A prayer beneath the Tree of Life
by Roger EbertPrint PageTweet
Terrence Malick's new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude.
Not long after its beginning we apparently see the singularity of the Big Bang, when the universe came into existence. It hurtles through space and time, until it comes gently to a halt in a small Texas town in the 1950s. Here we will gradually learn who some of the people were as the film first opened.
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.
Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.
We all occupy our own box of space and time. We have our memories and no one else's. We live one life, accumulating it in our minds as we go along. Terrence Malick was born in Waco, Texas, and has filmed much of "The Tree of Life" in small Texas towns; the house of the O'Brien family is in Smithville. I felt like I knew this house and this town. Malick and I were born within a year of one another, and grew up in small towns in the midlands. Someone else, without my memories to be stirred, might be less affected by its scenes of the O'Briens raising their three boys.
I know unpaved alleys with grass growing down the center. I know big lawns with a swing hanging from a tree. I know windows that stand open all day in the summer. I know houses that are never locked. I know front porches, and front porch swings, and aluminum drinking glasses covered with beads of sweat from the ice tea and lemonade inside.I know picnic tables. I know the cars of the early 1950s, and the kitchens, and the limitless energy of kids running around the neighborhood.
And I know the imperfect family life Malick evokes. I know how even good parents sometimes lose their tempers. How children resent what seems to be the unforgivable cruelty of one parent, and the refuge seemingly offered by the other. I know what it is to see your parents having a argument, while you stand invisible on the lawn at dusk and half-hear the words drifting through the open windows. I know the feeling of dread, because when your parents fight, the foundation of your world shakes. I had no siblings, but I know how play can get out of hand and turn into hurt, and how hatred can flare up between two kids, and as quickly evaporate. I know above all how time moves slowly in a time before TV and computers and video games, a time when what you did was go outside every morning and play and dare each other, and mess around with firecrackers or throw bricks at the windows of an empty building, and run away giggling with guilt.
Those days and years create the fundament. Then time shifts and passes more quickly, and in some sense will never seem as real again. In the movie, we rejoin one of the O'Brien boys (now played by Sean Penn) when he grows to about the age his father was. We see him in a wilderness of skyscrapers, looking out high windows at a world of glass and steel. Here are not the scenes of the lawn through the dining room windows. These windows never open. He will never again run outside and play.
What Malick does in "The Tree of Life" is create the span of lives. Of birth, childhood, the flush of triumph, the anger of belittlement, the poison of resentment, the warmth of forgiving. And he shows that he feels what I feel, that it was all most real when we were first setting out, and that it will never be real in that way again. In the face of Hunter McCracken, who plays Jack as a boy, we see the face of Sean Penn, who plays him as a man. We see fierceness and pain. We see that he hates his father and loves him. When his father has a talk with him and says, "I was a little hard on you sometimes," he says, "It's your house. You can do what you want to." And we realize how those are not words of anger but actually words of forgiveness. Someday he will be the father. It will not be so easy.
Next Article: The dying of the lightPrevious Article: My mighty hammering over "Thor"Reveal Commentscomments powered by
With its invocations of the Book of Job and breathy incantations about the "way of nature and the way of grace", Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life begins more like a prayer than a movie. It demands hush and attention but it also craves reverence; it certainly requires calm, a work that needs to be watched, not just recollected, in tranquillity.
Its first image is a shimmering oval of light in which it is just possible to discern, for a moment, a hand, perhaps that of Jesus. It soon gives way to grass and leaves and wafting net curtains, a tumble of gorgeously tasteful images underscored by a whispered voiceover. This is trademark Malick, using all of cinema's possibilities to express the ineffable: sound, image, dialogue, music, design. One notes, happily, he has yet to use 3D.
A woman (Jessica Chastain) in a beautiful, modernist house full of American classic retro furniture receives a telegram and, on reading it, collapses, letting out a howl.
