on The Tree of Life
Updated: Mar 4, 2019
Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I want to talk about it. It’s a piece of cinematic art that demands to be watched and thought about, and I personally responded to it quite strongly – though I have some critical reservations about it, as I’ll explain. Here’s what I feel about this film. Spoilers follow…
For me The Tree of Life is a flawed masterwork, but a masterwork nonetheless. This is art that aspires to the highest goals art can have. Here is an artist, some 66 years of age, examining the sum-total of his life’s emotional experience, searching deep inside himself, reflecting on his relationship with the universe, on the relationship we all have with this universe – as we go through life – searching for a redemptive idea, a reason, a why. He’s looking for God (or some kind of God-like agency) within a terminal narrative (this life, our collective lives) that appears – from any ordinary perspective – to be godless. He wants to see some sense of design, some nod that says that in the end it’s all alright. Above all he wants to feel some kind of fatherly presence. This is why the majority of the film is dedicated to Jack’s relationship with his father. I believe this is what the film is about. At least, it’s what it’s about for me. Jack’s difficult relationship with his father is a cipher for mankind’s difficult relationship with God (if God exists). I feel I should mention at this point that I am not religious (please stick with me if you are inclined to turn away at this mention of the divine). We want our fathers to be loving. Our fathers (and mothers) gave us life. But the universe is not loving. It appears random and harsh, and it ends. Our loved ones die. We die. God – Father – where are you? Why are you silent? Why are you not there? Why, why, why – why is the universe as it is? Why are we born into this mortal process, to so much pain and suffering?
And here’s what Malick does. In a manner of speaking, he answers for God. He takes us back to the beginning of time, to the beginning of the universe – in these extraordinary space sequences. The beauty of it – not just visually, but emotionally, intellectually – is staggering. There is beauty in the evolution of galaxies, worlds, of life, organisms. And there is a sense of design. There is a larger pattern – one that we don’t necessarily have the ability to see or fathom, ordinarily. Whether you’re religious or not I don’t think you can deny this, and I think Richard Dawkins would agree: the universe is extraordinary. What we see – what Malick reveals to us – is that we are part of an extraordinary symphony, taking place over billions and billions of years. There’s a great revelation in that. If you felt a sense of wonder when watching Natural History programmes – it’s the same thing, only amplified. It’s a kind of secular-religious awe. This quality, this musical strain, is also there in the suburban childhoods of Jack and his brothers. There is this transcendent beauty – fleeting moments captured by the camera, in the marriage of sound, music and image, as crafted by Malick. Sometimes (in life) we can feel this music, and are able to experience and believe in this symphonic vision of life and the universe. At other times life is dark and overwhelming, and that vision is not one we can believe in – it is not available to us. So there’s this conflict, this dialectic between the symphonic vision and a non-vision of meaninglessness and suffering, of being alone and abandoned. Heaven and Hell are two sides of the same coin. Malick uses all his craft to reflect both perspectives on our reality. And he is a brilliant, brilliant filmmaker. When he shows anguish we feel it, deeply, as if it were our own. And when he shows us beauty we absolutely soar – it’s just staggering. At the risk of hyperbole, I will go out on a limb and say that this is one of the most beautifully photographed films I have ever seen.
Then, the final sequence. This is what I object to. Malick has revealed this tension (between symphonic and godless visions). By the time we’re done with Jack’s childhood and are with him (as Sean Penn) in the present day, I believe Malick has gone as far as he should go. At this point the dialectic – the question – is unresolved, or at best only partially resolved. We have shared Malick’s symphonic vision of the universe, glimpsed the beauty that he has glimpsed. I believe there is (just) enough redemptive power in this alone. Young Jack and his father are reconciled (to a degree), but we understand that the adult Jack will continue to wrestle with God, or with the question of God – with the universe that confronts him, with the dark and light sides of the coin. His position is agnostic. And his agnosticism mirrors our own. ‘But not everyone is agnostic’. Of course. Some people, many people – billions – have faith in a God. But I would suggest that unless you are totally indoctrinated, you must experience that struggle on some level. Part of being human is to struggle with both sides of this coin – light and dark. I would argue that if you don’t wrestle with that, have never wrestled with that, then you’re ignoring it, or your vision is limited. Blind faith is not an option, at least not for me. Some people can only see the dark – can never experience the symphony, which is why The Tree of Life (and other works of art) are so vital.
Anyway. We reach this point where we have seen light and dark – have experienced both symphonic and godless, anguished visions – this point of unresolved agnosticism. And then Malick over-extends his reach. The end of the world comes (represented by a planet slowly drifting into a cosmic fire) and he presents us with a vision of the afterlife. This sequence has been rightly mocked. Sean Penn follows an angelic figure up this barren and rocky mountain-face, through some kind of ancient gate. He then arrives on this grey and windswept beach where he rejoins his family – his father, his mother, his dead brother – all unaged since his childhood. All around him other human beings are experiencing similar reunions. So at the end of time we all get to hold our loved ones – we refind each other. Our Loss is undone. It’s a religious ending (although it is much more restrained and more tempered by melancholy than the traditional Christian vision of the afterlife). I was with Malick up to this point. The rest of the film offers a balanced vision. It says ‘look at the universe like this’, ‘consider time like this’, ‘here is beauty, music’. I can accept that. I cherish it even. It’s the experience I treasure in art. But Malick’s afterlife has no basis in reality, no basis in feeling. It is based in religious faith – in blind faith. Malick has the sense that we are being looked after, that everything will be redeemed in the end. I cannot believe in the afterlife. I do believe in Loss. I see both sides of the coin, and I do not necessarily see a God. I think we get to hear that symphony, and that is all, and it is enough.