A Beautiful Con: The Tree of Life

The Tree Of Life is a very unusual film.  Not because of the dinosaur.  Well, partly because of the dinosaur.  But mainly because it uses the register of cosmological science fiction – in particular 2001 – to tell what is, it seems, by fairly conventional domestic story : the traumatic loss of a son and brother; father-son conflict; rites of passage in 1950s America; the failures of authoritarian patriarchal masculinity.  The film is presented in an extraordinary way, as a series of moments, often of striking beauty, in which dialogue is generally absent (crucial thematically), time is dislocated on a local, global and cosmological scale (seconds, minutes, years, decades, eons), but a sense of wonderment at (and the wonderment of) life is immanent.

This wonderment, even bewilderment, is carried not only in the extraordinary image-track, but also in the familiar Malick device of the disembodied voice over, in which baffled and self questioning voices express the interiority of key characters.  Or rather, the interiority of key male characters – boys and men – because the women in the film get short shrift.  I think this is for interesting reasons, though, as I will try to explain.

The narrative moves around in time.  It begins in what we must assume – by Brad Pitt’s glasses and hair cut – to be the mid- to late-1960s.  A young man brings a telegram to a house, and when the mother – Jessica Chastain – opens it, it brings news of the death of a favourite son, a trauma so profound that none of the surviving family members seem able to get over it. (I read his death as being, at symbolic age 19, in Vietnam.) The radical interiorization of this event, bracketing off social or political dimensions to make this strictly about the loss of a son or brother, made me uncomfortable – the response to the loss seemed an index of a more fundamental incapacity, of a howling lament rather than a shout of anger, a turning inward that marks both family and film, despite its cosmological register.  The film steadfastly refuses to connect the father’s overbearing patriarchal presence with a structure of feeling that allowed the drafting of their son to fight in Vietnam; if he is a sacrifice – and I certainly think he is – this is read theologically rather than politically. 

The film shows that it is the older brother, Jack – played by Sean Penn as an older survivor, still traumatised by his loss – who initially rebels against the father, and as an adolescent lad, he is the narrative focus for much of the film (the second half and in particular).  Younger brother R.L. – there are actually three brothers, for some reason, but the third is a spare wheel who gains no screen traction – does in fact present the most striking act of resistance, however: when Pitt tells wife and sons at the dinner table that they should only speak when they have something important to say, the boy wait a minute then interrupts the boorish Father (not ‘Dad’) by saying ‘Be quiet...sir’.  The father reacts violently, but in a sense he has not been disobeyed – what the boy said is in fact very important. Pitt blusters, but only towards the end of the film do his words carry real emotion and insight. The son, whose quietness is an index of his profound gentleness but also gives him a different kind of authority, speaks truth to power.

The younger son R.L. – beautifully played by Laramie Eppler – is the moral, or perhaps theological/spiritual  centre of the film.  When I watched The Tree Of Life with my wife, she plausibly suggested but the father presented kind of Old Testament authority, constituted by power and wrath, while the mother was the New Testament deity, full of love.  This works, but the mother is also a Madonna figure – at the end of the film, when she ‘gives up’ her son to God, she appears in a kind of pieta with female angels (or Graces) ministering to her.  This, of course, makes the younger son into Jesus; and indeed, the son appears to be the vessel of an unimpeachable and uncorruptible goodness. Twice, he says that he trusts his brother Jack, though the second time Jack lets him down badly, and R.L. is full of love, full of grace.  He is separate in his goodness, somehow – a crucial scene shows him on the porch, picking at his guitar, while Jack watches him in loving awe through the screen door.  The father, a talented organist, is too bound to the material world to approach the divine (though he yearns for sublimity) and confesses his failure to Jack at the end of the film, but R.L., who is not shown connecting with his father musically, seems to bear his gift as something different, other, divine.

The film begins with a voice-over by the mother, who declares that there are two paths in life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace.  (Jack takes the path of nature; the younger son R.L. the way of grace.)  This dichotomy striates the entire film.  After the trauma of R.L.’s death in the 60s, the film returns to the beginning – cosmologically.  We are shown the beginnings of the universe, of Earth, of life growing in the oceans, and then on land: the dinosaurs.  In a very curious scene, an enfeebled dinosaur lies on a river beach, while a raptor proceeds towards fallen prey.  But when it reaches this easy meal, the predator steps on it a couple of times, then moves off.  Is it simply not hungry?

