In 1836, the American poet/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson anonymously published his first essay, Nature, laying out the foundations of his burgeoning belief system, transcendentalism, an attempt to define spirituality or religiosity in a way that accounted for the findings of science and natural history. He posited the idea that nature, action and a ‘mind towards the past’ were fundamental elements of human growth and expressed a sense of men as ‘gods in ruin’, in possession of the power to establish a modern, non-doctrinal spirituality, finally calling on them in its closing paragraph to ‘build their own worlds’ :
“So we shall look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect… …What is truth? …What is good? …Build therefore your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions…”
Terrence Malick’s films have always shared common ground with a later transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden initiated an environmental philosophy that centred on the elemental power of nature and man’s relationship to it. His fifth film proves no exception, but here Malick appears to have taken Emerson at his word, applying the writer’s revolutionary call to the wonder that is The Tree of Life, a film that mirrors, refracts and prismatically illuminates fragments of life on earth from the microscopically intimate to the monumentally universal, and in this culmination of the development of his signature cinematic language, Malick has built his own world, and we can only but examine it with new eyes.
The conflict between the natural and the spiritual worlds proved a difficult tenet for reconciliation for those first transcendentalists, with Emerson himself arguing against the absolute authority of the Unitarian view of the Bible in favour of a ‘natural supernaturalism’, in which both human beings and nature itself possess a capacity for creation and destruction previously solely attributable to a singular deity :
“Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs.”
It’s a philosophical position taken by Malick in The Tree of Life, Emerson’s idea of a ‘modern, non-doctrinal’ spirituality that searches to reconcile facets of a traditional Judaeo-Christian belief system with a sense of wonder at the creative power of nature, one in which those questions answered by science and Darwinism can co-exist with those beyond our ability to comprehend.
In his 1972 book, Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader used the likes of Dreyer's Ordet (1955) and Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) to make his case for transcendentalism as a critical filmmaking theory. Describing a common 'holy agony' of such films' protagonists that upsets or questions the status quo, their positioning as a kind of spiritual vessel culminates in an act of wonder (such as the resurrection of Inger in Ordet) which Schrader terms the 'Wholly Other'. Concluding with a moment of total stasis, 'a still re-view of the external world intended to suggest the one-ness of all things', this cinematic transcendentalism ultimately serves to bind the universal inextricably to the intimate.
Likening its structural form to a series of symphonic movements, The Tree of Life begins with the announcement of said ‘holy agony’, as the O’Brien parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) learn of the death of one of their sons. We learn nothing more of what happened to him, but a passing reference later to his having died aged nineteen places his death at the same time as the start of the war in Vietnam. It’s an event that ripples through time as we’re introduced to the boy’s older brother Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), wandering silently and listlessly through the towering steel and glass structures of modern-day Houston, his mind drifting back to his 50s childhood, the quintessence of Emerson’s ‘god in ruins’ and Schrader’s ‘spiritual vessel’, searching for answers to his future through the Proustian recall of his past.
Stitching together sounds and images like a patchwork quilt of dreams, Malick rewrites the rules on how narrative and exposition are delivered. It felt like at least forty minutes before two characters on screen engaged in dialogue in the traditional sense, as the film eventually settles in a pitch-perfect evocation of 50s Americana to tell the bulk of its tale. Information is delivered predominantly through images; some cut from the fabric of dreams (Chastain floating ethereally through the back-yard) others from that of nightmares (a giant man looms over one of the boys riding his tricycle around the attic of the house), Malick’s exquisite visuals main-line emotion, stripping away the extraneous to allow us to find our own meaning in the fragmentary ruminations of the family as they attempt to make sense of their place in the world.
“I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the universal being circulate through me.”
- Emerson, Nature
The ‘Wholly Other’ is magisterially conjured in an extended sequence which takes us from the birth of the universe to its ultimate fate billions of years hence, taking in the Proterozoic Eon and the reign of the dinosaurs. Malick finds his transcendental miracle not administered by the hand of god, but by that of nature, visions of the birth and death of the sun, the tiny foot of a new-born baby, a dying dinosaur craning its neck towards an approaching predator, all simultaneously the root and bud of the tree of life. As Jack’s cosmic contemplations lead him back to his childhood, the title resonates in another way, presenting his parents as opposing archetypes, grace and nature, both branches of the same tree and the components of his adult self he seeks to reconcile.
“I’m like you, you know. I’m not like her.”
Pitt delivers the performance of his career as the strict disciplinarian Mr O’Brien, administering life lessons to his sons with a firm hand and quick temper. A man of broken dreams, hopelessly filing patents for big ideas and playing the organ at his local church after a failed attempt at a career as a musician, he determines to instruct his kids on the right path through life, the only one he knows. His connection to the earth, seen as he lovingly tends his vegetable garden and plants a tree in the middle of the yard, meet its antithesis in his wife; the very embodiment of love and spirituality. Mrs O’Brien points to the sky, telling her children ‘that’s where God lives’ and Jack tells us it was through her that he first heard God’s voice. Where their father looks to the ground, to reality for his answers, their mother casts her questions towards the heavens, asking “Who are we to you?” after the death of her son, much like Job, from whose book the film opens with a quotation.
“There are two ways in life, nature and grace. You have to choose…”
“Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
As much as anything else, The Tree of Life is a story of a childhood remembered, and the three non-actors cast as the O’Brien boys are a revelation. There’s no acting, just truthful reaction to their environment and each other. We see their world through their eyes, as Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera joins in their games, every flicker of emotion is heart-wrenchingly captured and tiny moments are elevated to the level of high drama, all the more so when Jack begins to struggle with the opposing forces inherited from his parents.
Much like Emerson and Thoreau, fighting conformity with their questions and ideas, The Tree of Life doesn’t profess to provide any answers. As Jack is led through the purgatorial desert by his younger self near the film’s transcendent final sequence, heading towards his own spiritual reconciliation, his chosen path remains unclear. What is abundantly clear however, is that in setting out to ask the most personal and profound questions of human nature, God and the universe, Terrence Malick turns the mirror on us as well, and we can only speak for ourselves of what we see reflected in his masterpiece.
Tree of Life – 2011 – USA – 138 mins – Dir : Terrence Malick