The Maddening Return of Terrence Malick

The Tree of Life is maddening, exhilarating, gorgeous, ponderous, insightful, pretentious, epic, shallow, beautiful, and strange — essentially the apotheosis of Terrence Malick’s entire career. It will divide audiences like few films have in recent years.

The movie, which exists as a metaphysical meditation and a lyrical poem, focuses – at a microcosmic level – on the story of Jack, a jaded, middle aged man (played by Sean Penn) scarred by the memories of his stern upbringing by his father (Brad Pitt), as well as the untimely death of his younger brother.

Like all Malick movies, however, the plot is simply window dressing for the grand philosophical questions the director has been chasing for nearly four decades: the struggle between nature and grace, the duality of man, the meaning of life, and a sense of understanding and reconciliation amidst the chaos and suffering of it all.

While the film makes several missteps and is saddled with an inelegant conclusion, the sheer audacity and vision of a director willing to tackle these weighty metaphysical questions in such an unconventional, non-mainstream manner must be applauded.

The Tree of Life opens and closes with a shot of a beautiful, unearthly light that could very well represent the light of “God.” It then proceeds with a Biblical quote from Job, the prophet whose righteousness was tested through suffering. Would Job renounce God if He was to test him with calamity, or would he remain true and steadfast in his conviction?

The calamity in this case is the tragic death of Jack’s younger brother, who died in combat at the age 19 many years ago. Through several voiceovers ? the primary dialogue in a movie that communicates mostly through images ? we hear characters’ hushed prayers, laments and frustrated questions to an omnipresent (but distant) God.

In response to her son’s death, the mother asks and prays, “Why?”

Malick’s visual answer to her question is undoubtedly one of The Tree of Life’s most audacious and confounding sequences, itself a throwback to that other frustrating, brilliant visionary recluse, Stanley Kubrick, and his masterpiece 2001. The audience embarks on a gorgeous, wordless cinematic tour of the history of creation, from the majestic beauty of the cosmos to the violence of the Big Bang to the first stirrings of life in the primordial soup to dinosaurs walking the Earth to a small asteroid colliding with the planet.

The random death of one young man seems trivial when measured against the balance of time, space, evolution and origin of life.

Yet, it is also a random act of violence, a fortuitous eruption, that somehow inspired the entirety of creation on Earth.

Malick, a deeply spiritual and thoughtful man who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, reflects on the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things, no matter how miniscule or magnificent. The death of a brother lingers profoundly in the life of his emotionally damaged sibling just as the Big Bang reverberates throughout the cosmos, and a relatively small meteorite crash instigates a cataclysmic ripple of death for the dinosaurs.

This belabored, but nonetheless fascinating, rumination on the duality and interconnectedness of life is further engendered in Jack by his mother, played by an ethereal Jessica Chastain, who teaches her children that there are two ways through life: the way of grace or the way of nature. The former, personified by the mother, loves unconditionally and accepts suffering and humiliation, while the latter, personified by Pitt, seeks only to please itself, have others please it, and finds reasons to be unhappy despite being surrounded by blessings.

In his National Geographic segment, Malick visits this theme during the age of the CGI dinosaurs. A large dinosaur, upon witnessing a smaller, wounded animal, triumphantly and inexplicably plants his foot on its head. In the grand scheme of life, per Malick, nature’s brute strength and cruelty are embedded in our very DNA.

A majority of the film centers on Jack’s childhood relationship with his parents and two younger siblings.  Brad Pitt, with his tense, square jaw and simmering intensity, conveys an imposing presence in the lives of the children as a bitter disciplinarian who values power and strength as a means to success.

Despite having a stable job and a beautiful family, Pitt is envious of his neighbors’ wealth and his perceived lack of stature. He chases patents for his designs only to fail each and every time. He fancies himself a skilled musician, and laments walking away from his passion presumably to raise his children. He chides his wife’s na?ve outlook in life and tells Jack that her compassion and selflessness are a weakness. He demands the respect in his home that he feels eluded him in life.

