Trying to scale The Tree of Life is a flawed exercise. My guess is there is no true way to map its many mysteries ? not even if you could sit down with the notoriously elusive filmmaker Terrence Malick and have him explain his concept behind every moment.
That’s because they’d still be his concepts.
The writer-director specifically marks his own intentions as irrelevant and builds that into the film as a kind of escape clause for interpretation: At one point, Brad Pitt’s strict 1950s-era Texas father is instructing his three sons on the definition of ”subjectivity.” It’s just one of many free-associative memories that swirl to the screen in this movie, which is about life, death, the universe, and, let?s just say, everything.
But whose memory is it?
TIME TRAVELING, SORT OF
I think the memory belongs to the main character, Jack O?Brien, played as an adult by Sean Penn and as a child by several young actors, most notably Hunter McCracken. If you haven’t caught it yet, the movie is told the way we remember our own lives — in flashes and snippets, mostly unburdened by chronological order, and sometimes inexplicable. Other parts of the movie are pure symbolism: the afterlife, birth, death — represented through metaphor. And finally, the whole story of this suburban family is contrasted with a vast depiction of the origins of space, time, and life on planet Earth.
Malick pulls the camera way, way, way, way back to the start of the universe, and then zooms in on the O’Briens, allowing us to see them (and ourselves) as the blips on the space-time continuum that we are. Important, meaningful… yes, but still blips.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
The movie’s big question may be that biggest of all questions: What does it all mean? But anyone who walks out of this film thinking they know the answer is fronting hardcore. Even the events we see transpiring right in front of our eyes on screen are sometimes difficult to understand on a first viewing. I’m guessing on my third viewing, I?ll have a few more answers — and probably a few more questions, too.
One early shot in the film is of the boys playing in their street, but the camera is upside down and focused only on their reflections cast by the sunset. It reminded me a little of Plato’s cave, the ancient Greek philosopher?s notion that most people?s perception of reality is equivalent to watching shadows on a cavern wall. The movie is the character?s effort to look beyond the shadow at what creates it, what creates him.
And this post? This is an attempt to look beyond the shadows on the screen and figure them out. It’s just one guy’s take. Subjectivity, remember? Maybe I can sprinkle a few bread crumbs for others — you know, Doc Jensen-style — or maybe I’ll lead you right into a dead end.
And if you haven’t seen the film, which opened May 27 in New York and Los Angeles, and expands slowly across the country through July, well, be warned — SPOILERS ABOUND, though not the traditional Bruce-Willis-Was-Dead-The-Whole-Time kind.
All right, here goes…
The first thing that struck me on a repeat viewing of the movie was what Brad Pitt’s aging father character is doing in one of the first scenes he shares with the mother, played by Jessica Chastain. He stands in the yard, clutching a hose in the middle, kinking the flow off. Something terrible has just happened to them. So okay, let me explain why this seemed noteworthy the second time I saw it…
The movie opens with them learning about the death of their middle son (played by mini-Pitt look-alike Laramie Eppler). It’s later in their lives, much later than what the majority of the movie dwells on, and we find out the boy — R.L. — has died at age 19. From what, we don’t know, though the age and the approximate time period suggest he died the way many 19-year-old boys did in the late ’60s/early ’70s — in Vietnam. The news is delivered via telegram, which is also the way many families found out their sons had died in combat.
It’s one of the miracles of this movie that nearly everyone who has seen it deduces that’s how he died, though we never get any confirmation. We really don’t even learn right away that he’s dead. She reads the telegram, begins to sob, mentions her son — and calls the father, who is away on business at an airstrip, plugging his ear to hear over the phone what the audience does not. ”What?” he says, several times, though we don’t hear that either. (It’s easy lipreading.)
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
Again, we don’t explicitly learn that a death has occurred. The next scene is Pitt and Chastain together, doing what they did a lot of as a young family — hanging out in their yard, walking the neighborhood.
We hear her say in voice-over that she wants to die, to be with her son — which is as plain as the movie makes it. And this is where I noticed Pitt’s character doing something that helps explain his personality, though it’s easy to overlook.
He’s shooing away neighbors, telling them he and his wife are all right, they?re just fine. Chastain is pouring her heart out to an older woman (Fiona Shaw) playing either her mother, or her mother-in-law, or possibly just a kindly aunt or neighbor. (She turns up in flashes in some of the memories, so she?s clearly a matriarchal figure of some sort.) She offers some pale comfort while the mother of a lost son weeps.
What does Pitt do? He stands by, clutching a hose — but it’s what he’s doing with the hose that is noteworthy. The water is running, but it’s not flowing out. He has it bent in half, kinked shut. Symbolic? Of course! His wife clearly needs some comfort, but he has pinched his emotions shut just as surely as he has the flow of water from that hose.
WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE
As the rest of the movie plays out, we see that most of his conflict with the sons occurred over the lawn — had the boys done their yard work? (He didn’t think so.) And many hard scenes of scolding the oldest boy, Jack, took place over the bare patches in the yard — an outlet for the father’s own pent-up hostilities.
In another sequence, the father is sharing a rare moment of joy with his boys. What’s he doing? Spraying them playfully with that hose.
Near the end (of the movie, but many years before the scene with the kinked hose) when the father is truly laid low by failure, he has a heart-to-heart with Jack, apologizing for his harshness, saying he isn’t proud of it, and explaining why he wanted to make the boy tough. In that scene, the only one where he truly lets his feelings out, the hose is also present, hooked up to a sprinkler that is gushing, sending a plume of water into the air, and scattering it wide.
SHOWER OF LOVE?
When I see The Tree of Life again, I think I’ll watch the use of water a little more closely. When does the father spill it, and when does he hold it back? In the times he erupts in anger at the dinner table, it’s usually after pouring a glass. Water may turn out to be the father’s tell, a peek inside his deeply suppressed emotions.
And it also reveals something about the boy who becomes a man. The first images we have of adult Jack are of Penn waking up, going to his faucet, turning on the water to full flow and running his hand underneath.
Not only that, but in moments of extreme emotion, Malick flashes to images of a powerful, crashing waterfall. A little obvious? Maybe. But in a movie about life, what better to stand in for the emotions we keep secret than water, without which this world would be as barren as its neighbors in the solar system?
So what’s the mother’s tell, the small key to understanding her?
It’s clear from her opening narration, presented in the trailer for the movie too, that Malick is using the father and mother to explore the ideas of ”nature” — that is, the philosophy of the brutal survival of the fittest — and ”grace,” the choice to be merciful, gentle, and nurturing. The father is ”nature,” and the mother is ”grace,” though each depends on the other, and I’d say they simultaneously crave and loathe each other’s qualities.
The very first shots of The Tree of Life are of a barn door opening, and a very young girl pushing through to find and cradle a tiny baby goat. Who is she? The movie holds back identification, though my guess from the freckles and ginger hair is that this is the mother as a child. We only see the father as a grown man, but Malick allows us to see the mother as a girl, and I think it informs how we see her the rest of the movie.
THE GIRL WITHIN
On screen for most of The Tree of Life, it’s the beautiful, very womanly Jessica Chastain — but I think Malick plants the thought in our mind with those early shots of the little redheaded girl that the mother is still very much a child. When we see her frolicking with her boys — flying back and forth on a tree swing, being chased around the house by her boys with a lizard, and sitting helplessly at the dining room table as her husband rages at the family… we’re still kind of seeing that little girl.
By not specifying who the girl from the barn actually is, by leaving that question open, Malick creates a vacuum. We want an answer, and fill in the blank with the mother because of the physical similarities. It’s a way to subtly position us to see her in a certain way, without explicitly judging her. The father is someone who squeezes shut the pressures inside himself, building to bursts and explosions, while she’s harmless, and helpless, and as innocent as Mary with her little lamb (well, little goat).
The movie’s very first image is what some people are calling ”the flame,” though it looks to me more like light refracted through water — a hazy, flowing glow. (No available picture, sorry. Instead, this canyon shot, which kind of parallels its shape.)
What is this glow? We hear the voice of a boy when we see it (I think it’s Jack, the eldest) saying ”mother” and ”brother” in a prayer-like intonation. This shapelessness appears periodically through the film, usually when there is a major transition — the opening, the final shot, the switch from the news of the death of the boy to a flashback of epochal proportions: the very origin of the universe.
I’ve read some theories that this flame is supposed to be the Creator — call it God if you like, or think of it any other way. But my theory is that it’s the soul — Jack’s soul specifically.
Remember the bit about subjectivity? Well, I think Malick is giving us license there to interpret everything as we see fit, but the entire focus of the movie is told from one subjective perspective: Jack’s. Even the flashes of his mother as a little girl.. Can’t you imagine your mother as a child, though none of us were alive then? (It fits with the idea, by the way, that we’re supposed to think of her that way if it’s how her son does too.) But there’s another possibility, too.
AN ORIGIN STORY?
