"God is closer to me than others of my art."
-Ludwig van Beethoven
In 1733, Johann Sebastian Bach, born and raised a Lutheran, premiered two pieces of what would become his Mass in B minor, which he spent the remaining years of his life expanding and honing until the liturgy used for both major Christian denominations became a full-blown Roman Catholic Mass. Composed in chunks up to his final years, his Missa is disjunctive, consisting of clashing textures reflecting both the different kinds of inspiration that drove him in each writing block as well as the altered emotional state of the composer as he drifted into blindness and illness. Yet the result is one of the undisputed masterpieces of Western classical music, the apotheosis of nearly every musical style of its time in one grand, summarizing statement.
Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life may be the closest the cinema has to its own Mass in B minor: it's gargantuan, encompassing, messy and bold. It's also exquisitely beautiful and personal on a level seemingly impossible for something that feels so vast. Bach spent about two decades tweaking and expanding his mass; Malick has been collecting ideas and images for this for 30 years, and the inspirations behind it likely stretch back even further. The Missa comprises movements under four distinct sections, and The Tree of Life incorporates the themes and styles of the director's four previous features into a film that feels infinite and minute, unwieldy yet perversely whole.
The Tree of Life follows the O'Brien family, in nonlinear fashion from the formation of their nucleus in the '50s through the present day, with a brief stop-over in the Vietnam era (the opening of the film) when the mother (Jessica Chastain) received a telegram informing her of the death of one of her sons in combat. Most of the film centers on the adolescence of the protagonist, Jack (Sean Penn as a grown man, Hunter McCracken as a boy), as he grows up in a Waco suburb that must draw on some of Malick's memories growing up in the area. In that sense, he might have been planning the film, in one fashion or another, his entire life.
It is fitting that such a work, an impressionistic phantasmagoria drawing on the director's own memories of growing up in Texas, should require anyone wishing to speak about it to reveal something of his own life. For me, it is also necessary, as I recognized so much of myself in the young, confused Jack I occasionally could not bear to look at the screen for seeing my own reflection.
Take the way Jack and the old of his kid brothers regard a man with cerebral palsy hobbling across the street or a child with permanent hair loss and scarring from being trapped in a house fire: they look wild-eyed and intrusive, staring after the afflicted in disbelief. But there's no malice in those looks, only the shock of the unknown to a child unexposed to someone different. That brought back painful memories of 8th grade, in which I was walking to class one day and a younger girl in front of me whipped 'round suddenly and revealed deep, disfiguring scarring from burns. I'd never seen this before, and the shock of it made me literally skid to a halt, and I don't even want to think what the look on my face must have been. I swear I was not mocking or condescendingly piteous, just taken aback, but the look of familiarity in her expression, of having seen whatever my face was time and again, made me so ashamed I walked with my head down for the next two years, to the point that people asked me all the time if something was wrong. I couldn't bear to be seen by her (and it was hard to hide as a fat redhead at least half a head taller than nearly everyone around me); worse, I couldn't face the look of recognition on her face if she did. When I saw the palsied man almost struggle not to look back and see the looks already burned in his memory from repetition or the burned child just try to be normal as the impressionistic camera shows just how much the other boys focused solely on his injury, I felt like looking down at the ground once more.
Likewise, a scene of Jack tricking his brother into placing his finger on the end of a loaded BB gun barrel, with predictable results, made me think of a similar (though accidental) incident from my own childhood, in which I carelessly fired what I thought was an empty BB gun at a friend's sister. I only bruised her arm, but I felt such a wave of revulsion that I lost all my boyish enthusiasm for guns of any sort, and the scene here made my face flush hot with recognition and disgust.
These are the finely observed minutiae that make the film so potently tangible despite its ambitions. The film's middle section stays with the family, and we see how they evolve emotionally through the quick glances of floating memory. A frog tied to a toy rocket, a loving gesture from a complicated father, the cute girl in class brushing back her hair to reveal a nape you'd give all the money in the world to caress despite being to young and clueless to even know what a caress is or how to adequately "perform" one, it all swirls in a stream of consciousness. Malick has always used juxtaposition and montage to dig into his emotional and philosophical ideas, but this film, featuring a camera that never ceases its movement and constant cuts, almost feels like one long montage. It makes for a Joycean (and Faulknerian, as the characters muse on their place in the universe in a way that seems an extrapolation from Faulkner's meditations on the South) collection of scattered yet indelible images evocative of a time and place that is not my own but resonates with almost alarming specificity.
From the ever-shifting images comes a fair-handed, deeply human view of a family with an existence instead of a narrative. Through Malick's probing, floating lens, we see how Jack's upbringing shapes him and how the forces at work on him are not as simple as they appear. Chastain's mother is nurturing and gentle to the point of being elven, and her beauty and care clearly lays the foundation for Jack's initial dealings with lust. Meanwhile, Pitt's father is stern to the point that he borders on abusive, and on occasion he crosses that line, bringing out Jack's penchant for anger and violence. But neither the mother nor the father serves as an empty embodiment of maternal care and patriarchal terror, and their complexity sheds light on the other juxtapositions of the film, preventing The Tree of Life from simply being an exercise in dualism or dialectics.
