Terrence Malick invites you to get lost in his memories. I gratefully accept.
There isn’t much of a plot in The Tree of Life. A man, Jack (Sean Penn), reminisces about growing up in Texas. Most of the film takes place in his flashbacks. Like memories, the flashbacks are only coherent for a few moments at a time. Like memories, they are very specific and detailed, and they owe their importance to their emotional clarity and to what was learned.
There are deeper flashbacks that go as far back as 4.5 billion years. There is also a scene of dinosaurs, one of whom shows “grace” to another. These scenes feel self-indulgent to me, and they don’t necessarily “work” — my own pet peeve is that dinosaurs are cousins, not ancestors, and anything they do has little to say about us mammals. Nevertheless, Malick keeps the tone serious, and if nothing else these scenes add an organic trippiness more in line with the humanistic 2001: A Space Odyssey than the sociopolitical Koyaanisqatsi.
PG-13 for some thematic material
But I see what Malick is doing. He is evoking wonder at our existence. Then he’s asking us to consider that we are animals. We are unique among animals in our ability to subvert our impulses — maybe that brings us closer to God — but we are still driven by baser instincts. Jack’s mother and father (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt — both mesmerizing) embody different sides of the “grace” and “nature” divide. Mother points to the sky and says “that’s where God lives.” Jack’s earliest lesson from father is about territory — don’t cross this invisible line into Mr. McGregor’s yard.
The Tree of Life credits 5 editors. And while the best editing is invisible, you can see that Malick is trying to recreate memory, with its non-chronological jumps that nevertheless make sense. Soon after Father’s lesson on boundaries, mother teaches the same lesson by reading him Peter Rabbit. Jack learns about snakes shedding their skin, then mom tucks him in and notices he’s outgrowing his shirt. I wouldn’t be surprised if Malick shot hours and hours of moments like these precisely so he could find serendipitous arrangements in his years of editing.
The imagery of The Tree of Life is often designed to inspire awe and wonder. Whispered thoughts and prayers add a reverential tone as Jack remembers how he learned about life. Some of the more striking and poignant scenes genuinely take a child’s point of view. A drunk man walks across the street, stumbling as he goes, then a citizen with cerebral palsy crosses, walking in the same gait, and then a prisoner in shackles, also shuffling. Jack asks non-specifically, “can it happen to anyone?”. Yet we know exactly what’s going on in Jack’s head (Hunter McCracken plays Jack as a boy) as he learns about the various conditions that can afflict adults.
The film has just enough of a conflict and a story to add some momentum. At the beginning we learned that Jack’s brother died as a young man. Jack’s modern-day self seems to be having a minor breakdown as he is swept out of his steel-and-glass environment back to wooden porches and green trees. In the flashback scenes, Jack’s father becomes more violent as his stress at work increases. But the power of The Tree of Life is not in its story or its conflicts, but in its living, scattered, and specific texture.
The Tree of Life is awash in details — the smell of a baby, the sweat on colored aluminum cups, the way father grabs his son’s necks. It is awash in connections — a river walked by dinosaurs is played in by boys; father’s philosophy of self-determination is belied when he appears in court. It is awash in lessons learned — the names of things, avoiding scary dogs, the mysteries of women.
Lately I’ve caught myself looking at photos from a walking trip last year. I look at the places in Google Street View and remember the geography between my snapshots. I remember details not in any of my photos — a broken window, two pigeons lined so that they looked like a hawk, and a song that kept running through my head. I also remember my grandfather, in his last days, saying how much time he spent remembering the old days.
The Tree of Life evokes that same sweet sensation — of delving so deeply into memories that you risk getting trapped in them.