We see the ”flame” — or soul — image again when Malick begins his long flashback to the Big Bang, the origin of galaxies, and the formation of the earth. All things Jack couldn’t witness, of course, unless…
Well, it’s the soul, right? Removed from earthly ken. Maybe it CAN see all those things, and the mother as a child, and everything else. I think the entirety of The Tree of Life is not ”adult Jack” reflecting on his life, but Jack’s soul reflecting on its place in existence, looking beyond the shadows of Plato’s cave. This includes the very strange beach scene at the end, taken by many to be heaven.
Could the flame be God? All options are on the table, but as I said, I think it’s Jack’s spirit. Perhaps God turns up elsewhere in the film. (More on that later.)
THE 'LAND BEFORE TIME' MOMENT
Probably the biggest ”What the hell?” moment of the movie is the short scene of dinosaurs. Not only are there dinosaurs in this movie, which is ostensibly about a suburban Texas family in the 1950s, but… well, what transpires between two of these creatures. Their interaction is just as peculiar as their presence.
So we see the galaxy forming, the sun, the earth emerges from the haze. Then things start to bubble and boil. Bacteria form, then we see some jellyfish — as simple as a multicelled life-form can get — and then a soft, pink axolotl swims along (a modern animal that looks like one of nature’s prototypes) and assorted other certified Weirdos of the Deep, indicating that life on Earth is chugging along nicely. Then a lovely shot of the lapping surf turns to reveal a massive dinosaur of the Loch Ness Monster variety, perhaps an elasmosaurus, which has pushed up onto the land despite its possession of flippers instead of feet. Why? The camera reveals a massive, bloody bite taken out of its side, and the next shot is of a school of hammerheads swarming in the tide.
Nature, as the film’s clash between father and mother states, is brutal and self-interested.
But then we get our second view of dinosaurs, these being land dwellers. A tiny one wanders the primeval forest, clearly small and most likely lost, given its plaintive noises and desperate glances. We next see it alone on some pebbles beside a stream — not necessarily wounded, but obviously in pain and probably exhausted and starving. Some other dinosaurs in the background hear something and run off as a larger one emerges into the stream. Not a roaring tyrannosaurus or anything, but a bigger, presumably hungrier prehistoric badass. It finds the worn-out youngster and slams its foot down on its head. Surely, the little one is about to become a snack. But… the bigger dinosaur lifts its leg, then puts it back down. Then lifts it again. Then down. Its hesitancy almost becomes like a comforting pat.
Obviously, the big dinosaur doesn’t say, ”Hey, buddy, where are your parents? Let’s go get you something to eat.” It wanders off. But it doesn’t kill the weak little one, either.
YESTERDAY, TODAY, TOMORROW
Why is this dinosaur scene in the movie? It is a direct illustration of his contrast between nature and grace and uses a giant-lizard example to show that we don’t necessarily corner the market on what we like to call humanity.
There may be something larger at play. Later in the movie (and in this post) Malick suggests the possibility of reincarnation. Could this small dinosaur have been the earliest manifestation of Jack’s soul?
In an analysis full of leaps, that may be one too far. As the film progresses, we see what happens when Jack encounters a far smaller, weaker creature — a toad. He doesn’t pat it on its head and leave it to its own devices. He straps it to an airborne firecracker.
I think the dinosaurs are there for the same reason the Big Bang is — perspective. Even in the most simpleminded of creatures, there exist both qualities of nature and grace. We must survive, but we also have potential to let others as well.
My guess is it is Malick’s illustration of what may have been the world’s first act of mercy.
BIRTH AND REBIRTH
Okay, back to the family. (The movie’s shift from the celestial to the suburban is about that abrupt.)
We’ve seen the world coming into existence, now we see the O’Briens. Kind of lovely images of the future husband and wife in their younger years, as moving beams of light illuminate them in the shadows, and soon she is pregnant. We see her giving birth, though it is highly stylized and hardly the messy business it really is.
Malick shows us the birth of Jack through symbolism: a small boy, swimming through a lake, and emerging into the air through a wooden door that is underwater. This is a shot worth remembering because it is repeated much later in the movie, in what is considered to be The Tree of Life‘s ”heaven” sequence.
The bulk of the film follows various vignettes and scattered memories through life in the 1950s, and we’ll revisit some of that in a bit, but it is the most straightforward section of the movie. We understand why it’s there, and what it’s trying to tell us about the characters and their relationships with one another.
When the 1950s-era story ends, we revisit Sean Penn’s older Jack in, let’s say, ”the present” — he is apparently an architect (judging by the blueprints he is examining), and he’s going through his workday in an absentminded fashion. He is reflecting on his brother?s death, judging by the voice-over, and earlier in the film talks on the phone with his father (still alive, though unseen) and apologizes for some cruel remark he made previously. In the closing sequences of the movie, we see him riding in a glass elevator, and as it passes each floor there is a beeping sound — which to me quickly called to mind the heart-monitoring EKG in a hospital that we?ve all come to associate with someone struggling to stay alive.
WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES...
Throughout this, we’ve seen scattered shots of Penn wandering a rocky, barren landscape, and finally we see his destination: a worn wooden door frame in the middle of nowhere. A woman in a flowing brown gown is leading him. He hesitates at the gateway, then steps through to the other side. The camera rushes up to the fluttering dress of the woman.
Here, Malick tricks the audience by cutting out all sound and sight. We rush to the dress, and then blackness. In the first screening I saw, people stood from their seats, believing it to be the end of the movie. This is what Malick wants us to feel — The End, and it is…somewhat. In my first viewing of the movie, I understood clearly that this was Jack’s death. Not his actual death, in a hospital room, or car crash, or whatever. But his symbolic death, giving over to the next life, stepping across the threshold into who-knows-what.
TIME AND TIME AGAIN
Jack is soon falling on his knees in the thin surf of a beach full of many wanderers, and gradually gathers together with his family — mother, father, brothers, all hugging and tears as they are reunited.
It’s all symbolism, of course. In the afterlife — if there is an afterlife — we won’t be wearing a dark suit, and our dad won’t be in his 1950s work clothes. Our brothers won’t be kids. But this is all for our benefit, right? The viewer? How would we know that some faceless orbs of light are Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s characters?
Then we see a few other changes. The family pulls apart. We see a boy swimming through the waterlogged door again (birth, remember? As opposed to the dry, battered frame symbolizing death). This would seem to be reincarnation, no?
IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
But for a while, they are together once more on that beach where the shore and the surf are indistinguishable, and there is no line on the horizon. When Mother kisses Father’s hand, it is wrinkled and liver-spotted, and then we jump-cut to the same shot, but the skin is as smooth as a child?s. This is them at all points, but we?re seeing the faces we know. Isn’t that how we imagine heaven? Not harps and angels, but tranquillity and reunion?
Except imagine is the operative word, in my opinion. The first time I caught The Tree of Life, I was certain that we were seeing Malick’s vision of what comes next, but now I’ve discarded that theory. I think we?re seeing Jack’s vision of what comes next — living Jack’s vision, not the Flame that pops up periodically (that faceless orb of light) and could symbolize his soul.
DEATH AS AN END OR BEGINNING?
What failed to register in my memory the first time I saw the film (it was at Cannes and I was perhaps in a rush to get out and file a story) was that after the beachside reunion, we hear the heartbeat-style beeping again, and the film again cuts to that glass elevator, now descending instead of ascending. Penn’s character walks outside his building and looks back with bemusement. We see the blue sky and white clouds reflected in the structure’s mirrored face. Did he help build that structure? It’s possible. And the building, like the life he has built, is his lens.
But I don’t believe the character has truly died. Not in the present. And I don’t think we were flashing forward to what will happen when he does someday die. My interpretation is that Jack was simply reflecting on his lost brother, his aging father, and his youth with them, and in that pensive mood he began to daydream — as do all of us who’ve lost someone — about a reunion. It’s not what will happen, but what he imagines could happen again, in some other plane of existence. That’s why we have the bookending symmetry of the rising and falling elevator, accompanied by the EKG soundtrack as each floor passes.
And that woman who leads him through the doorway of death? Who is she? Guardian angel? Another spirit, who just happened to be ahead of him in line?
I think it’s God, and though I could be wrong (Malick doesn’t linger much on her face), I think we see her throughout the beach scene, cradling and comforting Chastain’s character, much as the little girl at the beginning comforted the baby goat in her care.
I think Malick chuckles at people who think they know God. In one scene, Chastain holds her young son and points to the sky: ”That’s where God lives,” she says. It’s sweet, but…c’mon, kind of naive. The kind of thing you say to a child, or if you are a child.
Malick is, by all accounts, a humble dude, and my guess is he wouldn’t dare to imagine God — but the character of Jack does, picturing her leading him, as most people of faith would like to believe.
There’s a shot in the scenes of the boys’ younger years of the dining room table, completely empty, and one of the chairs slides out. No one is there (unlike in the image above), and no one seems to be pulling it. So what gives?
Poltergeist? I have no idea. But it’s in the movie for a reason, and only lasts a second. Some people I’ve talked to don’t even remember it, and so I began to wonder if I had imagined it. But on second viewing — nope, it does happen and no one is there to push or pull it. I wonder if it’s not Malick’s one fleeting nod to the possibility that in the midst of life, there is some other existence or energy. Ghosts? Using that word makes it sound like a joke, but perhaps.