Though she gives strength to her children, Mrs. O'Brien has little of her own, and Jack eventually comes to resent the same innocence and grace that made him love her when he realizes it paralyzes her. Pitt, in what may be his finest performance, portrays the unnamed dad (what kid remembers his parents by their first names, anyway?) as a man who does not know how to love his kids not because he is a masculine man but because his adoration of them is so overwhelming he can find no suitable outlet. Unfortunately, his misplaced self-loathing—he berates himself for wasting time trying to be a musician as he tries to make it as an entrepreneur and become rich—does find expression, and the three boys come to fear their father's temper and his controlling nature.
It is crucial, however, to note that Pitt never comes off merely as an abusive stereotype. As with Jack, he feels so real that one feels as if we are intruding upon their lives. Mr. O'Brien reminded me of the father in Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives, though not nearly as tyrannical. Both have instances of monstrosity, and the effect they have on their children is harmful, but both exhibit moments of unfiltered love for the children they unintentionally addle. Mr. O'Brien wants his sons' love so badly he demands they kiss him on the cheek and hug him whenever he comes home, thus removing the love from the situation entirely. But Malick introduces him in the pre-Big Bang sequence doubling over in grief when he learns of his son's death, showing how deep his affection and care runs before peeling back the dark side of that devotion and desire to see his children succeed where he failed. Jack too never becomes the little fascist he occasionally seems, fleeting gestures like abruptly hugging his father for comfort or laying a hand on the shoulder of the burned boy showing his own capacity for kindness.
What's amazing about The Tree of Life is that Malick can paint such a fractured yet emotionally cohesive portrait of a family while always making clear that they are not the true focus of the film. Before we truly get to know them, the director breaks up the action with an extended view of the creation of the entire universe. It's a bold, disjunctive move that will alienate many (and has already), yet it is the clearest and fullest visualization of Malick's desire to link humankind to nature. But the montage is stunning, using CGI only when absolutely necessary and relying on experimental techniques and nature footage elsewhere to paint the birth and growth of existence. A common complaint registered about the film is that it feels like a nature documentary, but not even something as accomplished as Planet Earth features shots as overwhelming as the ones Malick assembles, and certainly not with the same suggestive properties.
To go back to the beginning, Malick's film might also tie into Bach's Mass in its open religious content. Opening with a quote from the Book of Job, The Tree of Life announces its spirituality from the start, and its Catholic imagery and whispered ruminations on God do not shy away from taking an explicitly religious (not just vaguely spiritual) approach to life. At the same time, I can't imagine church groups booking block-tickets, as its depiction of the universe, and of God, is too complex to fit in any neatly packaged interpretation of any theism. Its view of creation follows the scientific explanation, opening with the flare of the Big Bang and evolving over billions of years as gas coalesces into stars and planets emerge from the cooling inferno. Life slowly accumulates in the swirling ocean and solidifying magma of Earth, makes its way to land and keeps shifting until the present day.
The film's view of God is even more complex, as it cannot fall back on science. The O'Brien family muses over God, questions His existence and motives when evil befalls them and wonders if they will meet him in death. Malick, on the other hand, presents God in an unorthodox fashion. Rather than an observer and manipulator of the universe, God is the universe, forged in the same kiln that spewed out the rest of creation. There is no heaven nor hell, nor any particular need of faith, only a connected nerve system of space-time given life by the memories it contains.
But those who mistake Malick's vision as a Christian one neglect its original ideas: what need have we for a savior, an avatar of the Lord sent for sacrifice, when everyone is the personification of God? That view goes beyond mainstream religion, and Malick's God is too much of an all-encompassing force to be a specific entity. The film itself embodies God: it's omniscient and omnipresent, yet it dwells within each of its characters until the multiple voiceover narrations common to Malick's oeuvre at last begin to overlap in a conflicting yet unified whole.
Despite the flourish of the first part and the grandiose meditations on the nature of God and the universe, the film's epic sweep always ties back into the humans amidst the bombast. Jack's tumultuous, budding emotions of desire and rage find a visual counterpoint in the suppurating lava and roiling seas of Earth's own violent, confused emergence into being and maturity. The scenes of Jack as a toddler are all filmed from extreme low angles, those of a child's point of view. As the camera tilts up to view the mother or a flight of stairs that seems insurmountable to an infant, everything looms in ways at once intimidating and beckoning. A child always has the purest view of God, because a child already must look up at everything and everyone. At times, I felt that sense of childlike wonder: one of the shots of galaxies growing from the primordial soup mixed milky whites and rippling browns to the point I thought "It looks like melted ice cream!" with such overwhelming, single-minded euphoria I quickly looked around to make sure I hadn't genuinely shouted it.
