The Eternal Symphony of Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’


Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is returning briefly to the big screen this Friday for a two-day stand at BAM with live accompaniment by the Wordless Music Orchestra. This sort of film-concert presentation has become popular in recent years; the New York Philharmonic has regularly honored titles such as Manhattan, On the Waterfront, The Godfather, and 2001. But it might be uniquely appropriate for Malick’s 2011 masterpiece. The symphonic form lies at the heart of The Tree of Life, informing its style and structure. One could even say that this is what the movie is about.

It always feels weird to write out an outline of this film: The whole thing sounds absurd, like an ambitiously elaborate but useless contraption cooked up by a mad scientist. The Tree of Life follows a Texas family in the 1950s and ’60s, but frames it all with a depiction of the origins of the universe. It opens with an aging mother and father (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) learning that one of their sons has killed himself, then flashes forward to the present day, in which their forlorn oldest son Jack (Sean Penn) recalls his own memories of his brother’s death. Suddenly, the film flashes back eons — to the beginnings of time itself. Malick’s extended, impressionistic take on the creation of galaxies, the formation of the Earth, and the arrival of life eventually makes its way back to Texas, and to Jack’s birth. At this point, we settle into an extended series of elliptically edited vignettes following the family’s life in small-town Texas — Jack and his brothers’ introductions to the world, their struggles to do good, as well as the conflict between their disciplinarian father and loving mother. Continuing with its cosmic framing device, the film closes with the eventual death of our planet (spoiler alert!), and the family reunited at the end of time on a distant shore — a hesitant portrait of a mysterious afterlife.

Like I said: mad. And like all good obsessives, Malick spent several decades trying to find a way to make it all work. At the time of the film’s release, I investigated Q, the ambitious, abandoned project on which the director had embarked following 1978’s Days of Heaven. Much like The Tree of Life, Q was to have followed the beginnings of the universe and of life on Earth, leading all the way up to human civilization. He sent crews all over the world to capture footage of natural and cosmic phenomena, but apparently never quite licked the human side of the story. He also never finished a script, opting instead for pages and pages of description and metaphor and poetry that he would send along whenever the studio asked for an update. One of Malick’s collaborators from that period, cinematographer Paul Ryan, told me that the director had become obsessed with the symphonic form, and had begun to drift away from conventional storytelling: “He was interested in a non-narrative style, the cinematic equivalent of how, say, Beethoven had structured his symphonies,” Ryan told me. In other words, Malick wanted his film to flow as if it were a piece of music, not a story.

With The Tree of Life, the publicity-shy director finally figured out the “human” side of his project, and in the most unlikely way: This most private of filmmakers put his own life — or at least, a variation on it — on screen; the family here was very much like Malick’s own. And he didn’t stop there, either. Subsequent films To the Wonder and Knight of Cups have continued this semi-autobiographical introspection, with portraits of divorce and movie industry hedonism that correspond loosely to Malick’s own experiences. He has also explored the natural-history-of-the-cosmos thing further with his recent documentary Voyage of Time, which feels like a further riff on The Tree of Life and suggests that he hasn’t gotten Q out of his system quite yet.

These later films would go even further in a non-narrative direction. (To this day, I maintain that To the Wonder is at heart a dance performance.) But Tree of Life probably represents the fullest expression of Malick’s obsession with symphonic form. It is essentially a series of broader movements, with each section having its own musically inspired structure. Malick hasn’t built this film around incidents so much as themes. So scenes that show us dad’s dashed hopes of becoming a musician, his attempts to become an inventor, and the way he takes his frustrations out on his children are all in one cluster — cut tightly in snippets so that we focus less on the individual incidents, and more on the overall air of bitterness and dreams deferred. Similarly bound together are scenes that show us the cruelty of children, as well as their growing understanding of mercy. Visions of the mother as a paragon of grace, demonstrating her infinite patience, follow one after the other. The film moves along with large blocks of emotion, unfolding as a series of moods and tonalities.

But music informs more than just the structure. Since The Tree of Life is initially driven by the family’s attempts to come to terms with unimaginable loss, here too Malick finds perspective in the idea of a symphony. In flashback, Jack’s mother questions the heavens with her grief. In the present, Jack does the same. The movie is, in effect, a call and response between humanity and the divine. “Where were you?” Mom asks God in her anguish; the film’s opening text, from the Book of Job, is God asking man where he was, and using a specifically musical motif to do so: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” By expanding his scope, by pushing out from individual grief to take in the immensity of creation, Malick presents a universe in which each soul is a part of a greater whole — each a note in a vast, eternal symphony.

That kind of we’re-all-God’s-children solace isn’t exactly new, but the movie seems to understand just how meaningless life in the shadow of the cosmos can be; remember, the director is both a devout Christian and an existentialist. Therein lies the paradox: The Tree of Life is both despairing and quietly joyful. Critics have speculated on the film’s religious imagery, especially near its end, with everyone evidently reunited on a distant, empty shore. But what I find so startling about these later scenes is their softness, their modesty. There are no triumphant, celestial thrones in sight. Instead, there’s an equivocating quality, as if the director himself is uncertain what to imagine. Maybe that’s why, in the final shots, he brings us back to the present — to Sean Penn riding an elevator, the sun shining through a tree, and a bird flying past a bridge. We might look at the endless expanse of the universe and find nothing but futility and loneliness. Malick sees the immensity, recognizes the sadness, and he offers the choice of transcendence.

The Tree of Life plays November 18 and 19 with the Wordless Music Orchestra at BAM.