By Todd Ford
We humans have difficulty seeing beyond our current condition. Events only days ago become fuzzy and we can hardly see past that check to a creditor we agonized over ten minutes ago. The future becomes a question: Will I be able to write that check again next month?
Geographically, we’re fixated on our home town, patriotism, and property boundary lines. We live in our own little worlds and see everything and everyone beyond our white picket fences as ‘other.’ On a global scale, this leads to endless wars.
Turn the telescope around and gaze inward and life can become unbearable. Seeming unsolvable problems turn the picket fence into an insurmountable wall and all hope is lost. As unforgettably documented in an album by Nine Inch Nails, the downward spiral can lead to suicide.
The extraordinary new movie The Tree of Life from director Terrence Malick encompasses all of these ideas, and some. It is a monumental achievement of beauty, intelligence, and mystery. It is Malick’s gift to the world born out of personal pain and loss.
The movie tells two stories of Jack. In the present, he’s a businessman living and working in a sterile, glass-encased world. Played by Sean Penn, he’s drained of life and deeply troubled. He is, as he alludes in the movie’s opening narration, knocking on God’s door. The bulk of the movie consists of his memories growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. He’s played as a child, quite irresistibly by Hunter McCracken.
His childhood is centered on the family home, his parents played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (so good recently in The Help). Or maybe ‘confined by’ is more appropriate. Neighborhood streets surround the home like a moat and his father’s first lesson to him forbids his crossing the property line into the neighbor’s yard.
The world beyond the home is portrayed as offering adventure tainted with peril. A trip to a swimming pool is to watch a boy drown. A trip to town is to witness the handicapped, the destitute, and the criminal, all those ‘others’ that fill a sheltered child’s dreams with fear. His mother points beyond the trees surrounding their home saying, “That’s where God lives.” And his adult mind desperately searches these memories for meaning.
He tries to situate his life within a larger frame. He imagines a history of the world from the Big Bang, to the origins of life on Earth, to the dinosaurs, to the Ice Age, and finally to his own birth. After his family is forced to leave their home, he imagines the inevitable death of life on Earth. These remarkable scenes reminded me of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar where man occupies only the last hour and a half of December 31.
Jack has long struggled with his younger brother’s death (we aren’t told the nature of his passing and first assume he was a soldier in Vietnam – Malick’s own younger brother committed suicide at the same age) and his reverie is his attempt to climb above the walls surrounding him. An image of clouds reflected in the glass of his office building assured me that his climb was successful – though this is wonderfully debatable.
Many have compared this amazing movie to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mesmerizing creation sequence is certainly reminiscent of the famed star gate sequence. But one thing sets it apart. While I’ve always found Kubrick’s movie cold, distant, and abstract, the evocation of growing up in the 1950s in The Tree of Life is warm, immediate, and overflowing with life.
Can you tell? I really love this movie.