Does it matter that it seems to be where the father always sits?
Also, my wife remembers the baby being under this table during that shot, and that someone was clearing a path for it to crawl out. I don’t remember a baby, but if so it’s an example of the unseen hand guiding us.
Another unexplained shot takes place in the small attic, a narrow wood-paneled room that seems to jut out into the O’Brien house’s distinctive dormer. There is a shot of a small boy riding a tricycle in there and a large man with a book, stooped because he is so tall. Who are these people? The kid on the bike could be the youngest son, but who is the big man? Again, this shot stuck in my memory, but I didn?t see anything else in the movie that corresponded to it.
Unless — maybe — the tall guy was the handicapped man the boys see walking on the street one day. (Is this also the fellow we see having a seizure on their lawn when Jack is a baby, as his father tries to help and his mother hides the boy?s eyes and walks away?) But what would he be doing in their attic? Or are these residents of that home from another time?
MERCY, MERCY ME
I thought I understood the reason for the limping man. Jack and his brother R.L. pass him on the street one day and cast curious glances his way, though they don’t mock him. The same isn’t true for the staggering old drunk who passes them another time (in a similar shot) and tips his hat as he wobbles by. The boys laugh and stumble into each other, imitating his rubber-limbed gate. Not sure what it means, but could just be evidence of the boys showing one sick man mercy (that dinosaur tap again) while denying it to another.
Maybe they draw a distinction between someone who has pain inflicted on him, and another who causes it himself. ”Can it happen to anybody?” Jack asks in voice-over. Their mother, meanwhile, does not draw such lines. When some men are being placed into a police cruiser on that same street, she holds water up to the mouth of one handcuffed suspect. Whatever their crimes, she’s not judging them.
A MOMENT OF GRACE
Such forgiveness also extends to her sons. When Jack goes through a violent phase, smashing out windows, lighting firecrackers in birds’ nests, and sending that aforementioned toad on a one-way trip to oblivion via bottle rocket, she stands in their dining room, facing a clearly guilt-ridden Jack and sternly warning him to never do that again.
I thought the frog had finally gotten to him, and he confessed to her, hoping for absolution. But the clothes he is wearing in that encounter are different from what he wears as he launches the bottle rocket. It’s possible this is her finding out a day or two later and confronting him, but I have another theory.
This moment is actually part of a separate memory, one where he did admit what he did, seeking forgiveness. But it was placed at the end of the toad business — why? Maybe practical reasons: Malick felt the character had behaved too cruelly and needed the audience to see he was penitent? So he did some rewriting in the editing bay? Or perhaps it’s just the character wishing he had asked forgiveness for that small death.
A COMING-OF-AGE MOMENT
The moment I believe that confrontation actually took place happens a short time later, after Jack has been struggling with his own sexual awakening. We see him longing for a cute schoolmate, stealing furtive glances at her. But then he begins to peep in on women in his neighborhood. A little weird, but fairly innocent. He’s just a boy after all. But then he watches as a neighbor leaves her home, and sneaks in to sift through her bedroom belongings, stealing a nightie in a fit of lust.
But the kid isn?t cut out for weirdness. He?s wracked with guilt, hides the nightie under a board in the woods, then thinks better and decides to toss it in the river. It is then that he returns home and faces his mother, who knows something strange has happened to her son. They share some hard looks, and I think her admonishment ”Never do it again” is the resolution to this scene, though we see it before the guilty act takes place.
But I’m a little unsure on this one. I think they’re wearing the same clothes in those shots, but as the movie underlines, sometimes memory is a slippery thing.
ALL ABOUT PERSPECTIVE
”While you are waiting for something to happen, that’s it. That’s life. You lived it,” the regretful father says, and Malick shows us a cloud of dust, swept away by wind.
This is what happened. It can’t be changed, but it can be remembered.
There are other movies that mean more to me than The Tree of Life, but not too many that turned over again and again, a mass of puzzle pieces that keep trying to fit together. This is hack analysis, just random grasping thoughts, and surely every one of them could be doubted. But for all its subjectivity, I have been surprised by how many people I know who have interpreted its more mystical elements the same way.
BEAUTY IN A TRUE ENDING
The movie closes with a long, quiet shot of sunflowers, which don’t really have a presence in the rest of the film. What is their uniform beauty meant to suggest? In talking with people who also were affected by The Tree of Life, they all rather easily identify with Jack — though they aren?t necessarily boys who grew up in the 1950s in Texas. There is something familiar in the family?s story, and maybe — like those sunflowers — Malick means to say that we are all the same, all different, but basically the same. And yeah, still beautiful.
All right, enough from me. Let’s hear your theories.