Silver Screen: 'The Tree of Life'

Posted Wednesday, June 15, 2011 in Culture

Silver Screen: 'The Tree of Life'

by Brandon Carter

I've always thought the voiceovers in Terrence Malick's more recent work (we only have five films to choose from, after all) a bit of a liability. Where early films Badlands and Days of Heaven contained off-kilter, non-sequitur narration from supporting characters that provided a foil to the elegiac settings, The Thin Red Line and now The Tree of Life contain clipped passages of breathy, Wordsworthian musing that reveal a strain for profundity that I suspect would be otherwise invisible. The strain, I mean, not the profundity. The relationship between God/Nature and Father/Mother are rendered in such astonishing visual language throughout The Tree of Life, do  we really need someone to intone as much?

Luckily Malick manages everything else on his canvas, right down to the smallest production details and intimate glances, with such mastery, the narration gradually becomes the least of our concerns as we try to work out what exactly Tree of Life is about.

Sean Penn plays Jack O'Brien, a somber architect in a suit, and really, he is a stand-in for the Modern Man. Walled in by the glass and steel of foreboding skyscrapers, he is disconnected from his surroundings and at times seems lost in a very literal sense as he navigates the nameless city he is visiting on a project.

With typical lyricism, Malick reveals the reason for Jack's brooding disposition: the anniversary of his younger brother's death. We don't know how he died, only that he was 19.

In the first of many leaps through time, the camera takes us back to the moment when Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) and Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) receive the news of their son's death. The sudden onset of tragedy reveals a great deal about the relationship between these two people. Mr. O'Brien does not hug his wife or shed more than a few tears. The only consolation he seeks and offers, respectively, is prayer and a light touch on the small of her back. Both gestures indicate not so much a coldness towards his wife or his new reality but rather guilt. "I made him feel shame," he says of his late son. "I made him feel my shame." In this respect he feels responsible for what has transpired, while Mrs. O'Brien, hollowed out by despair, can only wonder how and why this could happen in the first place.

When The Tree of Life switches gears to the beginning of the universe itself, it's as though Malick is literally answering Mrs. O'Brien's question. Want to know how we have arrived at this moment of grief? Want to know why? Let's go back to the beginning. The very Beginning.

Stars and planets congeal, microorganisms blossom and evolve, volcanoes erupt, and dinosaurs find their legs in the most astonishing imagery of its kind. The sheer fact that the camera can take us back to these moments of awe is a miracle in itself, one that goes a long way in explaining why a man like Malick, who is by all accounts taken with the spirituality of nature and its creator, has become a rare filmmaker.

Taking ideas from Jacques Lacan's mirror stage and “the Other,” we can discern that for Jack, the tension between perception and emotional reality is projected onto his father, and, reflexively, onto himself. The “loss of innocence” narrative is more accurately Jack attempting to figure out who and what he is going to be.

In the mirror stage, the Ego forms out of the Self’s attempt to reconcile his perceived image of himself with emotional reality, resulting in alienation. In Lacan's categorization of “the Other,” there are two categories: the “little other,” which is really a reflection of the Ego, and the “big Other,” which transcends our typical identification tools, namely the senses, and is therefore invoked in concepts like order, metaphor, and ... well, God. If you substitute a few ideas about God, science, creation, birth, death, fathers, mothers, and siblings, Malick’s film may be rendered a bit more clearly. These tropes have been lying around forever, after all. I just don’t know that they’ve ever been assembled with such aplomb before, certainly not on film.

As one might suspect from a good Christian family in 1950s Texas, Mr. O'Brien is the clear head of the household, while Mrs. O'Brien takes a more explicitly affectionate, tactile approach with their three boys. Mr. O'Brien is not, however, a cruel man, or even particularly stern. If anything, his insistence that his boys shower him with respect and adoration shows a weakness, a pure desire for attention.  Mr. O’Brien was once a talented musician and purveyor of ideas and is disappointed with his lot in life, working at a factory when he should be running his own business or touring the country with an orchestra. We sense his desperate need for fulfillment dictates, in no small part, his behavior toward Mrs. O'Brien and their children.

Or rather Jack does. As an objective viewer, one might see Mr. O’Brien for the complicated, dignified man of the '50s that was many a boy’s father. As Jack gets older, however, he begins to resent the obvious fallacy that is his father’s life and begins to act out. “Why should I be good when you aren’t?” he wonders in a voiceover, and of course he’s asking both his father and his Father. He turns to increasingly violent, if somewhat innocent, gestures: Beating a tree with a stick, breaking a window, and most shockingly, turning a BB gun on his brother. The metaphorical wrecking ball arrives when Mr. O'Brien is forced to move the family out of their house, a landmark for the end of Jack's innocence and an echo of the tragedy that will befall them later.

It's well known apocrypha at this point that The Tree of Life evolved out of an enigmatic concept Malick conceived as early as 1978 called Q. Malick spent several years compiling stunning nature photography and developing pre-CGI visual effects to chronicle the beginning of time but ran into significant financing hurdles, in part aided by his inability to finish the script. His Creation story could be a film in itself; rumor is, that film is coming our way within a year's time, to be called The Voyage of Time. Some might suggest it had no business being in the O'Brien family saga. Perhaps they are right, but that does not make The Tree of Life anything less than a tour de force from a filmmaker working at his most inspired.

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