The beach where the adult Jack spends most of his on-screen time itself feels like one of the still-evolving and forming areas seen in the planet's creation, a prehistoric collection of stone and sand that exists seemingly outside time even as it is clearly the product of it. Malick sets the ending in this area in a sequence that calls to mind heaven but refutes that immediately as many of those gathered are not dead. Instead, the beach, a place with past, present and futuristic connotations, becomes a sort of meeting-place for all souls, a place where all ailments are healed and all transgressions are forgiven, not by God but by those assembled. It's a visualized epiphany, a moment of understanding of and access to the memory bank of all the things that have existed or will exist, where all is one.
Some might find this movie a joyless exercise, though I found moments of humor. Malick displays a light reflexivity at times: he subtly prepares the audience for what's coming with a conversation Jack has with a co-worker about the man's failed relationship. Relating what he said to the woman, the man says, "Story's been told." Jack asks, "What are you gonna do?" "Experiment," replies the man, shortly before the film launches into its creation reverie. Later, Mr. O'Brien defines the term "subjective" for his son. There's also a bit of tense comedy in a scene of Jack trying to lift a piece of meatloaf on one of those flat knives without touching it, as if he anticipates a beating from his father if a finger reaches out to stabilize the meat. But the loaf slips and Jack does steady it with a finger, only for a darkly amusing anticlimax. Malick also telegraphs the shift in Mr. O'Brien from stern but loving to truly frightening with a blast of organ music, played by Mr. O'Brien, no less. And this is a literal reaction to those who found no joy in the movie; if the imagery didn't elicit some kind of response, well, godspeed.
Others might take issue with its religious content and mistakenly identify it as some kind of sermon. As a staunch atheist, I found this to be perhaps the first film to rate with classical music as a truly inspiring demonstration of God through art. I've sometimes joked that I feel sorry for God; he used to have Michelangelo and Bach to praise him, and now he has Kirk Cameron and Christian Rock. These people try to make works about the self-evident nature of God, but frankly they fail because they are mediocre. When one listens to something as beautiful and timeless as Haydn's Creation or Beethoven's 9th, one can almost feel a guiding force because God and art intertwine. As religious as those aforementioned compositions are, they are not preaching documents but expressions of belief and inspiration, and The Tree of Life is such a work. It isn't out to convert you; it's simply one man's personal expression of how he views the universe, and because he does not seek to speak for others, others can come naturally to it.
To those who would call the film "pretentious," to hell with you. It's one of the least useful words in the English language, and whether you like the film or not, none of the term's connotations (for it is as vague as it is insipid) apply to this movie. I cannot say that I have ever seen a more personal film, at least not one with Hollywood A-listers and a sizable production budget. It's also exceedingly humble, reaching for the stars but making sure to relate its own insignificance in the void it watches. Detractors have already made the film some kind of battleground for reasonable, critical people and "the apologists and fanboys," but I'll be damned if I'm going to apologize for this film. It would be like apologizing for my own life, especially considering how much of it I see in its frames.
The Tree of Life represents the apotheosis of Malick's personal and removed style: there's a view that Malick casts humans as insignificant because he does not give them preferential treatment. This is one of the same points upon which religious people like to attack science. The more we learn about the sheer size and timeframe of the universe, the more humanity is made to look like a flake of dead skin annoyingly hanging on the flesh by a single, hardened cell. I always found it strange that such a line comes up in so many debates on religion vs. secularization, as I think science and theism are linked in that respect: the scientist believes man is but a dust speck in the huge (but finite) reaches of space-time, yet we are the only creatures we've discovered who can even begin to find our place in the void, while the religious believe in a being they cannot fathom who monitors us as if studying an ant farm, yet whose interest in us necessarily elevates humanity to a higher position among all other living things.
If that weren't enough to show how demonstrating our relative scale is not a condescension, incorporating a detailed snapshot of family life among the higher thoughts of the film once and for all puts to rest any notion of Malick's indifference to humanity. He places us as but one small part of nature, yes, but he also suggests that all of nature is God, and, therefore, so are we. As an adult, Jack works as an architect among giant skyscrapers, but his own revulsion of his surroundings does not match the tone of the shots, which remind the audience that the steel and glass monoliths do not cover up nature but reflect it on their surfaces. Malick's films previously argued that the destruction of mankind was a part of nature and not against it, but he goes further here. That the last physical shot of the film is of a bridge shows how Malick has progressed to the point of accepting the man-made world as a part of nature, cementing the idea that everything is connected (and there's no better man-made object to demonstrate connection than a bridge).
So, Bach was a Lutheran finding the meeting point of Protestantism and Catholicism, and Malick is the philosopher finding the nexus of Judeo-Christian religion, pantheistic spirituality and scientific fact. And just as Bach found a conflicting yet unified thread to unite all of Christianity through his art, so too does Malick present a believable, incorporating vision of humanity's placement in the universe. One of the theories of the shape of the universe is that it resembles a saddle, a curved-U with two wings fanning out. That means, from a certain point of view, the universe itself resembles a pair of outstretched arms, questioning and beckoning the void. And if the universe is God, that raises a new question: to whom does God pray?