“The ‘I’ who speaks in this story is not the author. Rather, he hopes that you might see yourself in this ‘I’ and understand this story as your own. Paradise is not a place here or there. The soul is paradise; it opens before us; here, today. The humblest things show it. We live in the eternal, even now.”
The Tree of Life is a divine journey that transcends our own planetary struggles to show the momentary struggles of a small town family. Films have repeatedly been contrived since 2001: A Space Odyssey that have prompted the discourse on an exponential universe that is impossible to interpret; various films progress the idea that humans and life is nothing in the vast universe we inhabit. Terrence Malick strays from those ideas and proposes life to be more than specks of dust; that life connects to everything in the universe since the knowable creation, using a tree as the allegory. Life needs more than thought or science to understand; it takes touch, feelings, and moments of love to connect to the system of the universe. Humans consciously only get one chance to achieve this spiritual nirvana of interhuman connections, recognized as love and compassion. The Tree of Life is a parable to display the proper way to treat other humans through the use of demonstrating ethical crimes of the past, and how the chain of oppression manifests within the individual and the scars it leaves for the future.
First some backstory on the most mysterious director-writer working today. Terrence Malick was raised in Waco, Texas in the fifties, which became the setting of The Tree of Life. He grew up with Christian parents and attended an Episcopal school in Austin; later he studied philosophy at Harvard and went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He never ended up getting his doctorate in consequence to a dispute with his tutor on his thesis on the concept of the world. He ended up teaching philosophy at MIT and wrote freelance articles for Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Life. Though coming from a religious family, Malick certainly displayed a willingness to study life beyond the Christian faith in order to understand how the world works. In one way or another, that’s what this film tried to study.
The Tree of Life begins in a world closed off from nature. Tall buildings and uniform employees; this is not natural. The privileged first world collectively achieved this fake-city-nature through repression of the real. The main character, Jack, is an adult trapped in this world and through the film understands how to escape. He wakes up one morning and feels some phantom pain which the audience at first does not understand. He is starting to feel the deceit of the unnatural world. His thoughts and the images on screen guide the audience to his younger brother’s death years ago; he died at the age of nineteen. Waves of nostalgia punches Jack and renders a pain indescribable with vain attempts to overcome his arduous countenance. We see through prolonged flashbacks that Jack’s father oppressed him in his youth. In order to release the built up anxiety from this oppression, Jack commits the same crime to his younger brother. The unnatural chain of oppression is born. Jack’s father is an angry individual because of his failure of becoming a great musician and ends up settling for an engineering managerial position. He had also lost an important court case in which his patent and original idea was stolen. The father is no monster, he was cornered in the artifice like a wild animal. The cycle is created and thrives off this world and the beings inside, turning nature against itself. The way out, according to Malick, is through forgiveness, “Forgiveness is the key to reality.” By the end of the film, Jack’s father asks his son for forgiveness; its too late because Jack already spread the oppression to his younger brother. Through this realization at an older age, Jack understands the pain that he is feeling to be the unnatural world stealing his soul. Evil and sorrow can be destroyed through love and beauty. This is how the world is restored to its original glory.
The camera in this film moves in such a way to make everything seem like a dream, or even a transcendent being viewing the family in a celestial way. It flows through each scenes with no motive, almost like a subjective point of view from one of the boys.
The man behind the camera is Emmanuel Lubezki (reigning two-time Oscar winner) known for shooting: Ali, Children of Men, Gravity, and Birdman. Lubezki and Malick developed a list of shooting aspects that is followed throughout filming. They include: shoot in available natural light; shoot in backlight for continuity and depth, shoot in crosslight only after dawn or before dusk, never front light; avoid lens flares; no filters, except polarizer, no zooming, Z-axis moves instead of pans and tilts; the list goes on. The film is littered with these types of shots:
The shots give the audience a regular reminder of the sun and with that, the families place in the universe; they cannot escape simply because they are connected. It also reminds the audience that there is a bigger that always looks over us, creating the sense of a divine presence like that of God. This divineness is visible from the shots that Lubezki employs. The scenes are not introduced with wide shots, the characters do not line up on traditional geometries within the frame, and the camera follows Jack’s internal strife as if with guidance. The scenes shot at the 1956 Texas set are chiefly random. Malick was able to secure an entire block of houses to shoot through and around, giving the cast freedom to play around like a family would. The day would start with the actors told to completely ad-lib some activity in the most natural way possible, and the camera would just follow and capture what happened. These captured moments are not planned with a traditional storyboard, they follow the dogma and seldom stray from it. The camera tracks Jack’s reactions and his point-of-view through these sequences in order for the audience to understand the world through his perspective.
