Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain
Storyline: A family copes with loss and remembers time spent together
Bottomline: Malick digs deep into the DNA of man and life of all creation, a philosopher’s spiritual take on Darwin’s theory of evolution
This is an updated review coming when the film is on its way out of theatres, I guess it will be safe to discuss plot points and key aspects to unlocking the mysteries in The Tree of Life.
In a line, it’s about forgetting the stairs and reaching for the door.
Think about it. We spend all our lives climbing stairs and becoming someone important enough to be taking elevators in skyscrapers.
As a child, you want to know what’s in the attic. Because someone built stairs leading to it.
As an adolescent, you want to break in and peep into that girl’s wardrobe. And you will take the stairs leading to it. Because it’s forbidden.
As an adult, you want to climb the stairs of the biggest buildings believing that is success. And then elevators. Because, the world believes it.
You travel around the world looking for success and yet the place that brings you most happiness lies at the doorstep of your own home. Your children, wife and dog. At the end of the day, all you really want is for your wife and child to love you.
The thing about stairs is that they take you some place, but not anywhere new. The thing about stepping out of the door and looking at the larger, grander scheme of things is that you will find that there’s so much to explore and understand. It gives us the serenity to accept things for what they are and be grateful for all the happiness we have from family with all the domestic strife, accidents and violence around us.
In the final moments of Terrence Malick’s film we see the skyscraper indeed but what we see in it – is the magnificent reflection of something way bigger – the skies, which are just a small portion of all creation, not even a speck on the universe. We see the deadness of a bridge but what brings the frame alive is the flight of the bird.
If Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had one of the biggest jump cuts in the history of time spanning some three million years, Terrence Malick, who comes up with a spiritual companion piece to epic sci-fi film, gives the biggest flashback in the history of time spanning over 13.75 billion years – and tells us the story of life from the very beginning.
Malick’s film, his most abstract till date, is certainly not for everyone, if comments from the bored folk at PVR are any indication. Talking does not aid listening, my friends. If you had shut up and listened, maybe you would’ve heard what he was trying to tell you.
Though it can be argued if this is worth the price of the ticket, and time, to the man on the street, there is no doubt that Malick fans and those who love pure cinema at its gloriously indulgent best will love his spectacular vision.
Also, it isn’t difficult to understand if you patiently surrender to its audacity and scale to tell a story that’s as macro as it gets at one level and yet microscopically intimate and personal at another.
The auteur achieves this by interrupting the story of a family dealing with loss over a period of time with the story of the creation of the universe itself to understand where we came from and the way of life as it has been over billions of years. The bigger picture.
As the mother observes in the opening lines of the film: “There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.”
Malick takes us back to the times of the dinosaur to suggest that the way of grace existed even then. A predator stamps on the face of a little injured dinosaur and changes its mind looking at the plight of the wounded, pretty much in the same place millions of years later where our young hero Jack (the eldest of the O’Briens) shoots his brother’s finger. More on that later.
Back in the world as we know it, we see the way of nature manifested through the tough father (Brad Pitt) and the way of grace epitomized by the mother (Jessica Chastain) as the O’Briens raise their three kids in the fifties in a town called Waco in Texas.
In contrast to the segment featuring the spectacle of the creation of the universe, this chapter plays out like an intimate home video as we get a glimpse into their world – how the kids were born, how they were raised, what they were taught. The family is the microcosm of the world itself. The father teaches the kids the boundaries of their home even before they could understand.
While the compassionate mother introduces the kids to God (she points to the skies and says: “That’s where God lives” as Smetana’s Die Moldau, the free-flowing composition inspired by Bohemian rivers, moistens your eyes), the strict father teaches the kids the hard truths of life (He lays down the rules of the house over Brahms, a classical music regular that we learn was improved upon for perfection, and demands their affection).
“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive,” she teaches them.
“Your mother is naïve,” the father tells the kids. “It takes fierce will to survive in this world.” Soon, he introduces them to evil. “The world lives by trickery. You wanna succeed, you can’t be too good.”
