Design for Living
Michael Koresky on The Tree of Life

After a first viewing of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the only response can be an ecstatic litany of the tiny, seemingly mundane moments that holistically create its world. A toddler gazing upon his infant brother for the first time, eyes full with wonder. That same older brother then angrily throwing his toy blocks, presumably in a fit of jealousy. Water purposely spilled on a brother’s painting. A woman’s slip stolen and sent downstream. A sudden cutaway of a burning house followed by a shot of the back of a child’s raw, singed head. A childhood home glimpsed from the rear of a car driving its inhabitants away from it forever. The more one catalogues what happens, however, the more it begins to feel wrong; as though it’s somehow against the grain of the film to separate these images (and our memories of what we’ve seen onscreen) with periods. These are not staccato moments, nor are they even scenes in any traditional sense. They’re also not really even impressions—they’re too weighted with import.

Upon a second viewing of the film, one may feel the need to proselytize to others how those images, which initially seem as though they’re placed before us as a shuffled deck of cards, do indeed fit into a clear, even concise whole—a spiritual journey with clear cause-and-effect strategies. The most radical thing about Malick’s seeming non-narrative masterwork is the profound coherence of its design. It is constructed of discrete movements—it is symphonic, sometimes held aloft on a trill, other times driven in allegro motion. We feel caught in a freeze frame—of the terror, longing, nostalgia, confusion, heartbreak, and devilry of childhood—but we’re constantly being pushed forward as though to some greater understanding about this family, or ourselves, and consequently the universe. Whether we get there is in the eye of the beholder, but regardless of whether one takes Malick’s earnest plunge into the Big Questions (you know, those insignificant matters like “Why are we here?”) as rewardingly impenetrable or as just, well, hokum, there’s no denying that the way this artist and his collaborators have evoked our world—through framing and lighting, editing, music, performance, art direction—is nothing short of miraculous: a work of almost constant rapture and simmering dread, in which every fleeting gesture seems burdened with the weight of existence.

Catch them if you can—like the butterfly that briefly alights on the tip of the mother’s hand, these moments are here and then gone. It’s implied that they’re the products of memory—that of rumpled suit Jack (Sean Penn), gazing out at a forest of modern architecture from his high-rise office building, his recollections stirred by the memory of a younger brother who died too young. How odd it is to see Malick’s take on the contemporary cityscape—though shot with grandiloquent curiosity rather than Kubrickian menace, these images of sleek urban anomie are enough to make us come running back to the swaying grasses, mighty oaks, and gently flowing rivers of the Malick we love. Yet as much as the film is shaped as something of a reminiscence of youth—albeit one with none of the generic trademarks one would expect from such a film—its point of view is much larger than one man’s. Malick's first legible image is a close-up of a child’s face peering out from a window; fascinatingly, it’s not Jack’s, but his mother’s. In images accompanied by her voiceover delineating the film’s two stated life choices—the way of “nature” and the way of “grace,” set up as oppositional forces, though clearly not meant to tell the whole story of where we’re going—we are invited to identify with her goodness, her essence. Unlike other characters in the film (and most of us), this girl, who will grow up to marry and thus be known as Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), never loses that spiritual purity, at least in the eyes of her son; Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), on the other hand, is viewed by Jack as a corrupted being, hampered by envy and wrath, tormented by his own feelings of inadequacy. But he is not evil; she is not pure. These truths do not stop young Jack (Hunter McCracken) from wishing for his father’s death or envisioning his mother as a levitating spirit or a fairy-tale princess peacefully locked in a glass coffin. We’ve witnessed hazy cinematic views of childhood before, but none quite like this: where in films like The Thin Red Line and The New World Malick stretched time, so that moments of love or horror play out as evocations of the infinite, in The Tree of Life he collapses time, so that the entirety of an adolescence seems to be happening all at once.

Malick’s subjective evocation of a 1950s Texas boyhood is so sense-memory strong that it can’t help but seem autobiographical—for the viewer, that is. He captures every coming-of-age threshold with such a mix of mystery and naturalism that it produces almost constant shudders of recognition. After those uncanny early moments between a baby Jack and his newborn little brother (Emmanuel Lubezki’s unceasingly searching camera plunks down for a minute and trains itself on this startlingly authentic human connection), we race through years. What we watch are not the benchmarks we normally see in movies—there are no birthdays, no ballgames, no bullies to conquer. We do get an intimation of first love, but after young Jack silently follows the mysterious object of his gaze home from school, we never see her again. And there is burgeoning sexuality, but not in the form of a nudie mag lusted after by boys in a treehouse: here Jack’s Oedipal desire manifests when he breaks into his neighbor’s home, filches a sheer slip from the mother’s dresser, and, instantly guilty and desperate to dispose of the evidence, first tosses it under a pile of wood before reconsidering and throwing it in a river slipstream, where it’s carried off swiftly by the current.

