Tree of Life, 2011
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain
In Tree of Life, the story of a post-WWII fifties family is interspersed with cataclysmic images of our planet being created, sun, moon and earth rolling through eras of stark change and life evolving through the dinosaur age. Breaking up a story of a family with lengthy visuals of stars in the making, shifting shapes of galaxies and flights through space may turn us on, may turn us off but either way, we’re left with the question, why? Malick’s known to be a filmmaker with purpose. (Reference Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.) If he’s paralleling a family raising sons with births and deaths in the universe, I believe he’s raising a question that’s meant to include human beings. What does nature have to say about evolution?
The family story begins with the death of a grown son, presumably the oldest of three brothers who’ve been raised in one of those tree-lined fantasy neighborhoods that I, as a seventy-something, can still remember. Then the film backtracks over the early years of the family and the boys’ childhood. Father, an iconic hardworking returned vet determined to do right by his family, finds it increasingly difficult to cope economically and takes out rising frustrations on his wife and children. Mostly he clamps down, restrains and controls himself but sometimes he raises an iron hand, mindful – perhaps – of an old testament God. Mother, a lovely iconic silent wife and a loving mother, looks on helplessly as her sons irritate their father and plays like a child herself when he’s not there. The three sons, iconic “boys will be boys” brothers, unsupervised and with plenty of free time on their hands, find ways to test each other’s trust, tumble a little too dangerously and amuse themselves with just the world around them. But they never really feel out of the sight of Father’s dark disciplinarian eye. A tense upper lip of love accompanies every fatherly hug and a fierce emotional straitjacket constrains family events.
When one of the boy’s buddies drowns in the local swimming quarry, the weight of consequence for invisible transgressions is palpably shared amongst family, friends and community. To link morality to rebellious desires is a human act, not from nature itself, felt by attendees of the funeral. As the oldest son goes through the changes of adolescence, he becomes more secretive arousing dread for the outcome we already know is in the works.
But Tree of Life is not a narrative about a family’s lost son. It’s not a story about a father abusing his sons, arguing with his wife or wrestling with adversity. It’s not a story about a wife infantilized as a housewife. It’s not about three brothers who raise each other. It’s not a story about a father’s lost dream, a wife’s lost identity or the lost childhoods of three boys. Well, yes, it is all those but, more to the point, it’s a story that begs us from the beginning of the film to ask “Why?” Why pose such a small intimate personal family story within such a large cosmic context?
I believe Tree of Life takes on an ambitious objective. Aspiring to be a masterpiece casting human life within the context of evolution, it wishes to put us in touch with how we might be experiencing evolution in our own, specific lives. In the end, it turns our eyes back on ourselves, asking us to look at what doesn’t make sense as being something that might be part of evolving. Instead of taking our small point of view of personal failure – a father working his ass off and still losing his job, a wife giving over her life to pleasing her family only to feel alienation in her bones, children wanting love only to be met with rejection, rage and confusion – Tree of Life begs us to ask why. Could there be a larger way to see what’s happening?
And now let’s make the leap provoked by the film’s juxtaposition of the personal within the cosmic. When parents raise children for a world that they believe is the world their children will grow up into, they can be dead wrong. And it’s possible that the child knows, intuits or feels within the roots of his being, that he is headed into a world that his parents cannot fathom because he’s fresh to realize that something new is coming. The world as he’s growing into it does not yet exist. The breakdown between parent and child, the ripping of bonds we label as adolescent rebellion or the ravages we call mental illness, may be dislocations of evolution. Tree of Life makes it abundantly clear that evolution is not a smooth handing of the wand from one marathon runner to the next. Some are spared. A dinosaur steps over a wounded animal. Thousands perish in a flood. Some quickly perish, leaving only fossils. Not unlike the young boy who drowned in the quarry.
If we were to imagine we are part of evolution, we might translate the events of family life – much like Terence Malik – into ones that speak of our own family disruptions as expected in furthering evolution. As much as we strive for order, human nature slips its yoke. Children experiment, provoke and promote chaos against their better judgment. We watch a scene at the dinner table, Child defying Father, and recoil, asking why they would do such a thing when they know the consequences. There’s that ‘Why?” again. Could there be useful end to a collision of forces, an ineffable effort to adapt to an unseen vibration of emerging circumstances beyond our simple horizon of the human life span?
We are, each in our own way, contributing to a much longer life on the planet than we’ll live. However much pollution we see in the air, it’s also invading the oceans and seas of the world. What kind of being will it take to live a generation from now, a thousand or a million years from now? If we consider failures of orderly succession as reflections of evolution, we open a new perspective. We meet our failures – and those of our children — with new respect. We feel ourselves a part of nature, not apart from it.
If a vision of interconnectedness between the inner nature of humankind and outer nature of the universe is what Tree of Life is about, Malick may indeed be ambitious. Yet the film certainly gives us a larger context for understanding our disappointments, our limitations and our grief. Cast as part of an energetic exchange, nature is not a backdrop and we’re not without resources to see our own contradictions as furthering life on earth. We are large, very very large.
As I finished this essay review of Tree of Life, I felt the heavy emotional weight of my investigation and, perhaps to balance myself, levity sprang to my rescue. I recite what I heard in my mind’s ear, present it as a quote: “Shake your head, shake your booty, shakin’ may be quakin’ when it comes to figuring out what perpetuates and what situates.” I said that. 🙂
Article written by Dr. Jane Alexander Stewart
Newtopia staff writer Jane Alexander Stewart, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who writes essays about mythic themes in film, creates “Myth in Film; Myth in Your Life” seminars for self-exploration and travels a lot. Her film reviews have been published in the San Francisco C.G. Jung Library Journal, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture and Los Angeles Journal of Psychological Perspectives. Jane’s popular essay on “The Feminine Hero in The Silence of the Lambs” appears in the anthology, The Soul of Popular Culture, and in The Presence of the Feminine in Film as one of its authors. She’s also presented myth in film programs at Los Angeles County Museum, University of Alabama and C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. A collection of her reviews and other writing can be found at www.CinemaShrink.com.