narrative highly personal, they are imbued with a specificity born from memories that stand out in the mind, in their strangeness and their ability to persist.

That the film bears such a profoundly, even surprisingly, personal touch from the director should not, perhaps, be so surprising. Malick studied, and indeed translated, Heidegger who, in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”, writes that “The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist. Neither is without the other.” and that the artist and the work are “by a virtue of a third thing which is prior to both, namely that which also gives artist and work of art their names – art.” This is a necessary reciprocality between the artist and what the artist creates that allows both to be as they are; Malick is as much the film as the film is him, in a way. Art and the artist come to be simultaneously and are co-dependent, allowed by the presence of art itself, as a larger concept. This Heideggerean conception of artwork and artist moving through the agency of art itself parallels the way that nature and grace can be seen to move in the world of the film, as finite modes of moving through life against the backdrop of something that does not come to be and pass away.

Born SlippyMalick’s engagement with the process of coming to be and passing away is explicated visually in his deployment of water imagery throughout the film. In many portions of the O’Brien narrative, the action focuses on moving water; there are scenes of children swimming, a dress floating away, children playing in the water. These images all recall the aforementioned predatory dinosaur sparing the wounded other, which transpired adjacent to water. Water comes to represent all aspects of life in both the prehistoric and human section of the film. Water allows the generation of life, in prehistoric times and in Jack’s emergence into the world through it, the movement of water reflects the inexhaustible movement of being toward unbeing in its flowing, and death finds visual representation in the ice that covers the world in ace following the meteor and in an incident of the drowning of a young man. There abides here a connection also to the thought of Heraclitus whose argument that the being is change, that all is flowing, stating that “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” Malick reflects this flowing doctrine of being in his camera work, fusing the images presented with the manner in which they are captured. His camera flows behind characters, through the rooms of the O’Brien household, down streets and, indeed, through time itself.

Art as GatewayThere is a narrowing of focus as the film moves through these sections that brings the O’Brien’s narrative, their development, as individuals and as a family unit, to the fore. Beginning with the creation of the universe, Malick’s investigation of the natural order and its manifestations of grace systematically narrow in focus, from matter and space to earth, to the ocean, to life in general, to particular evolutions and particular species and then to a particular family and a particular individual in Jack. Along with this narrowing of focus is a sympathetic internalization of grace; the chemical reactions that generate the planet and life are physical in the most basic and primal sense before narrowing to the act of evolution, to the act of suppressing instinct. This animalistic suppression is articulated in humanity in the grace of sublimating desire, of negative emotion, into acceptance and love. Grace permeates the bare cosmological firmament, the generation and behaviour of animals and the intellectual and emotional self reflexivity of the human.

In themselves, Malick’s characters function to varying degrees of allegory. Given that his film aims to do no less than explicate the correlation between the cosmically universal and most human particularities, some flattening of the characters is unfortunate, but necessarily symptomatic. Jack, being the fulcrum of the film, is given the most nuance and depth, much of his character is articulated through expression and reaction. Malick’s intention to deal with character in such broad strokes is apparent by his decision to withhold even cursory given names to the O’Brien parents. Mr. O’Brien is given some detail as a working man who once dreamed of becoming a musician, who smoke and plays the organ in church, who prays and tithes. Mrs. O’Brien and the younger two children receive less attention, functioning more as foils to the two main characters than fully-embodied entities onto themselves. Mrs. O’Brien looms as a generally warm, idealized, presence through the film, soothing the boys and affording them some measure of respite from the well-intentioned, but coarse, treatment of their father. Beyond Mrs. O’Brien there is a paucity of female presence in the film, a grandmother once, and several objects of Jack’s young confused pubescent desire, each existing more as an absence or lack than any being in themselves.

Liminality ForeverThe film ends with a sequence that draws together the elements of the story, thematically and visually. Jack, as an adult, emerges from a dry wasteland onto the shore of a body of water among a congregation of people. The water lies flat and it can be seen being fed by small tributaries; the water, seen flowing all through the film, has come to rest in a place beyond time, suggested also by the characters gathered in the water together. There is a shot of collection of many sunflowers, etymologically unifying the sun imagery of the film with the natural content of the flowers, and a shot of a bridge spanning a gap of water in the sunset, spanning the flow of time and carrying its passengers beyond it to eternality on the opposite bank. The film itself closes on the same image with which it began, following the word: the screen is black save for the slow twisting flame. The circle is closed and the structure of the film again becomes adequate to its content, ripe to begin its own cycle anew.

Deeply spiritual, the film speaks to these profoundly abstract and humane concerns, of the most basic and essential reality of existing in the world, in a manner that circumvents the largely Christian overtones of the film. Tree of Life is not a perfect film, but it is certainly a thoughtful film, a beautiful film, and a film of such scope and ambition that its imperfections are subsumed into a larger whole. Malick utilizes his own personal history as prism through which he shines a profound inquiry, transubstantiating fragments of his youth into a deeper relevance beyond a particular biography. Nature and grace, artist and art, film and audience, come to be and pass away, their movements embedded in that which is always outside of time like the body of a mosquito and all its excised potentiality in a bulb of amber that has always surrounded it. To make a film accounting for the place of humanity and finitude in the universe is fundamentally impossible, but Malick’s intent is no more a middling flight than Milton’s who begs the muse in Paradise Lost

what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert the eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (Book 1, 22-26)

Darkness Illumin'd

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  1. […] my first viewing – and subsequent review piece – of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life I was struck by what I perceived to be a strong […]

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