Brad Pitt (excellent throughout) is at a private airport, receiving the news on a telephone, inaudible above the jet propellers. We gather a child has died. "I just want to die and be with him," whispers the grieving mother. This quick section also contains scenes in which Fiona Shaw – her role is credited at the end as "Grandmother" – comforts the mother, able only to spout platitudes such as: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, life goes on." She also mentions, to the mother's horror: "You've still got the other two."
The film fades to black and we rejoin the action in Sean Penn's modern, arid home, where he lights a votive tea light. He goes to work and appears to be some kind of architect, poring over plans in a huge glass and steel structure. This is perhaps the only present-day footage in all of Malick's work, the first time he has shot modernity. I don't think he likes it, if Penn's anguished face is any gauge.
We hear a snippet of a phone conversation he has with his father: "I think about him every day, Dad." Is this the anniversary of that child's death, then? We hear Penn's voice saying: "He died when he was 19", so we figure he is grieving for a lost brother, trying to make sense of that death and its meaning.
I've taken two viewings to make sense of this part of the film – when I first saw it at Cannes, I was floating merrily in the sensory experience but bewildered by the narrative. With Malick, the viewer has to surrender to the cinematic flow, to trust it, seek refuge in it. But basically, this film is: Sean Penn (we learn his character is Jack) in the present, contemplating the reverberations of his brother's death, maybe some 20 years ago to the day, and trying to work out why – on an existential, spiritual, religious level – it happened.
Researching the allegedly unknowable Malick recently, I learned – and I wouldn't want reality to be a spoiler – that his brother, Larry, committed suicide in Spain while studying guitar under the teacher Andrés Segovia in 1968.
In The Tree of Life, just before the mother receives the telegram, the camera floats past a teenager's bedroom in which a guitar stands, propped up by the bed. Later in the film, we will see fleeting shots of a young brother practising his guitar. This is hardly the cinema of a recluse, then, but a deeply personal work that reveals the author's soul. It will strike chords with anyone who has ever questioned life and death.
And then,22 minutes in, The Tree of Life becomes something extraordinary. The next 17 minutes are gobsmacking, requiring unbelievable daring and confidence from the film-maker, but also beseeching a giant leap of filmic faith from the viewer. Malick, in short, goes off on one.
Shots of planetary movements, hot geysers, lava, bacteria, molecules, jellyfish, canyons and churning seas give way to a CGI dinosaur caressing another injured beast – a scene of prehistoric kindness. Like the polar opposite of Michael Bay, these aren't special effects, these are ideas. But they are also risky, baffling, beautiful images. Are they Darwinian or creationist? They're certainly a little studenty and Discovery Channel-ish, a sort of lava lamp cinema. If you feel like laughing, maybe that's OK, too.
We return from this cosmic reverie, sharply, to the childhood bliss of postwar, smalltown America (clues indicate this is Waco, Texas, where Malick grew up, although the film was shot in Smithville) and this section will now form the meat of the film, as young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his two brothers play in the wide streets, swing on the trees, waft around with their ethereally lovely mother by the river. When their father – "call me sir" – gets home, things get stricter and meal times are often spent cutting meatloaf under his glare. A local child drowns, felons are arrested, there are sermons on Sundays, Dad envies the rich houses and teaches the kids boxing, he growls at them to weed the lawn and close the door quietly – years float by, like the river.
Malick's camera drifts like an angel, or a ghost, rarely staying still, its images sweeping us along in an ebb and flow, washing us in the ways of nature and the ways of grace. Yet within its ambition to convey the meaning of life, The Tree of Life is also boring, cliched and banal. Dad loses a job and the family move house and things will never quite be the same. The film flashes back to adult Jack, now wandering a salt flat, or some kind of beach, surrounded by lost souls.
What are we to make of this coda? I find it shockingly cheesy and can't quite reconcile it with other sublime passages in the same film. The hippie, Taoist, animist Malick of old is still there but, suddenly, I felt preached at. The dinosaurs, I can take; the souls on the beach, the hugging and the rapprochement with God, that's too much. Maybe I just climb a different tree.