Bright Lights Film Journal

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life: An Outsider’s View

The Tree of Life seems to excite fanatical devotion. The reactions to the film heard, for example, on Filmspotting, from both the podcast’s commentators and its listeners, have an uncritical , an anticritical , ardor that makes those of us with mixed feelings about the film feel like infidels.

I agree that the movie is full of wonders, but I think that they’re heavily constrained by Malick’s intellectual inspiration. Tree of Life is the longest and best sermon I’ve ever sat through.

The text is announced, according to custom: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38:4). A second text, “You must choose between the way of nature and the way of grace,” clouds matters for a bit, but the movie does Job first: the mother’s cry against God to justify suffering and then the amazing visualization of the creation as an argument, à la Job, for God’s incomprehensibly great powers. In the theater where I saw the film, a few people walked out about now , walked out on the creation. I think that’s because, however spectacular, it has no dramatic motivation. It’s theology.

The dinosaurs aren’t biblical of course, but they’re the foundation of the nature-vs.-grace argument. Human ancestors are animals such as these, and in their awkward proto-humanity they behave like Brad Pitt. This is the Darwinian view , though, oddly, trees and other green life don’t count as “nature” (as competitive strivers) but as Wordsworthian life bearers and joy givers and sources of spiritual refreshment, a sign that Malick’s ideas are going to take precedence over biological truth. (Believers do that.)

The film won’t be over until the mother, having learned Job’s patience, says “I give you my son” and settles the issue. Of course that’s just what God did for Christians, as a loving offer of redemption. The beginning and the end (of the movie too) belong to the eternal life source, shadowy but radiant, creator of all light.

If the movie’s going to do better than grandiose and argumentative, it’ll have to be through the telling of the central family story. Here’s where the wonders come in. That visual style! The fluid, constantly moving camera, the generous light that, like the outdoor breeze, feels like a gift, the open perspective that always sees human figures within their physical surroundings, the flashing, discontinuous cuts that are nevertheless graceful and make us feel that we’re experiencing a rhythmic movement broader than the personal.

The story itself isn’t so successful. The boys’ performances have been widely praised, and while it’s true they have a wonderful rapport with one another (my favorite scene is the long one in the shed between the brothers), the lead actor can’t do much more than repeat again and again his look of building, repressed hostility. His story has a long, clear arc, but so many of the incidents in it make sense too quickly. We’ve seen them before. The “Hit me” scene is probably the most tired of the tropes. Malick may want to evoke archetypes, but in the frame of a detailed and “real” family story he so often gives us stereotypes and clichés.

But Jessica Chastain is beautifully, convincingly archetypal and thrives within the film’s visual rhythms. She is grace, literally. She’s silent (implicitly a virtue in Malick’s scheme) but warm and physically responsive. Those soft, long limbs and caressing hands, like foliage! Along with the visual style she’s the most thematically persuasive element of the film. She is goodness and we love to look at her.

It’s interesting that an amateur, in terms of film-acting experience, should succeed in escaping the potential monotony of her simple role, while the veteran actors struggle so with a similar problem in theirs. Sean Penn is just an unpleasant presence, even in his small, virtually nonspeaking role. His performance suffers from the dramatic problem that we just can’t see, or feel, that that boy became this man. Penn is reduced to playing Sean Penn, and we’re all tired of that. He’s also the victim of the collapse of the film’s complex narrative under the weight of Malick’s unwieldy development of his ideas (the Shore of Life?). By this point the film even loses its visual beauty.

But Malick has shown us plenty of beauty, physical and moral. He can’t explain where beauty comes from, though, any more than he can justify suffering, in spite of his ponderous efforts. He has a great eye but an ordinary mind.