There is clearly something else going on.  Although The Tree Of Life shows the development of life on Earth as a natural process, in events recognisable from conventional natural history, this is also signally a work of Creation. (The same mixture of natural selection and Biblical/ transcendent motifs can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)  The title of the film is itself ambiguous, and could refer to either life as nature, the branching ‘tree’ of natural selection; or it could refer to the ‘tree’ of the ‘Great Chain Of Being’, a spiritually-invested understanding of nature which places human beings at the top (or end) of the ‘tree’ of nature.  In fact, what I think we have in The Tree Of Life is what seems to be a world of natural processes, but which actually privileges the theological, the immanence of the divine; for the dinosaur seems to show, if not compassion, then mercy: it decides not to eat the easy meal.  The raptor lies down with the lamb. The way of Nature is throughout underpinned by Grace.

This folds into the conception of gender in the film I noted above.  The mother herself is Madonna-like, a vessel of goodness.  Though one of the most happy scenes in the film is when Brad Pitt’s departs on a business trip, and she and her sons instantaneously transport themselves into a carefree, lively, joyful atmosphere of celebration and love, in the main the mother is sanctified, other, beatific, fay.  In one scene she floats in the air (by a symbolic tree); and she seems unchanged by the passage of time, unlike Pitt, who as an older man seems to be channelling Marlon Brando as Don Vito, playing monsters with his grandchild in the vegetable patch: and emblem of emasculated or superannuated (and thereby pathetic) patriarchy.  The fact that the mother does not change rather sentimentalises and reduces her, I feel, to a symbol of ‘the good’.  She is an angel. Brad Pitt’s Father is conflicted, complex; she is not.

Poor old Fiona Shaw, playing the children’s grandmother, attempts to comfort the mother upon the loss of her son by saying ‘life goes on’ – even while herself acknowledging that this is an empty platitude.  It’s another index of incapacity – but one that reveals the centrality of 'the way of grace' to the film’s symbolic structures.  Fiona Shaw’s banal rhetorical gesture is a straw man; she is entirely proven wrong.  Life clearly does not go on – the trauma is irreparable.  There is no coming to terms with the loss of the son/brother except in death, or rather, in the afterlife.  It is only when life does not go on, that grace, that redemption or salvation, enters.  This, of course, runs entirely counter to the huge cosmological narrative invoked in the first part of the film, which insists, visually, that life does go on, that death and life (and death) turn and turn about, are a part of the same natural cycle and process.  For Jack, and for the mother, the lost brother/son becomes a symbol of the ultimate reparation, the afterlife, and when all the characters meet up on the heavenly beach at the end of the film, this isn’t a jolly theatre like the ending of Fellini’s 8 ½, an acknowledgement that this is all but a play, but rather an attempt to shift into that transcendent mode of science fiction found in 2001, after Bowman has gone through the Stargate (or perhaps, as in Soderbergh’s Solaris, where Natasha McElhone tells Clooney ‘everything is forgiven’). We are somewhere else, where loves reigns o’er all.

That is why I have called this post ‘a beautiful con’, because that is what I feel The Tree Of Life is: it is, in many ways, brilliant, wondrous, sublime; but it rests upon a sentimental religiosity that runs entirely counter to the sophisticated pleasures of both its visual track and its ambitious time-frames.  It is a con because I don’t think it is true; life can, indeed must go on; traumas can be overcome; wounds heal.  Inevitably, The Tree Of Life is a post-9/11 film (and like The Thin Red Line a war film of sorts, though this is a guerre sans nom) where the traumatic rupture leads to a kind of millenarianism, when catastrophic loss may only be made meaningful (and thereby redeemed) with the onset of the Day Of Judgement.  If America sacrifices it sons in overseas wars, the longing for death to salve these losses is deeply troubling, not just ‘problematic’, in its evacuation of hope, in its erasure of the future, and in the avoidance of the political question of why they were sent to their deaths in the first place.

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