Throughout the film, the shots remind the viewer of the four elements:
Fire: The great creator and destroyer. In this film, it appears in the beginning of the creation of the universe sequence as being one the essential element to create the stars and galaxies. In the biblical context, it equivalently represents the fertility of God.
Water: This element is discussed later on in this analysis when I talk about the ending. This element represents femininity, purity, and cleansing. This element pervades most of the scenes in this film because of the color often associated with it: blue.
Earth: Even more than water, earth is considered the most dominant feminine element (mother nature). Its associated with fertility and the cycle of life. This film shows the sons being born up until when Jack is an adult. Even more representative in the creation of the universe sequence, which features the earth’s creation and the fertility of the planet that made life possible. The colors associated with earth is green and brown. The green is seen in most scenes by virtue of the abundant trees and plants in the neighborhood. The father wears a lot of brown, meant to represent his firmness and strength.
Air: This last element is connected with the soul and “breath of life.” Air is the great reliever to those who need conflicts to blow over and disappear. This element is not as prevalent as others, which may be because Jack is unable for the conflict to go away, the winds are not bringing him a peace of mind. Air is associated with white, which is a color Malick tried to stray away from when he made his dogma with Lubetzki. This is interesting considering the film has a lot do with with innocence, which is usually given a white cloak in biblical terms. The reason Malick wanted to avoid this color is because Jack is not pure or innocent, as evidence with his demons haunting him later in life. He was being infested with the negative energy his father bestowed upon him, which is anything but pure. Instead Malick forces the purity and innocence theme on the color blue because of waters theme of cleansing and purification. Jack needs to be purified of his sins.
These scenes remind the viewer of the way nature is inherent in everybody’s lives. We live inside of nature and nature lives inside us.
Another aspect of the film that accompanies the cinematography to endorse a transcendent viewing is the score. Alexandre Desplat (French composer known for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The King’s Speech, The Ides of March, Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game) was brought in to do his first collaboration with Terrence Malick. The sound he creates amplifies the divine quality by introducing larger than life, transcendent sounds. The strings hold notes out long notes, the piano plays soothing melodies, and the orchestra picks up throughout the sequences of oppression to heighten the drama. This chain of oppression on screen only works in this transcendent sense because of the orchestral score. Otherwise, the scene is grounded on earth and without a divine quality. The score does not feature a particular sound that becomes the ritornello or defining sequence of notes that is repeated throughout the film. This ritornello is used in repetition, multiple times throughout a film in order for the audience to identify with and be pleased each time they hear it, almost like a pop song’s repeated note patterns. The Tree of Life does not give the audience this satisfaction. The audience is not left with a ritornello, or little return, because the narrative does not make any simple returns. It is a complex film with layered feelings that should not be exposed by the score, but rather the emotions of the visual aesthetics of the cinematography and acting.
Nature v. Grace:
The off screen dialogue of Chastain sets up the idea behind the narrative of nature v. grace: “When I was young the nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which path you’ll take. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts all things. It does not mind being slighted, forgotten, disliked, insults, or injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Love shining through all things. No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” I like to think of nature and grace in terms of the Freudian Id and the Ego. The nature or id is the primeval way of life of following the bestial instincts of staying alive and populating the earth. These instincts are natural to every living thing on the planet: plants, animals, humans, etc. Grace or ego describes the more celestial qualities within a person, including love, compassion, reasoning, etc. These are the conditions that connect every form of life to the community and space they live. In the sequence of events showing the formation of the universe, a dinosaur is lying helplessly on the ground while one other approaches. The latter dinosaur steps on the helpless dinosaur’s face in the form of dominance, the id, or beastial instinct. But then it releases and runs away leaving the other dinosaur to live. This is Malick’s form of showing the early interaction between nature and grace. The compassion that the dinosaur felt that made it leave is the grace or ego overcoming the nature or id that would have killed the helpless dinosaur. This form of nature and grace takes place within Jack and his father. The father shows no grace until after the fact, and so does Jack towards his younger brother.
