The tree (and perhaps meaning) of life

I’ve long considered Terence Malick one of the greatest film directors, ever since seeing Badlands and The Thin Red Line in the early 1990s. So it was a very special treat to watch his 2010 film The Tree of Life last night. The DVD wasn’t Blu-Ray, and yet it was still gorgeous on our colour-saturated plasma screen.

The central themes are loss and failure in the context an indifferent cosmos — or, rather, mysterious God — considered against the human duality of grace (primarily the mother) and nature (primarily the father). A voiceover (the eldest son, Jack) at the outset establishes grace as love, giving, yielding; and nature as force, self-interest (implicitly, perhaps, ego). It’s an unabashedly Catholic field of inquiry.

Jessica Chastain in The Tree of LifeEarly in the film, right after establishing the “loss” at the very outset (one of the family’s three sons has been killed at 19, possibly in Vietnam) Malick launches into a stunning sequence of natural phenomena (arguably the most beautiful in all cinema) lasting upwards of 30 minutes. These forces of nature surpass all understanding yet forcefully imply the context for the family’s common experience of sorrow, strife, give and take.

And so the themes play out, in the balance of the film, told from the perspective of Jack over the course of his first 12 years in Waco, Texas, in the late ’40s and early and mid 1950s. The ‘plot’ isn’t linear; it builds in layers, or in the ever-widening ripples caused by a stone hitting water — the stone perhaps the telegram the mother receives informing her of her son’s demise. The story chronicles the father’s increasing estrangement from his family as he strives to make his life a financial success — a quintessentially postwar American tale of rigid corporate loyalty, plus legal wrangling to defend his own patents. Occasionally we glimpse the son as a middle aged man, struggling with his marriage (and problems with intimacy) and a corporate crisis probably brought on by the 2008 financial meltdown.

Malick tells much of the story through mother-father juxtapositions as well as body language — we see the father’s contact with the sons as a function of his own neediness (whether authority or comfort), yet when they seek his love he responds with detached perplexity. The mother endures the sons’ precocious taunts and the father’s insults and rage with awe-inspiring acceptance. Jack grows more alienated as adolescence changes him hormonally. (He also turns his taunts and tricks on his younger brother, who takes after their mother and will die at 19.) Very few films have depicted family relations with such intimate, compelling honesty. In Jack’s memory Waco is a lush Eden, populated with human failings. If God is implacable, so too are men themselves prone to blindness and self-deceit. (Eden is a recurring element in Malick’s films — witness The New World or Days of Heaven.)

Jack’s coming-of-age is complete not merely in adolescence but when the mature man comes to experience, first hand, failings that echo his father’s. This occurs at the film’s climax, as the father, circa 1957, confronts defeat and becomes more human in the process. The family, fallen, must leave Waco so he can take a job elsewhere. And thus the rhythms of nature evident in the cascading waterfalls and throbbing jellyfish manifest themselves in generational experience.


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