“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” – Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
More than any movie you see this year – and perhaps in your lifetime – Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life resists conventional assessment, disregarding the standard narrative cues for snippets and fragments of pure emotional engagement. Even there, with that ever-present risk of sentimentality, Malick refuses to grant us the standard release. Without manipulation, guidance, or even what passes for structure, this most confounding of directors, once again, assumes a literate, engaged, contemplative audience, and damns to oblivion those seeking the punch of a puerile payoff. Our species most assuredly demands the comforting confines of storytelling, complete with accessible motivations, demonstrable growth, and reasonable arcs of character, so one can be forgiven for leaving the theater in confusion and disgust; a response even Malick might prefer to outright indifference. That, however, is an impossible task, and within moments of this film’s unspooling, it entails no great risk to suggest that above all, The Tree of Life will create opposing camps as intractable and passionate as those on the abortion divide. Beware, though, of those who claim a full understanding; dismissals that have as their basis an acceptance of Malick’s terms, yet rejection of their presentation. Honesty, so infrequently prized in our dwindling movie houses, will instead fumble around to my humble perspective, where a dozen viewings may not set it all straight. Do not fear such a conclusion. After all, if you “get” it all the first time – movie, book, human being – it most likely isn’t worth a damn.
At first blush, Malick’s canvas appears to be the universe itself, where matter was borne of fire and tumult, simmering and boiling over the centuries until something recognizable as life crawled from the endless ocean. There’s an oddly detached aura to these scenes; strangely and refreshingly godless for a movie otherwise steeped in spiritual strivings. That said, the “religion” of Malick’s world is far from a handy explanation for how and why it all came to be. Primordial grunting lacks the requisite heavenly glances, true, but only because such creatures lack the need (or ability) to consider the infinite. Curiously, once reason becomes manifest, the simultaneous urge to explain – even with the tools of unreason – hits with equal force. We move beyond the purely instinctive, evolving as a contrast to the seemingly soulless organisms of early Earth that simply live, reproduce, and die. We too depend of a hospitable environment to ensure our survival, but as human beings, we are cursed with the burden of having to intellectualize our unthinking pursuit of comfort and security. And when such blankets are lifted from us, we alone must piece together an explanation. Our suffering is not unique, but all told, it is the most tragic. Were we less, we would not want more.
Cutting through these words, pretentious and rambling in their telling (nothing will be easy, I assure you), I further submit that Malick wants us to have some perspective – mankind, all things considered, is not much – but absent an alternative, we who strut and fret our hours upon this stage have transformed the minutiae of life into grand opera. So this O’Brien family of Waco, Texas, this Everyman writ large, is at once a specific entity inhabiting a particular time and place, yet it is everyone who ever lived. And no one. There’s no reason to care about them, yet we pull them tight as if the very essence of familial blood. Had they more defined characteristics, we could lose them to the fictionalized world on display, instead of remaining half-empty shadows of a world no one could ever fail to recognize. Against the odds, it’s the most universal set of folks ever considered. Malick achieves this, remarkably, by telling it all from the perspective of a child. Instead of the usual device – man looks back upon his life with the wisdom of age – the narration, a Malick standard, remains elliptical and mysterious, as if one is literally thinking out loud without the benefit of self-editing. The words are urgent and solemn, much in the way that those in youth’s full flower hit back at a world they don’t quite yet understand. If they only knew that adulthood, far from bringing that understanding, only intensifies the questions. And as trivial as these longings may sound in the context of an expanding universe, they reduce our lives to the only things that matter to a child: acceptance and love.
They’re the only things that matter to adults, too, irrespective of time and place, but unlike the young, we develop devices of denial and restraint, as if to channel our youthful selves into hardened shells that disguise our natural inclinations. Is that Malick’s game, to suggest that our empires are mere distractions from daddy issues? In a word, yes, though it’s less a Freudian shell game than one fundamental to our sense of self. Consider one of the few bursts of dialogue you’re likely to remember, coming as it does late in the film: “Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Far from some greeting card trivia, inherent in the statement is an acceptance that love means more than hugs and kisses and play time with mother. Love is not a firm, ending place; it is acquired and lost in equal measure, in bursts and spurts, sought and dropped often without due consideration. But everything we do is measured against it, and all strivings are for that initial rush that floods the mind and heart whenever it happens to pass our way. It can be for a parent, a child, a favorite toy, or any number of places, and it only comes to mean anything because it must be given up. Most of us long for our days of carefree abandon, but what else is childhood but the drive to escape its limitations? One of the O’Brien children even asks, with all due respect, to be cast out of the home, perhaps because that might signify his own evolution into manhood. That same boy will eventually ask to go home again, wish granted.
Mr. O’Brien’s methods, harsh and unyielding as seen by these young men, are merely the residue of a life defined by ill-fitting compromise. He tells his boys to be strong, fit, and always striving to be their own men. This is meaningless, of course, because neither he nor anyone else can ever escape the pull of love. O’Brien lashes out at the personifications of his failure to live up to his childish fantasies of independence, insisting that one must appear to bend love rather than succumb to it in full, like the boys’ mother. Her belief in grace, the opposite of the father’s worldview, is seemingly the cooperation to his competition – the community to his individualism – when in fact it is as crippling as anything dredged up by his unyielding approach. The choice isn’t between grace and nature, it is the full-bodied acceptance that neither can fully encapsulate the human experience. One believes love is eternal, the other that it inhibits and restrains. Go after it, but by all means, don’t ever believe you’ve found it. At such a moment disillusionment begins. The Tree of Life, then, is a portrait of restlessness; how man’s every breath is an interrogation of his inexplicable predicament. “Someday we’ll fall down and weep,” Mr. O’Brien suggests, “And we’ll understand it all, all things.” God? Our purpose? The destiny that shapes our ends? No, but rather our limbo. That our facts and figures provide a picture, yes, but one lacking color. There is no real understanding, from birth to death, through the wars of childhood to the brutal whispers of our final days. It’s all but a dream, and our prayers – heartfelt, real, and without interruption – go ultimately unanswered. As we cry to our fathers and Gods in turn, one always the other, our walks must be in solitude; surrounded, yes, but always alone.