Credit goes to both Pitt and Malick for creating an entirely believable, American father whose behavior, although appearing careless and cruel, stems from a deep love and profound desire to protect his children from a harsh universe. However, in doing so, he fails to see the immense emotional scar tissue he leaves behind.

Jack inherits the brunt of this psychological trauma, and is perpetually torn in an internal struggle between his mother’s generous “grace” and his father’s brute “nature.”  To become his father’s son, he lashes out with violence against a neighbor’s property, and later against his younger brother, who we assume was favored by the father due to his artistic and musical talents.

The movie spends only a few, fleeting minutes with the adult Jack. Although he is now a successful architect, we realize he is a lost soul in this urban jungle of imposing skyscrapers, frenetic motion and cacophonous noise (only Malick can get away with a 15 second shot of a flock of birds dancing in between tall buildings.) Through impressionistic images, we assume this distance has affected his marriage as well. On the anniversary of his brother’s death, Jack reflects on his idyllic past spent playing with his two brothers.

If this sounds like pretentious and heavy metaphysical questions for a simple adolescent, well, it is. Malick routinely sacrifices the personalities of his characters to the altar of his own spiritual and philosophical musings. For example, the multiple characters in The Thin Red Line — with their numerous voiceovers and divergent storylines — eventually all merged into Malick’s over-arching dialogue/meditation with nature and God.

In the same vein, there really isn’t too much of a plot in The Tree of Life. Instead, Malick seems more interested in creating an evolving sense of time, emotion, feeling and meditation. And he is mostly successful in this captivating and intermittently frustrating endeavor until the final reel, when his thematic reach simply becomes too ambitious, and the narrative begins to buckle under the ponderous weight of it all.


I can only assume that the ending is a metaphorical journey in which Jack embarks on a spiritual walkabout in a time and space which lies at the “end of time and space.” This can be represented by Armageddon, Death, or purely a symbolic personal journey.

As he walks along the surface of an empty, rocky terrain, he sees his younger self, who goads him to follow along. Then, he sees a woman draped in white, who we can only assume is an angel.

Then, an open doorway appears on the terrain: it seems to be the portal between life and death; the divine and the human; the spiritual and corporeal. He walks through.

Now, he is on a beach right where the water reaches the land.

This is a reunion of the spirits and Jack meets his mother, father and brothers. The reconciliation of the family and their subsequent hugs and tears evokes a sentiment of forgiveness, acceptance and unconditional love.

We then see shots of the mother, draped in white, surrounded by two, ethereal women (angels?). The mother clasps her palms together, raises her hands as if in a prayer, and says to God: “I give you my son.”

There are multiple ways of interpreting this final piece of dialogue. Perhaps, like Job, she chose to bear her suffering and, instead of cursing God, accepted the death of her son as His will, thereby achieving Divine Grace and healing. Another interpretation could be that Malick is pounding us over the head with the “Christ is the Son of God, and the Savior of humanity” metaphor.

Another interpretation still could coincide with the film’s final images, with the adult Jack walking out of his office skyscraper with a relieved smile on his face, choosing to re-engage with life. Perhaps, either in prayer or in sacrifice, the Mother is offering her son to both God and the world as a man finally whole and redeemed; one who finally walks that balance between nature and grace, anger and love, past and present, despair and hope; and the earthly and the spiritual.

Before ending on the shot of a heavenly orb of light, the camera lingers on a modern bridge hovering over shimmering water on a beautiful day.

It is an apt visual metaphor that marks The Tree of Life as the culmination of Malick’s decades-long spiritual cinematic journey.

Wajahat Ali is a playwright, journalist and attorney, whose play, The Domestic Crusaders, will be published by McSweeney’s in December, 2010. He is consulting Voice of Witness on their forthcoming book of post-9/11 oral histories. He blogs at Goatmilk.




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