This is SPOILERY, don’t read it if you haven’t seen it & intend to!
I would like to begin this review by stating that I was very much looking forward to The Tree of Life. I was expecting an original philosophical disquisition on human experience, the possibility of an afterlife and beautiful visuals. Whether the film can be said to live up to the first two criteria, it certainly does meet the last. I was happy to pay £8.50 to see Malick’s vision of the birth of the universe and its subsequent afterschocks, from shimmering pulses of star matter to embryonic lizards to dinosaurs, and it’s definitely worth seeing at the cinema for this reason alone.
Composed like a dream, very few narrative threads are made explicit. That is, events are mentioned without explanation of them – the cause of the death at the beginning, though we can assume it is military; what Jack does; why we should care about his epiphany... What happened to Jack’s parents is seen as virtually unimportant to Jack’s psychic integration of their two halves. The strikingly simplistic characterisation which opens the film – the division of the two ways in life given in voiceover by the character of the mother into ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ roughly corresponds to masculine/feminine, yin/yang, aggression/passivity, as well as barbarism/civilisation – is extended to the portrayals of the central character’s parents. However, they both at least have considerably more to work with than Sean Penn in the role of the adult Jack, who is required to do little more than gaze with his saddest eyes out of the trappings of his bourgeois existence in which everything is already smooth, clean, vast – visually echoing the heaven to come. This mechanized contemporary world thus provides a superficial contrast to his rustically lush childhood.
I have tried to think carefully about my objections to the film’s presentation of a Judeo-Christian world view without including overtly religious trappings, universalizing its own Western perspective. It can’t be inherently wrong to make a film about white, patriarchal, Western, heteronormative religion, just as a film that put forward a black, feminist, non-Western, queer perspective might not be inherently ‘right’ (although I have to admit I probably would prefer that. I might even learn something!) I guess my precise problem with Malick’s realisation of his own spiritual perspective is the film’s overwhelming whiteness, endorsement of patriarchy, and passive complicity with the forces of civilisation (not to mention the false simplifications created by the binaries given above). The film’s climactic moment – if such a statement can be made about such a curiously a-tempo film, starting at a high pitch and striving to remain at this level of epic grandeur, only dip into long and somewhat dreary patches of childhood reminiscence – comes when Mrs O’Brien sacrifices her son to her god. This seemed, to me, a way of dissolving a genuine theological problem both ludicrously and offensively. For one thing he’s not hers to give, anymore. For another, anyone experiencing genuine grief cannot simply solve their loved one’s death; it is something they live with every day and probably change their views about frequently. Furthermore, the fact that he dies for his country and is thus sacrificed in patriotic battle confirms the film’s actual complicity with aggressive ‘nature’ of a warring government whilst espousing that we mere submissive civilians maintain the position of ‘grace’. But this was fine because it allowed everyone to go back to drifting about on ocean shores before uniting as one with the cosmos (presumably). I don’t remember ANY body of any other ethnicity appearing in these final scenes (though I did register a black woman holding the mother’s hand in sympathy at one point; this single appearance suggests she was of only tokenistic importance). The final shot swoops past Jack’s face back over the skyscrapers, implying that though paradise doesn’t contain the capitalist and imperialist manifestations of civilisation, it’s perfectly alright that our route to it does. This for me, encapsulates the hypocrisy of Christianity and many other religious attitudes.
Though all the reviews touch on Jack’s ‘midlife crisis’, his central dilemma is not really explained to us. It’s only suggested by Penn’s tattoos, turning away from his beautiful lover (again a pure object) and some mumbling addressed to his father. I must say that it is the incidental detail captured when we revisit his childhood, from conception to toddler, that really captivates. Malick must be thanked for bringing this phenomenological depiction of childhood to the screen; though later I grew irritated and bored with scenes showing schoolboy transgressions, having never been a nine year old American boy. Again, the exclusivity of this depiction of experience is only problematic because so much received history, literature and film has come from an unproblematised male perspective & assumes it in the viewer. Dialogue only occurs in the past, and it is unusual, characters saying more than they intend to and causing arguments through silence. Malick’s observation of familial dynamics is acute. But where is the final confrontation with the Father that I was expecting, to attempt to address the conflict that is set up by the film itself and allow for the completion of the allegorical journeys of the parents? Malick denies us even this narrative resolution, whilst aspiring to a ‘realistic’, mainstream presentation of character and events in the Fifties strand of the film.
It seems fair to note that the performances in this section of the film are uniformly excellent, including Brad Pitt’s stern disciplinarian father figure complete with crewcut and golfball jaw, and a particularly captivating performance from Laramie Eppler. He plays the brother who is later killed; his gentle presence and tentatively scrunched face when playing with brothers Jack and Steve make for the some of the most beautiful observational scenes in the film.
The film’s ambition reminded me of Tarkovsky’s unique brew of Russian Orthodox mysticism, as exemplified by the uncanny ending of ‘Stalker’; and its contentment with long takes and architectural focus (Jack’s adult open-plan house bears a resemblance to his family’s second home, as shown in the opening sequence, and via the use of full-length windows seems to explore a metaphor of the membranes between realities becoming ever thinner as capitalism/civilisation becomes more advanced). However, Tarkovsky’s cinema never blandifies the concept of an omniscient deity, maintaining a suitably cowed, mortal distance from God himself and creating a tension which both justifies belief and successfully shows the fear in which belief is grounded. I am thinking principally of Andrei Rublyev, the solemnity of which is no less matched by the terrifying conclusion of Solaris, in which man is obliterated by the god whose justice differs from ours so greatly as to incorporate deceit. It is in this respect that Tarkovsky’s materialism shows itself, and for me, makes his work considerably more satisfying than The Tree of Life. Once you’ve read David Cox’s stinging critique of the film as a giant commercial, it becomes impossible to unsee it, especially given its hauntingly whispered voiceovers so reminiscent of ‘autoemotion’. I cannot help but suspect Malick’s film of a similarly manipulative injunction to feel something, anything, to trick you into feeling that you are a part of the utopian yet passively consumerist vision lurking below its illusionary surface.