The Tree of Life (12A)
Thea Euryphaessa reviews Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner, The Tree of Life
“Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.” — Robert Frost
Terrence Malick’s movies have a history of testing my patience and this one was no different. It was only the sheer beauty of the cinematography in ‘The Thin Red Line’ and the achingly gorgeous Jim Caviezel in the lead role that stopped me walking out after the first half hour. This time, however, where I persevered, others gave up the ghost and left. It was the unashamedly Kubrickian and oft baffling imagery of the universe, including numerous shots of nebulae and big bangs, followed by dinosaurs apparently toying with the idea of morality that pushed several members of the audience over the edge — a scene which, in my opinion, rambled on a tad too long.
But, then, this is a director who’s grappling with the issue of Life with a capital ‘L’. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Malick has studied Carl Jung’s ‘Answer to Job’ which addresses the moral, mythological, and psychological implications of Job’s relationship with God; particularly as the movie opens with a quote from The Book of Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38:4,7)
And it’s this quote, together with the title itself, which underscores the entire film. Thing is, as a student of depth psychology, I’m familiar with Jung’s discourse of Job. I’m also familiar with metaphor and archetypal symbolism — which is a good job really, as Malick spends much of this film employing metaphors as a means of amplifying his core message.
If you like your movies to be coherent, with a linear narrative that have a beginning, a middle, and an end, steer well clear of this offering. Why? Because it spirals, backtracks, and seems to do whatever the hell it pleases. This is a movie that speaks to the circuitous, non-linear nature of the psyche, bypassing the rational, logical conscious mind. Like any good art, it’s about standing back and absorbing it as a whole while allowing the themes to wash over you. Whether or not it succeeds in making itself ‘transparent to the transcendent’ is another matter — but it’s not for lack of trying.
The movie focuses on a middle-aged Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), reflecting back on his childhood and growing up with his brothers in 1950s Texas, with his authoritarian father, Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his ethereal, angelic mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). The movie opens with Mrs O’Brien receiving a telegram that one of her teenage sons has died, followed immediately by Mr O’Brien also receiving the news. When a tree is planted outside Jack’s place of work, it acts as the springboard for his childhood reminiscence. From then on, the movie flits back and forth between the present day and his childhood memories.
We also learn early on, thanks to whispered voiceovers, that human beings are essentially torn between grace (divinity) and nature (ego will), with Mr O’Brien personifying the demanding, brusque nature of will and Mrs O’Brien the softer, ‘naive’ face of grace (in Mr O’Brien’s opinion). Their children are caught between these two polarised perspectives, while ongoing voiceovers provided by family members, past and present, pose various existential questions which the issues of grief and bereavement tend to throw into sharp relief.
Malick deftly touches on a wide range of psychological issues including a beautifully handled depiction of the Oedipal complex (watch for when Jack’s character breaks into a house, steals a nightdress, followed by him watching his mother waft around in her nightdress and then wanting to kill his father). His moments of brilliance for me, however, are when he opts to employ a symbol rather than narrative. This is a director who believes his audience to be far more intelligent than most and doesn’t believe they need everything spelled out to them in order to ensure understanding. His simple use of a bridge to consolidate Mrs O’Brien’s statement in the final scene is a stroke of understated genius.
I’m not going to wax lyrical and say this movie’s a masterpiece — it veers unnecessarily into pompous and grandiose territory on more than one occasion — but it’s certainly visionary, evocative, and thoughtful. Few directors would have the guts to bring such existential subjects to the big screen in an epic, unapologetic manner. And it’s for this reason alone I recommend you suspend your critical disbelief for a couple of hours and allow yourself to be immersed in the themes this movie so engagingly and poetically presents.
To buy a copy of Running into Myself, visit Amazon UK, Amazon US or, better still, order a limited edition signed copy direct from her publisher here (also ships worldwide). Also available to download on Kindle.
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