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The Journey of Life, Creation, Metaphysics, Mystery – Malik’s vision








The Tree Of Life – Terence Malik

“Why should I be good?” asks pre-pubescent Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken), one of three brothers whose childhood doubts and fears form the central narrative of this extraordinary film. In voiceover at the beginning of the movie his long-suffering, stoical mother Malik doesn’t name beyond ‘Mrs O’Brien’ (Jessica Chastain), offers two distinct choices in answering this question: the way of grace, or the way of nature. The one, willing obedience to God’s will; the other being at the mercy of whatever your nature drives you to do. This dilemma lies at the heart of Jack’s struggle in which he is torn between conflicting parental models: his angelic, beatific mother and his wrathful, domineering father (a superb Brad Pitt).

Malik’s 5th film in almost 40 years is a visual fugue: a poetic, meditative, metaphysical journey from an awe-inspiring representation of the big bang of creation; through the evolutionary stage of the dinosaurs, towards intimating the emergence of human self-consciousness; awareness of self; and the growth of a spiritual response to the world where moral sensibility accepts the existence of other selves as imposing limits on one’s own behaviour.

Woven into the thrilling cinematic tapestry of Malik’s vision and literally bringing it down to earth with all the contradictions and conflicts of everyday human life is the unsettling narrative of the O’Brien family in 1950’s small town America. Pitt’s Mr O’Brien once wanted to be a pianist though we suspect without enough talent for this to have a been a realistic aspiration. Such dreams are corrosive, for having never tried – he will have never failed so can’t move on. He works at the local aircraft plant and tries unsuccessfully to make his fortune with selling his own patented products.

Not shown, but implied by his severe crew cut, a military bearing and the late 50’s context, we imagine that he would have spent time in the forces, perhaps Korea or even WW2. O’Brien is an austere, wrathful husband and father: demanding of his wife and children, on pain of physical violence, not just their total obedience, but also their love – love as a duty and a paternal right.

Early on when O’Brien fails to resuscitate a drowning boy, Jack realises there are limits even to his father’s power and the seeds of rebellion are sown. Jack as the eldest of the three boys exploits the dominance that gives him over the other two, especially RL whose sweet nature echoes that of their mother. Jack has a cruel streak that adds emphasis to his question above. He blows up a frog and echoing his father’s parental model, he commands RL’s obedience to his control through little rituals like making him put his fingers in a light socket and trusting Jack it is switched off. When he makes RL put his finger over the end of an air-rifle he actually fires and RL runs off in pain and worse – now in a profound uncertainty of trust. We see of course that Jack is emulating his father’s model of dominance and control. Jack’s terror of his father’s mood but whose love and approval he needs and seeks is a heart-wrenching dilemma to watch unfold.

Jack fantasises a desire for his father’s death and hypothesises his father’s wish for his rebellious son’s demise. In a beautifully shot, key moment in the film Jack finds O’Brien underneath a jacked-up car, we see his eyes on the jack and wait in a superbly tense moment to see whether he will give in to his temptation. But it is one thing to ask why you should be good: yet another to decide to be bad. Through Jack and RL Malik confronts the uncomfortable truth that for some natures goodness appears to be instinctive but for others, like Jack and his father, goodness requires great effort and resisting temptation.

Mrs O’Brien philosophy of acceptance is stretched to its limit by abuse of the boys but her resistance is soon stifled by her husband’s superior strength and will-power. She objects but doesn’t fight back.

Malik fractures the chronology of the narrative arc of the film so we move forwards and backwards in time. We see Jack as a man (Sean Penn) troubled and unhappy, in an urban jungle of towering glass buildings still suffering after many years from the news of RL’s earlier death in action at 19. The arrival of the telegram and Mrs O’Brien’s phone call to tell her husband its devastating news is one of several, life-changing moments in the film. A reminder that death is morally neutral, that the good only too often suffer while the unworthy go free. The moral sensibilities here are beautifully balanced and Malik leaves us to draw our own conclusions. That Jack has never got over RL’s death for me seems to carry a burden of guilt – it should have been me, I deserved it more than him.

