(This is not a review of The Tree of Life. I reviewed the film for this blog three and half years ago when I was 22 and not yet a professional writer. You can read it here, but, like I said, be kind to young me and keep in mind that this particular piece is not a review but an essay on the philosophical subtext of Terrence Malick’s film.)
A child is yelled at by his father, and he doesn’t know why. A child sees men carted off by the police, and he doesn’t know why. A child sees his mother offer water and tend to criminals the same way she tends to him and his brothers, and he doesn’t know why. A child sees a girl, and he can’t look away or focus on anything else, and he doesn’t know why. A child shoots his brother through the fingertip with a BB gun after promising he wouldn’t harm him, and he doesn’t know why. A child straps a frog to a child’s rocket and fires it while other boys cheer him on, and he doesn’t know why.
A woman gets a telegram that her grown son has died, and she doesn’t know why. A woman sees her husband terrorize her children, and she doesn’t know why. A woman watches her eldest son grow from a curious and warm child into an anxious and angry adolescent, and she doesn’t know why. A man lives a life of God but loses his job, and he doesn’t know why. A man believes he does the right thing, but evil men surpass him in the world, and he doesn’t know why. A man teaches his children the hard truths of the world, but they grow to resent him, and he doesn’t know why.
The essence of life is experience. Sentience is the ability to categorize and analyze the narrative of experience. The great terrors of old age — dementia and senility at their most benign; Alzheimer’s at its worst — unnerve us because they are a living death, the loss of the experiential anchors tying us to our sub-microscopic portion of space and time itself. And that unbroken continuum of self-awareness is what makes us “us.” Without it, we’d be awash in a constant, ever-shifting horror of “pure” experience. But the price of that unbroken chain of memories and events is self-analysis: a necessary part of life to learn and move forward and attempt to find your own patch of happiness but also a briar patch of self-loathing, anxiety, and desperate yearning for a sense of order to the entropy of the universe. And in 2011’s The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick wrestles with that yearning through the most primal and intimate queries that shape our lives.
The Tree of Life is a film where describing the plot is both reductive and essential. A young boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), grows up under the competing influence of his warm and nurturing mother as well as his stern and distant father. As the boy grows older, he struggles against his own anger and destructive behavior (both towards himself and external forces) while wishing he could be his best self. And all the while, he comes to terms with the frailties and shortcomings of his parents and his hidden resentments against them.
The Tree of Life doesn’t deal in “plot points.” It’s an Eisenstein-ian montage of the marrow of life… and childhood, specifically. Wrestling with siblings. Following your first crush home. Committing the first act of your life that you truly regretted. Learning that your parents are people. Hurting those that you love. Playing “kick the can” in the streets with your friends. Understanding that what’s most terrifying in life isn’t what’s hiding in the dark but the dark itself. Watching your father do something he’s great at and comprehending the import of that greatness for the first time. Realizing that a parent is as unhappy as you because he isn’t living up to his potential.
And through it’s half-whispered narration, The Tree of Life juxtaposes experience with our need to define and make sense of that narrow band of external stimuli which is our “memory” and “lives.” The mother (Jessica Chastain) loses a son and she questions the silence of God. She is a believer in the redemptive power of God’s grace. We can rise above our base, animal urges and our capacity to hurt others through selfless love and innocence. And if we prove our faith to God through a “good” life, then we will be rewarded. But her son is dead. Why?
The father believes in order. In contrast to the mother, he sees the world as a dark and cruel place, and although you should not debase yourself to its level, you still must be tougher than this cold-hearted world to survive. There isn’t always room for warmth or affection, but if you pay this toll of life, you will be rewarded because hard work and discipline pay off in a fair universe. But at every turn, the father fails to get what he wants. His career as a musician failed. His children hate him. His job is gone. Why?
And then there is Jack. Jack is at the fragile age where he’s too young to understand philosophy but old enough to fear the places his mind takes him when left to its own devices. Although he prefers the gentle embrace of his mother, Jack begins to internalize the anger of his father. He wants to be “good,” but then he hurts his brothers and mother; he steals from a neighbor. Jack understands that what he does is “wrong” but he does it anyway. He is wracked with guilt and shame and regret, but he can’t behave otherwise. A friend dies swimming, and Jack wonders if the same fate awaits him if he continues to be “bad.” Jack wishes his father dead but admits that he is becoming more and more like him. Why?
The wisdom of The Tree of Life is not that it presents answers to our need to explain our place in the universe and why we are who we are and not someone else — although it makes intimations and hunches in certain directions — but that it understands that it is that need which adds definition to our lives. We ponder therefore we grow. We reflect therefore we worry therefore we hurt. Self-awareness is a gift and a curse, and the slow march of childhood to adulthood is an increase in self-awareness tied to a loss in innocence. And for the children with the most emotional sensitivity and the greatest exposure to life’s cruelties, those traumas represent psychic scars that shape our emotional outlook for the rest of our lives.
The Tree of Life isn’t about any specific one of life’s problems as it is how we try to rationalize and experience and categorize — often all simultaneously — suffering period. And that the worst part of life is rarely that we’ve experienced something painful but that we can’t reconcile our misfortune with the notion of a kind and caring universe. And although it’s the most mocked element of the film, The Tree of Life finds the enormity in the here and now by showing the universe from the Big Bang til the End of Time. You are here. You are now. You are a strand in the thread of the universe, and you matter, and your problems matter. You are matter that has existed since the cosmos began, and although you as an unbroken chain of experience don’t exist for long, the matter that is you will remain til the cosmos ends. And in that time that you are “you,” what happens to you is important because it’s all you’ll ever have.
And The Tree of Life braces what could have been a Herzog-esque nihilism that “existence simply is” with its commitment to the redemptive nature of love. If we exist and happiness is preferable to suffering, then we have a responsibility to care for each other. The film revels in innocence. Though the film acknowledges the occasional naivete of the mother, its happiest moments involve her playing with the children, free of the fear of the stern judgment and discipline of the father. Jack’s later resentment of his mother is not of any harm she’s done to him but of her ineffectual control over his father’s demons. Jack’s most turbulent emotions center around his capacity to hurt his youngest brother and mother, not his fears of the way the universe — most likely his father — could hurt him. The film grasps that we transmit the harms done to us back to those we care about the most.
If The Tree of Life contains any explicit answers, it is that the only hope we have for happiness is an acceptance of the external factors that shape us… that we can not hope to change the elements of ourselves that we like the least until we both accept that they are there and recognize why they exist in the first place. That if we’re asking “why” at all, then we’re already on the right track even if we’ll stumble into more suffering due to this “cure” before/if we ever see the Promised Land of mental tranquility. That even if we can never have the answers we need and if we can never know what’s coming around the next corner and why it’s coming in the first place, our need to figure it out despite that futility is what makes us human. And that maybe it will be a little easier if we love and are loved along the way.