The Tree Of Life (Malick, 2011)

The Tree of Life is a brilliant piece of art that the world is not yet ready for. While its narrative bears striking similarities to other “art-house” films – most notably Tarkovsky’s Mirror, which meditates on humankind and man’s relation to man (as one in the same, in essence) – Malick’s Tree of Life stands in a league of its own. The film expresses itself poetically, allowing the formal aesthetics of (visual) images and (musical) sounds to share with the audience a profound truth about nature, existence, and God (spirituality) – whether you believe this truth or whether you get it is besides the point, this is Malick explaining life and death from his eyes, not yours.

The soundtrack is beautiful, and Malick applies the musical phrases to the visual images as if they belong together. This is, without a doubt (imo), Malick’s finest use of music. His use of Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem for Kieślowski (Lacrimosa) is incredibly touching, and I wonder if it is, at all, a reference to Kieślowski – no idea what Malick thinks of him.

Unlike others in the theater, I did not like the middle scenes of the family as much as I liked the beginning and ending (though I loved those scenes too). Malick’s use of lighting and shadow is brilliant, and he remains one of the finest director’s of natural lighting and settings. I loved every outdoor scene where the sun could be seen in the background; Malick clearly puts a lot of effort in making sure the sun is exactly where he wants it when he shoots.

Moreover, the celestial growth, from out of that ball of light/energy, is spectacular. Things like larvae and crustaceans, double helixes, planets/galaxies, exploding gases, fire, water, earth, and air coming to be, protein enzymes (or so they looked to be) etc. have never been so majestically applied to celluloid. The underwater pre-birth is incredible, and great support to Malick’s beliefs, as I take them to be, that God is nature, and that, once born, one comes out of God, and once dead, one goes back to God.

The ending sequences are brilliant, with some of the most gorgeous settings I’ve seen on film. A lot of people seem to be wondering why Jack is only now, in the City, starting to come to terms with his brothers death (at age 19, so presumably at least 20 years earlier). I for one consider Jack to be a stand-in for Malick, and that Jack’s existential-struggle and questioning of faith is a metaphor for Malick’s. I think Jack is nearing the end of his life, and he knows that – Malick is, therefore, utilizing the character of Jack to ostensibly premeditate his own death.

In light of this, Jack needs to find solace, peace, understanding, and, in the beautiful ending sequence, his brother – with his loved ones – show him how. They bring love into his heart, and take him to a state of grace – the state of grace that once existed in their hearts, when they were children, and were loved. As Brad Pitt’s character states, “Someday we’ll fall down and weep. And we’ll understand it all, all things”. This is Jack’s moment of truth, realization, understanding. Earlier he asks (in voice-over), “Are You watching me? I want to know what You are. I want to see what You see”. The ending is Jack becoming closer to seeing things as God sees them – a kind of vision that, and I think Malick would agree, comes at the point of one’s passing. I have not dismissed the idea that Jack really is dying at the end…

By the way, any Lost fans reading this? Did Tree of Life remind you of Lost at all? The light/energy that is the source of all life, and the ending – an allegory that poetically expresses how one may realize, at a moment of awakening, that love is in their heart, brought there by those they love and are loved by, and that love – or grace – is the form of nature, which is God.

It’s interesting to note that the way of grace seems to belong to nature, and the way of nature belongs to man. Nature is corruptible, and seeks to please itself – the ego is its doing; however, grace never tries to please itself, and never comes to a bad end. Grace is free, like trees, leaves, and the sun – there is beauty and love in the grace of nature. However, there is no love in the nature of a man that doesn’t allow grace to enter their soul. Man needs to find the way of grace, in order to hold love in their hearts.
Anyways, Malick’s use of the concepts of nature and grace allow the seamless, rather poetic language of the film to be held together; it’s a tenuous hold, but it is one, nonetheless. These concepts drive the film’s structure, and, while allowing free-form – well, the film is almost entirely a formal experience – the story retains composure and consistency in the world it is a part of.

In other words, while the film reads more like a piece of music or a painting, Malick’s concise use of the concepts of nature and grace prevent the film from bloating into a space of nonsense and incomprehension – there is a definite structure created within Tree of Life’s seemingly unstructured narrative.

Lastly, if film is to be thought of as a stream of consciousness, with the narrative guiding said stream, Malick chooses to let the visual and auditory aesthetics of Tree Of Life guide the audience on a stream of consciousness that is fueled by emotion rather than thought. Like all great artworks – whether it be a great piece of music, painting, poem, or film – The Tree of Life is meant to be understood in feeling, not in thought. In light of this, I’m going to stop writing.


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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3 Responses to The Tree Of Life (Malick, 2011)

  1. C. says:

    Wrong: “Someday we’ll fall down and weep. And we’ll understand it all, all things”
    Right: “Someday you’ll fall down and weep. And you’ll understand it all, all things”
    Just check the trailer:
    And, attention: this was not included in the film!

    The Tree is meant to be understood in feeling, not in thought?
    Do you think these are incompatible ways of “understanding” a film?
    It is a dangerous thing to trust too much in pure felling, particularly with a guy like Malick.
    The priest asks: “Is there a fraud in the scheme of the universe?”
    Father warns Jack: “The world lives by trickery.”

    What Tree of Life is Malick’s?

    Grey, my friend, is every theory
    And green is Life’s golden tree.
    I swear it’s like a dream to me: may I
    Trouble you, at some further time,
    To expound your wisdom, so sublime?
    As much as I can, I’ll gladly explain.Student
    I can’t tear myself away,
    I must just pass you my album, sir,
    Grant me the favor of your signature!
    Very well.
    (he writes and gives the book back)
    Student (reading Mephistopheles’ Latin inscription)
    Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum. (“You shall be like like gods, knowing good and evil”.)
    (the student makes his bows and retires)
    Just follow the old proverb, and my cousin the snake, too:
    And then your likeness to God will surely frighten you!
    (Faust, Goethe)

    Can I ask you something?
    Where were you when Malick laid the foundations of the earth, when he made the morning stars sing togheter and all his fans shouted for joy?

    Some thoughts about this:

    • Kamran Ahmed says:

      That was me paraphrasing by memory. Regardless, the idea remains just as relevant, whether it’s “we” or “you”; as I state, this is Jack’s moment of truth, realization, and understanding. The quote signifies a moment of intense realization and awakening that occurs at one’s death — a moment not unique to a particular individual, such as Jack, but is universally appreciable. And I’m not convinced this was not spoken in voice-over during the actual film — I wrote my review after seeing the film, based solely on my own memory, having not seen the trailer for some time.

      Understanding a film through feeling rather than (rational) thought is not incompatible, but certainly distinct. When you experience art, such as a beautiful painting or piece of music, you are not understanding the artist’s expression through thought, you’re understanding them through feeling. You don’t use reason to comprehend a beautiful piece of art, and this is no different regarding Malick’s Tree Of Life, since it is ostensibly an “art-film”. A musician may learn the craft through the study and practice of music theory, but he may learn the craft simply through sensory evaluation, learning to recognize the qualitative difference between pitches. Jimi Hendrix knew nothing about music theory — he never even knew what key he was in — but it cannot be said that he didn’t understand music. He simply understood it through feeling rather than thought.

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