It is no surprise that a film so fixated on conveying the experience of human being so strongly subordinates language. I suspect The Tree of Life’s script of looks much different from any other. The film succeeds because it is committed in its belief that language can only obscure its purpose. Language is not absent from The Tree of Life, but it is radically deemphasized, which is unlikely to surprise anyone who has seen director Terrence Malick’s previous efforts.
In the film, words are spoken in two realms. The first is the conversational, as in the words—caring, trite, violent, mindless—spoken between persons. The Tree of Life cares least about this language, which proves the film is on to something. The only moment during which the film comes close to developing a “message” or having what we might call a “moral” occurs when Ms. O’Brien (played with seraphic delicacy by Jessica Chastain) is consoled by her mother-in-law, after Ms. O’Brien learns of her son’s death. “Life goes on.” “You have the other two.” “Time will heal you.” Keen viewers will notice that the film amplifies those words more crisply and loudly than any other conversational words in The Tree of Life. Naturally Ms. O’Brien blanches. But that is as far as Malick’s preaching goes.
Second among The Tree of Life’s realms of language is the interior. Malick builds on the technique with which he toyed in Days of Heaven and upon which he relied heavily in The Thin Red Line. These words serve several purposes. They provoke. Several characters ask an unnamed “you” where “he” is; others appeal directly to God. In fact, God is a kind of central character in The Tree of Life: He is either encompassing beyond articulation in his presence or painfully stark in his absence. It seems Malick is either a fierce believer or he fiercely desires to be one. Additionally, the film’s interior words characterize. The inner thoughts of Mr. O’Brien, patriarch of the family that receives much of the screen time, expresses the gospel of determination, of hard work, of pulling oneself up by his bootstraps, a gospel he passes to his three sons. And so the images of Mr. O’Brien’s hard and unforgiving parenting substantiate this gospel. Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien with cool precision: the possessive tug at the denouement of every embrace portends the emotional violence he visits upon his boys.
More crucially, though, the words of the interior realm exist for a disjunctive effect. Malick has used interior monologue to expose distance between a character’s mental life and the events on screen since Days of Heaven. That film’s final words strikingly disclose the priorities of the young girl who “narrates” the film. Her priorities, her thoughts, and her concerns are of a different category than the viewer’s, who has for over an hour been bathed by a lush panorama of summer in the Texas panhandle. Up to the end of Days of Heaven, the viewer is tempted to think the girl is narrating the story. So it is in The Tree of Life, yet more so. Ms. O’Brien’s interior reflection contrasting the “way of nature” and the “way of grace” will tempt viewers, particularly readers of this publication, to follow the film’s tracks for thematic elaboration on her monologue. They should resist the temptation. Ms. O’Brien may be concerned principally with grace but Malick is not, inasmuch as his aim is offended by singling out one aspect of human existence, even the most important aspect of them all, and subjecting it to the dulling effect of articulation.
So The Tree of Life has a hundred themes and it has none. It has a chronology—it literally offers a vision of the origins of the world, then a vision of a family, then a vision of an the eldest O’Brien boy as an adult overcome by angst and depression (who, appropriately, lives in Dallas), and then a vision of the end of all things—but has no single “narrative” or “story” as we define them. Malick, an interpreter of Heidegger by trade, succeeds in portraying Dasien and making this viewer more keen to it than ever, by way of the suppression of language. The Tree of Life is in one sense a montage of slowly-unfolding visions—of the explosion at the universe’s genesis, the coalescing of matter, wrestling boys, the freedom of flying, and meeting one’s lost loved one in the afterlife—all taken in by the camera with the greatest of care. It exposes a third realm, one beyond language.
A word draws its meaning from surrounding words. Its relation to a thing or idea is an arbitrary correlation, and so, as a mechanism for delivering information rather than a musical device, a word has firm limits in conveying the experience of being human. We need words to deliver information and explain events and ideas and feelings. But words as informational packages cool the steam of human experience.
By contrast, Malick’s dreamscape of image and sound effectively conveys, without trying to explain, the total and complete singularity in a billow of smoke, in the terror of a helpless animal fearful of an impending attack, in the desperation of mid-life despair, the awe of a father’s first sight of his child’s toes, the heavenly caprice of a boy’s laughter, the brightness of light, the awful ambivalence of a son relation to his unbowing father, and, amidst every experience, the awesome weight of this moment at hand right now. The characters’ interior monologues are members in this dreamscape: they are poetry, they are music, words that help express, ironically, the ultimate ineffability of being-in-the-world.
Readers of The Tree of Life reviews must wonder whether the film has a story as we understand that concept. The answer is, Yes, the film has many stories. O’Brien’s taut domination over his family is a story. The bristling rebellion of his son Jack against his father’s hand is a story. (An entire review could be written about the exquisite acting of newcomer Hunter McCracken as Jack O’Brien.) The adult Jack’s existential crisis is a story. The inauguration of the universe is a story. It is a story when a dinosaur contemplates violence against a weaker creature. The director’s vision of the end of all things is a story. Malick’s achievement is convincing his viewer of the equal importance of each of these stories. Malick tells these stories—no, he alludes to them—within his description, his evocative display, of the main story.
Opinions on this film diverge sharply. No one is bound to leave The Tree of Life on the fence. Opponents of the film will criticize its refusal to adhere to a traditional plot and Malick’s audacious decision to give sunbursts and cloud formations equal time with the family at the center—no, not quite correct—in the middle of the film. Already in The New Republic David Thomsen criticized Malick’s failure to operate with the “hidden control” of a great director and for being too “shy of delivering narrative or drama.” But of course. Malick aims to ravish his viewers with the every bittersweet and precious moment of human experience. Control, formal limits, and any other structure are bound to be the first casualties. Energetic disregard for expectations of form is the stuff from which great works of art often emerge. Malick has made a great work of art, one that evoked in me more of the whole joy and pain of human being than any other film I have seen, and perhaps any other work of art I have taken in. This film may crush your heart as it did mine.