These deeply human scenes ground Malik’s extraordinarily realised vision of the mysteries of creation, growth, spirituality, life and death in the messy, muddled reality of human relationships with all their conflicts and contradictions. Some critics have baulked at the magical dream-like sequences at the end of the film where in a kind of ‘heaven’ Mrs O’Brien finally reaches the purity of heart and obedience to make a willing gift to God of the life of her son the world has already taken. This is an act of faith that transcends the paradox that an omnipotent God has not only permitted RL’s death but in a sense ‘willed’ it. O’Brien and Jack remain un-reconciled to RL’s death.

Other critical complaints have focused on what they regard as an explicitly Christian perspective at the film’s core and it is true that there is nothing here that would prevent it entertaining the Pope in his apparently regular visits to the cinema in the Vatican. It is also true that the sense of undefined spirituality in the earlier parts of the film are more satisfying, certainly to me, than when apparently grounded loosely in a particular metaphysical, religious framework at the end. However one might argue that Malik needed some form of conceptual framework with which to bear the reality of human relationships and their ethical dimensions, so why not the one he knows? After all the paradoxes of Christianity are all here: the conflict between a Creator who is both Omnipotent and all-Loving; who chooses not to command where he has the power to act; who ‘allows’ suffering and injustice to befall the just and the unjust without discrimination etc. Within this belief system Mrs O’Brien’s two choices are misnamed: for the proper description of the choice the nuns gave her was between nature and faith, not grace: because in the Christian context faith is a choice we can make: grace is a gift of God and not automatically granted, even to the faithful. Another paradox many of us non-Christians find deeply flawed.

You pays your money and you takes your choice on the religious/metaphysical speculations of Malik’s film. If it has one major weakness for me it is an unsurprising one: like Kubric before him, a very different filmmaker aesthetically, but with distinctly common intellectual pre-occupations; both have no instinct, no empathy, no rapport with women.

All of Malik’s films are macho-centric. Here all the moral complexities are those faced by and dealt with by boys or men. Mrs O’Brien’s emotional and spiritual life is encapsulated by obedience: to God, Man and by extension her sons. To try to offer a meditation on human life that does not recognise the absolute centrality of the possibilities of physical and spiritual union between men and women; father and mothers; seems to be massively incomplete. We see no equality in tenderness, little mutual compassion and no desire between Mr and Mrs O’Brien and yet in these deepest and most profound of human emotional experiences lies the creation of their sons and the root of the instinctive love, however later distorted, that they feel for them.

It has been famously noted that Malik has never in 5 films represented our current lives, always setting his narrative in a more structured past with its certainties of social convention. This instinct combined with an apparent discomfort or lack of feeling for and understanding of, the distinct human perspective that women represent led him to the dreadful New World and a disastrous misrepresentation of the character of Pocahontas and her actual history. It may seem a curious criticism in today’s sexually obsessed world – but the physical dimension of the relationship between men and women is a part of the deepest experience we have of life and living; of parenting; and yes, even of considering our place in an apparently indifferent universe.

This is where I think criticism of the religious influence on Malik’s vision has most weight: for we know how uncomfortable, not just Christianity is about sexuality and yes the spiritual equality of women before God. The tendency to qualify and purge ‘love’ of any sensual, sexual component: and too often the failure to recognise the possibility that all aspects and forms of expression of love between human beings including the physical, can have a spiritual dimension.

Malik’s supreme achievement in this film is to generate a sense of wonder at our world and a wondering about our place in it. His constantly moving, restless, questing, camera conveys a powerful sense of inexorable change in time and place characteristic of a journey. He movingly and powerfully expresses the dilemmas and difficulties between brother and brother; and even more father and son. However his representation of Mrs O’Brien is too one-dimensional, too narrow in its portrayal of a woman, a wife and a mother, to give this film, superb in most other respects, the wider relevance and resonance it should enjoy.

That said, see it; it is better to aim high and fall a little short than to aim so low you cannot miss.

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