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Tree of Life (2011) – Cheese is Bad for You

August 3, 2011

Tree of Life begins with both a question and a tentative answer.  The question comes from the Book of Job:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

The context of this line is slightly peculiar but, for the moment, we can interpret it as being existential in nature: It is a demand for explanation. Where were you? Where am I? Who am I? Teasingly, Malick provides an initial answer in the form of a voice-over.  There are, we are told, two paths in life: a path of Grace and a path of Nature. The path of Grace, the voice-over explains, is fearless, rewarding and free from self-doubt and self-awareness.  It is a path that one walks seemingly without being aware that one is walking a path. Tellingly, Malick neither tightens his question nor the concept of Grace that he offers as a potential solution.  Nor does he ever bother to explain what the path of Nature might entail. One way of reading this hand-waving is by assuming that Malick is challenging his audience: What is Grace? What is Nature? How do you walk these paths? How does walking these paths answer the fundamental existential questions of being? All will be revealed in the film that follows. However, I will argue that Malick’s evasiveness is the entire point of the film. In life, answers are fleeting and all attempts to seek clear answers are doomed to end merely in more questions. Tree of Life suggests that no matter which type of cheese (be it ‘happiness’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘Grace’ or ‘union with the Godhead’) we seek, life will always be a maze.

After the quotation and its voice-over, Tree of Life presents us with a framing device.  The device in question is the character of Jack played by Sean Penn. Jack is a successful architect living in the city but, as demonstrated by the shots of him wondering through a desert, we know that he is unhappy.  This unhappiness overflows when, in a phone-call to his father, Jack admits that he thinks of his dead brother every day, a brother who died at the tender age of nineteen. While we are never told how the brother died, we know that this event took place a long time ago (given Jack’s age) and that Jack blames his father.  In other words, Jack is a poster-boy for the postmodern condition: he is lost, he is sad, he is resentful and he does not know how to fix it. In fact, he doesn’t even know where to start looking for a solution. As Jack wanders around his building and in and out of meetings, he sees a tree that both reminds him of his youth in Texas and prompts a question: Where were you? This question, aimed at Jack’s father and at God in equal and interchangeable measures, frames the film’s narrative and lends an initial (but misleading) context to the Biblical quote that opens the film.

The difficulty of answering this apparently straightforward question is evident in the succession of images that follow.  As though in search of God, Tree of Life takes us back to the beginning of the universe and then slowly spools the tape forward. As beautiful images tumble over one another and the music soars, we see the planets form and life spring from the oceans. However, while we may see dinosaurs sunning themselves on beaches… we do not see God.  We do not see him and yet everything that we see is infused with his Grace.  Why else would one dinosaur spare another when it could just as easily kill it, eat its fill and live to hunt another day? The problem is that if we believe in God then we see evidence of him everywhere, but if we do not believe in God then there is no scientific fact that can either prove or disprove his existence. God’s presence and absence is just as evident in our day-to-day lives as it is in the actions of dinosaurs and the creation of Galaxies. No matter how far back we rewind the tape, the question remains the same: Where were you?

Though no words accompany this stunningly beautiful jaunt back to the beginning of time, it seems clear to me that Malick’s inability to find proof of God in either the birth of the universe or the emergence of life on Earth serves to foreshadow the futility of Jack’s attempts to find meaning in his life by rewinding the tape back to the days of his childhood.

Jack grew up as one of three brothers. Close enough in age to be friends, the brothers live in a leafy Texan suburb where they bounce back and forth between an ambitiously authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and an elusively nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain). It is initially tempting to see these two very different parental figures as incarnations of Malick’s ideals of Grace and Nature. Indeed, Jack’s mother is not only beautiful and graceful but also nurturing and elusive in a way that suggests some degree of kinship with what we traditionally think of as grace. Similarly, Jack’s father is worldly, fickle and vindictive in a way that seems completely opposed to what we might think of as grace. However, as the film unfolds, it rapidly becomes clear that both parents possess an equal capacity for Grace and Nature. For example, while Jack’s father is a violent authoritarian, he is also a skilled musician and someone whose love and devotion to his children is painfully evident in every hug and every whispered word of advice. Similarly, while Jack’s mother may possess the capacity to bring real joy to her children by allowing them the freedom to be themselves, her absence is conspicuous whenever her children need advice, comfort or to be defended from their father. This suggests that, while both parents possess the capacity for true moments of Grace and kindness, both also possess a tendency to give in to the worst elements of their natures.