The final sequence with the family on the beach reminds me off Fellini’s final scene from 8½. In both, the central character is visited in a surreal setting of the people they remember from the past. The setting is something of a dream state projected to the audience to show the character’s inner thoughts. The difference between the two is the setting: The Tree of Life takes places on a beach and 8½ takes place on an expansive field. 8½ features the main character directing all of the characters in a line with a carnival setting; The Tree of Life shows older Jack interacting with his 1956 family with his brother still alive. Jack’s thoughts are at this moment in time specifically because he is remembering the loss of his brother, which triggers the remorse he feels for how he treated him back when they were kids. He feels a wave of nostalgia when looking into the eyes of his loving mother and embracing her, hugging his younger brother, watching his mother embrace her brother, and looking on his father with a certain reconciliation. These are the moments Jack wants to remember. These early memories of the innocence of youth is what everybody wants to remember; a certain carpe diem theme resonates here.
Its also important to note the final scene happening at the beach. Symbolically, the sea represents where all of humanity was originated. By returning there with thoughts of forgiveness of compassion, Malick could be arguing for the purity of these traits in being the fundamental units of life. Water is also a “feminine energy” in common folklore, which shows in Jack’s gaze being directed toward his mother during this final scene. In Catholicism, holy water plays a great part for prayers and rituals. Malick no doubt wanted to show this final scene in seawater because it happens to be the most pure holy water (which is just salt added to water) because of its production in nature. He’s going for the religious purification theme (not to mention the soundtrack featuring a church chorus singing); the father’s sins against Jack being purified by forgiveness, and Jack being purified in this final scene of surrealism.
There is a lingering Oedipus nature throughout the narrative. This theory was coined by Freud in his 1900 book, The Interpretation of Dreams. The Complex was taken from the Sophocles play, Oedipus Rex, in which a prophet claims that the King’s son will kill him and have sex with his wife; and that is what ends up happening. Freud claims that this is fundamentally how all humans develop their id in conjunction with the super ego in the creation of their ego. This oedipal desire pervades many different stories once you begin to notice it; most visibly it is what drives Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In terms of The Tree of Life, there is a scene in which young Jack steals a piece of his mother’s garment and throws it in the river in confusion. He’s confused because the oedipal desire (unknown to him) is controlling him. This desire of the mother is prominently featured in two particular scenes: first with Chastain suspended in air and in the final sequence on the beach. The former scene shows the mother floating like an angel, which makes sense if we are perceiving the narrative from a subjective/subconscious view of Jack, specifically relating to his oedipal desire. The final scene shows the mother, dressed in blue, and her transfer of desire to another woman. This is the sequence in which Chastain and some woman are shot in a closeup against a blown out background with Chastain directly in front of the other. Chastain even mutters, “I give him to you.” Meaning, Jack’s desire for his mother is shattered and attached onto this other woman, who probably turns out to be Jack’s future wife, considering this scene is a flashback from Jack at an older age. The oedipal desire goes even further when considering Jack’s relationship with his father. Jack feels a hatred towards his father, but doesn’t go as far as to kill him, and later shows his forgiveness on the beach.
One answer this film gives about the question of life is love. Love is the intrinsic unit of life that we should all stride towards; it wastes time not to. Love is the one thing in life that transcends space and time; it goes beyond the limits of the known universe and reaches an almost god-like position or higher dimension. The Tree of Life shows the audience what it looks like when discipline stifles love. This absence follows the children through life and develops this hidden pain in the future. A pain so inherent that we only try to suppress it instead of find the cause. Malick is looking for that cause by examining the history of the universe and our relation within the unknown. And that’s what life is: largely unknown.