Malick seems less interested in charting growth than in identifying what makes us human. Early on, in another of the director’s blink-and-miss-it moments, mom hurriedly carries little Jack away from a man (a neighbor, an uncle?) having a seizure on the front lawn. She is shielding the precious child’s eyes from the evidence of our fallibility (and therefore mortality). Later, the father clearly delineates for Jack the invisible property line between their house and their neighbor’s, laying the foundation of individual pride of ownership as much as a warning that there’s a harmful world out there. But we can only be protected for so long. They witness the drowning of a young child at the town pool. Just as traumatic, Malick shows us, along with young Jack and his brothers, a succession of the town’s marginalized and downtrodden: a lame man with two twisted legs supported by a cane, alcoholics, an angry behemoth being forced in the back of a cop car. The children’s exposure to each of these social miscreants constitutes not merely another chink in the armor of innocence but also incipient stirrings of empathy. Malick and Lubezki don’t grant these outcasts mythical Walker Evans status—the brevity of the moments makes these men flickers from the past more than concrete individuals. They all go by in a flash, but each one lingers, as they clearly do in Jack’s adult mind as well.

The more Jack is exposed to the dissolution of human purity (also known as getting older), the more he battles with his own negative impulses—not merely a confusion of whether to follow nature or grace, but how to even identify his own desires and capacities. The largely silent McCracken, his head perpetually tilted downward and diagonally, his ears stuck out haphazardly like bolts from his dark hair, conveys this inner war with more heartbreaking, authentic subtlety than most child actors are allowed—there is no cloying emoting to break the spell. At one point, he takes part in a group of boys’ murder-by-firecracker of a toad. But Jack mostly takes much of his frustration out on his younger brother, the beautiful, blonde middle child who, because of his paternal resemblance (indeed Laramie Eppler is a remarkable Brad Pitt doppelganger) and his inheritance of his father’s musical abilities, is probably favored. Adding poignancy to the brothers' relationship, it's implied—via a fleeting shot of a guitar without an owner, like Tiny Tim's discarded crutch—that this is the child who will die as a teenager. Jack intentionally ruins his brother’s watercolor painting at the kitchen table; and later, at one terrifying yet cathartic moment, enhanced by brilliant sound design, Jack makes his brother put his finger in front of his BB gun’s barrel—and fires. He’s constantly testing the limits of his goodness, but he’s hardly bad. Corrupting influences come naturally and early. Why else would toddler Jack steal a piece of dessert from his grandmother’s plate and shout with proud self-definition: “It’s mine!”?

Of course, The Tree of Life is not simply about growing up. It’s a bottomless evocation of a universe both warmly embracing and unforgivingly Darwinian. But in charting the moments when we enter that universe, as both physical beings and transcendent humans, it’s incredibly intimate: a gargantuan film about small things.

In one of his most daring gambits, Malick implicitly equates, through his graceful montage, man considering the vastness of the cosmos with a dinosaur bleeding from a mortal wound staring up at the sky. There is no response for either (the Book of Job is the film’s inciting text, as it's quoted at the preface). Some have called this a silly bit of anthropomorphism (must our movies’ prehistoric beasts only stomp around and eat humans?). The contemplativeness of this brief moment is remarkable, and many who have seen the film have different interpretations of what this dying dinosaur is thinking. For my part I saw a glimpse of Bresson’s donkey Balthazar, another animal whose inner life onscreen exists only insofar as we project onto it as sentient viewers. This gentle monster takes us back to childhood as well: as kids, our fascination with dinosaurs was based on a strange mixture of terror and empathy—the realization that these incomprehensible monsters dominated this planet, some ruthlessly looking out for their own survival, others simply existing. The tragedy would be to not empathize with this thinking creature, which we would stare at with awe in our picture books long ago. They're the mythic masters of all our childhood fantasies.