Jack’s journey to enlightenment is structured around a series of forking paths.  Having rewound the tape all the way back to his childhood, Jack finds a choice between Mother and Father. Grace and Nature. Having given in to Nature and identified more with his father, Jack then discovers within his father another forking path, that between authoritarianism and emotional investment.  Nature and Grace. Having chosen the path of emotionally investing in the world, its content and the people that surround him, Jack then finds another forking path that prompts him to choose again between his father’s ambition and his anger at being denied the object of his ambitions. Again and again, Jack makes his choices but each choice leaves him only with more choices to make. It is from this structure that the film receives its name: The search for meaning forces us down a series of branches and, the more the tree grows, the more branches appear before us. There is no ‘true’ branch, there is only growth and the terrible suspicion that, somewhere along the line, one has made the wrong choice.

The fear of having made the wrong choice pervades every aspect of Jack’s life.  We first see it in the succession of maimed, scarred, injured and deformed people who traipse through Jack’s memories.  Horrified by these spectral figures, Jack asks whether what happened to them can happen to anyone. Clearly these people have made terrible mistakes.

The fear that Jack may have made a terrible mistake becomes obvious when Jack’s father goes away on business.  Left with his mother and two brothers, Jack initially revels in the absence of paternalistic authoritarianism but while he enjoys the freedom that his mother’s hands-off parenting offers, he also finds himself struggling to cope without a structure.  This lack of structure leads to him breaking into a house in order to steal a woman’s underwear and also, it is suggested, to Jack’s involvement in a fire that leaves a child hideously scarred.  Aware that he has made a terrible decision, Jack begins to yearn for a return to the state of blissful happiness enjoyed by his brothers. However, while Jack’s question ‘How do I get to where they are?’ can be seen as a refinement of the question ‘Where were you?’ it is not clear what added insights Jack has gained from this process of refinement. Indeed, it would appear that no matter how much you tighten your definitions or target your questioning, all you are ever doing is asking the same questions over and over again in slightly different ways: Where? Why? How?

The deeper Malick delves into the details of Jack’s childhood, the clearer it becomes that Jack’s disenchantment lacks a single clear-cut cause. Indeed, while Jack’s childhood is littered with traumatic memories and unpleasant moments, none of these events or relationships seem to account for why it is that Jack feels so disconnected and lost as a grown-up. With a lightness of touch that is truly magical to behold, Malick slowly reveals the solution to Jack’s problems and to ours as well while he’s at it.

Returning us to Sean Penn’s framing device, Malick shows the grown-up Jack breaking down as he speaks to his father on the phone. Regrets are expressed for intemperate thoughts and forgiveness given to a man whose selfless hugs and angry shouts made Jack the man he is. It is in this act of forgiveness that Jack finds himself.

Initially, Malick presents the three brothers as an indistinct mass, more of a gang than a collection of individuals.  When Jack starts to become self-aware and to question his decisions, the depiction of the three brothers moves from indistinct mass to one individual and a pair of interchangeable presences who represent a state of Grace to which Jack wishes desperately to return. From there, Malick refines the picture again by having the visibly unhappy and perverse Jack attempt to forge a new relationship with his brother. Again and again, Jack bullies and teases his brother and again and again, his brother reacts by expressing his trust in Jack. This movement from happily undistinguished mass to tentatively trusting individuals contains the answer to all of Jack’s problems.

The problem is that once we become individuals and begin to think of ourselves as such, it becomes difficult to understand how it is that we should relate to other people. We cannot see ourselves as others see us and we cannot see the world through any eyes but our own and so we become obsessed with the distances that separate us and the mistakes that we have made. Painfully aware that we are ‘lost’ and haunted by memories of a time when this might not have been, we struggle to see the path back to a place where we belonged and where we were happy. However, as Jack’s tentative trust exercises with his brother demonstrate, there are no mistakes that can lead to us being completely and irrevocably lost.  Wherever we stand, the challenge is the same: Can we trust and can we forgive?

Tree of Life ends with a dream sequence in which a grown-up Jack walks across a beach filled with people. Tellingly, much like the desert Jack ambled through at the beginning of the film, the beach is one of sand but now Jack is not alone. He need simply reach out an arm or a hand and there is his mother, his father, his brothers and other people.  The message contained within Tree of Life seems to be that, while the path of Grace may seem like an endlessly forking maze, the truth is that Grace comes to you only once you stop seeking a destination and start connecting with the people beside you on the path.  The centre of the maze is wherever you want it to be, you simply need to reach out and make a connection and suddenly you are no longer lost. Of course, the problem is that this state is easier to talk about than it is to achieve.  It is all very well saying that we could be happy if only we could all just let down our guards and be together but togetherness is not a set of directions, it is a point of arrival. The scene in which Jack walks among friends and family on a beach is not a metaphor for how to achieve happiness and enlightenment but an image of happiness and enlightenment achieved. Even in conclusion, Tree of Life returns to the idea that there are no answers, only questions.