These life lessons are interspersed with doses of love as the kids ping-pong between the two biggest influences shaping their lives. We watch the kids play with the mother, we see her kiss them to sleep, and observe that she gives water to the thirsty, even if he’s a criminal.
The triumph of Tree of Life lies in its ability to connect with our personal stories. From all that the kids learn growing up, we try to understand ourselves and everything we learnt – through religion, upbringing and textbooks – and the choices we make. It’s a deeply meditative film on existence, a prayer of thanksgiving and a paen to motherhood.
Motherhood, because according to Malick, God is a woman. And the woman is God because she creates, she introduces the child to the way of grace. And Man is the child because he takes time to learn and takes to the way of nature quite early on. Which is why the father repents his actions way later in the film while the child picks up the way of nature as early as adolescence when he is consumed by lust and experiments with violence.
The conflict between the way of nature and grace is played out through the eldest son mourning the loss of his brother. The film does not tell us why he died and we can only speculate given the themes of Malick’s previous films that he died at war or any possible gun related incident, given how the kids were raised.
Also, the mother says: “The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” And the kid is shown to trust his brother, even when he is asked to place his finger at the muzzle of the gun. While the father teaches them to fight, the boys experiment with guns early.
The central conflict of faith is triggered when the family witnesses a random death at the swimming pool. They are taken to church and we catch the passage from Job that instantly explains the entire film. Why do the innocent have to die?
“Misfortune befalls even the good… Like a tree, we are uprooted,” a sermon at the church details a portion from the Book of Job that answers every question that grown-up Jack has. (Okay, didn’t type out the whole passage on my phone while watching because I thought I had enough to Google the rest online but I was wrong. And if you do know where this passage is in the Book of Job, please quote, will appreciate the effort!) But the point here is that though young Jack did go to church, he didn’t fully understand Job back then.
“Father. Mother. You wrestle inside me,” Jack’s voiceover says towards the end of the film summing up that internal conflict we all face. Why should we be good when so much shit happens?
The film is not just about why bad things happen, it’s also about making peace with loss and celebrating memories because that’s one place that death can’t take away. It’s about realising that the time we have on this planet is just too limited and with each other, even less.
A child may be content cycling in circles inside the attic because a tall man with the book told him that’s what counts. But how content are you walking around huge buildings with circular corridors or elevators that will take you up and down the same place?
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography (my bet at the Oscars next year) will haunt you for long as Malick stamps his signature through all his favourite shots to constantly remind you of the intricate thread that connects his films – that man is just another form of life in the vast expanse of infinite creation as the camera often frames him against the bright light above or the deep blue ocean.
The special effects used to portray the creation of the universe, apparently, were done the good old way through chemicals at the laboratory and were not computer generated. Which is probably another reason the film reminds you of Kubrick’s masterpiece on the evolution of the human race over time. It just has to be seen on the big screen. Because it has a larger than life canvas. Life is just a character in this motion picture and it’s all really about finding what fills it with happiness.
“I’m more you than her,” as Jack admits to his father. It is the nature of man, after all. “Nature only wants to please itself… To have its own way.”
“The only way to be happy is to love.” As clichéd it sounds, it is love and acceptance of the way of grace, surrender yourself at Her feet and know that you are safe in God’s hand. Even after life itself.
Treat this film as you would treat a visit to the temple. Go with an empty cup and an open mind.
Else, just skip and don’t ruin it for those who want to pay attention to the God in Malick’s detail.
And yes, please forget this flight of stairs that I have taken you on. Submit yourself at the door and see where it takes you.
Post-Script about the Script:
The first draft of the screenplay can be found here. Be warned that the film is very different from that version. The scene at the church where the preacher quotes from the Book of Job is not there in this draft. As observed in the review above, that passage really is the key to interpreting this film. What I like is that huge chunks of dialogues have been edited out and replaced by visuals. While the script may sound preachy, the film itself lets you to absorb and forces you to read what’s between the lines. I am not sure if I would’ve liked the film if it explained as much as the script does. While the father is given more shades of grey, the script portrays a very bleak picture of the world and even takes us to the end of the universe as we know it. But, being the optimist, I love how the film ends.