The film’s suggestion that existential questions have no meaningful answers and so may very well not be worth asking in the first place is neatly contained within the film’s opening citation from the Book of Job.  Indeed, it is interesting to note that the film’s opening question is not asked of God but rather of Job. Having been tortured and teased to the point of collapse, Job rounds on God and delivers a speech in which he demands a justification for God’s actions.  Indeed, Job believes that he knows the rules that govern God’s actions and he knows that, according to those rules, he is a righteous man.  So, given that he is a righteous man, why does God persecute him? Speaking from out of the whirlwind, God appears before Job and ask how he can be so sure of himself.  Job is but a man and, as a man, he was not there when great plans were drawn up and set in motion. He was not there when the world was built and so he has no reason for believing that he has an intimate understanding of it. Only God knows the true workings of the world and only God can answer those big existential questions… but God isn’t answering his email or checking his messages and so we are left asking questions.  Endless questions.  Questions without answers.

What makes Tree of Life such a thought-provoking film is the tension between its imagery, its plot and its fundamental argument. Indeed, the film is positively overflowing with images of beauty and order sublime enough to offer hope of Divine presence. Similarly, its plot involves a character using the power of memory and forgiveness to achieve a state of happiness and Grace that could be called enlightenment or holiness if one believed in such things. However, despite the foreground of the film suggesting that meaning can be found in life, the subtext suggests that meaning is not only eternally elusive but that the quest for meaning, happiness and enlightenment can actually lead you away from all of those things. Tree of Life is not a religious text. It is not the cinematic equivalent of a Life Hack. Instead, the film is a meditation upon the human condition and the human condition contains precisely this tension: We know that happiness exists, we know that we can sort our lives out and find a place for ourselves in the universe… but somehow we cannot quite get there. We know that life is a maze, but we keep running it because we love cheese.

4 Comments
  1. August 9, 2011 3:55 am

    “Existential” was the word I was grappling for and not finding when I was writing about the film. So yes, thank you for finding it. It had bugged me how many reviews tried to see ToL as a religious film–I think it was a quote at Locus Online about the “naïve religious imagery” in the film that finally prompted me to write my piece. It is story involving some characters who may be naïvely religious, but the theme that develops is more broadly existential.

    It sounds like you’re more copacetic with Sean Penn’s place in the film than you were right after seeing it?

    Re: Pitt and Chastain as parental symbols of nature and grace in Jack’s memory, it’s a little fuzzy what exactly Malick means by each, but I can (and do) fit most of what you mention into those roles for each character. E.g., grace as symbolized by Chastain has many positive manifestations, but also manifests as a passive shying away from conflict, a refusal to take responsibility. Grace alone, always floating above the world, has its costs. As does nature: Pitt is devoted to rearing his children well, yes, but he sees that as teaching them to survive “in the wild”–as tough, remorseless competitors–and he pays dearly for that. He’s a musician, true, but a failed one, and also a failed inventor, and also gets assigned to a job nobody wants: the implication I’d suggest the film makes is that he lacks the grace to succeed in pursuits involving empathy and creativity.

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  2. August 9, 2011 8:49 am

    Ah… Locus Online’s film reviews… don’t get me started.

    In fairness, I can understand why someone would think that ToL’s religious imagery is ‘naive’ because, by the standards of most films, ToL is very much ‘on the nose’ in so far as it places its character’s quest for meaning right there in the foreground whereas most films tend to relegate such concerns to subtext. I can understand where that criticism is coming from but, needless to say, I think that it is completely and utterly wrong-headed for precisely the reasons you mention.

    My problem with Sean Penn’s character was born more of an irritation at the size of my own bladder than with his presence in the film. I don’t think his character is strictly necessary but I don’t resent him being there.

    I agree that Pitt’s character is depicted as lacking in grace but I think that Chastain’s character is just as lacking. It is just that she is lacking in nature or whatever it is you want to call the desire to roll-up your sleeves and get involved in the minutiae of someone else’s life. I don’t think that Malick presents Chastain as a positive to Pitt’s negative, I think that he is quite clear that both parents have failings and that these failings are very much the flip-sides of their positive characteristics.

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  3. June 6, 2012 10:38 pm

    Great review! I just wanted to point out the possibility of a link with Rudolph Steiner’s Theosophical writings and in particular ‘Life beyond death’ in the movie. The flame like imagery that accompanies much of the post life narrative is very reminiscent of Steiner’s explanation of the human spirit and its communication. In addition the images of Saturn could possibly deal with his assertion that the human spirit exists in a non physical dimension in the proximity of Saturn in the physical plane. Just something I picked up on :-)

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  4. June 6, 2012 10:52 pm

    Ah. I have just found that Steiner did release a book called ‘tree of Life and tree of knowledge’ doubtless used in the movie as a metaphor for grace and nature, and further mirrored in the three brothers and their characters. There is the almost obligatory reference to Lucifer as it seems these days, in the meteor / comet crashing to earth (the fallen star/angel) and causing the great flood. Lots of Mystery School / Kaballah parallels in here.

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