Where were You?
Sometimes the most seemingly unimportant shot can stay with you for days. This was the case with one shot in Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life. Not unlike with Malick’s other work, the first viewing of his latest feature left me feeling somewhat unsure, questioning its meaning. One scene in particular troubled me. The film demanded and deserved a second viewing before I could begin to write this review.
The Tree of Life tells a fairly simplistic story, that of Jack, played in adulthood by Sean Penn, who looks back on his past to try to understand the man he has become.
Largely underused, Sean Penn’s adult character acts as a frame to tell the story of his childhood. While on the surface simplistic, at its core, the film deals with the most complex of issues. Guilt, one’s place in the world, the very meaning of life, are all explored. This leads to a film that is more layered and complex than the vast majority of films produced in the last decade.
Upon second viewing the same shot stood out. Near the beginning of the film we see a chair in an empty room, suddenly it shoots across the frame with no one around. The camera cuts away. I was unable to forget this shot, it stuck with me, raising questions as to its purpose. It was through this shot that the true nature of the film came to light.
This shot is a clue. It shows us something that couldn’t be, something that is remembered wrong. It is something from the filmmaker’s past that he knows could never have happened–something that cannot be explained, but just is.
It made me realize this film is not a pit stop in the creation of the universe, it is a grouping of deep personal memories that director Terrence Malick has been unable to forget.
And while Malick’s infamously reclusive nature means we know little of his personal history, several known facts lead to the assumption that this is an autobiographical film.
Not only was The Tree of Life shot in his home town, but details as minor as transporting a gargantuan tree across a city to be placed at the central character’s home suggests a personal connection that goes beyond an eye for detail.
The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? …When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”. It is God’s response to Job’s questions about the meaning of life, and it proclaims that Job cannot understand why God acts in the ways he does, nor should he attempt to.
In this sense, Malick the filmmaker is God; and it is not our place to seek answers to the questions that trouble us about the film.
When Jack’s mother, played beautifully by Jessica Chastain, asks God “where were You?” after her son dies, we are shown the creation of the universe. This is God’s response to her. It is as if God is telling her she cannot understand because she was not there at Creation.
The Tree of Life is not a film about the creation of the universe, nor is it a film that attempts to answer the oldest questions we have pondered. Instead it is a man, Terrence Malick the filmmaker, who, asking himself these questions–questions about his past, his present and how he came to be–realizes that they will remain unanswered.
Those who do not like the film, and even those who do, are too hung up on the Creation sequence.
While stunning and important, it is not the key to the film that so many believe it is. The film is about guilt, attempting to figure out how you came to be, and ultimately having your efforts dashed.
In many ways it is a culmination of all that Malick has been working towards. His increasingly extreme editing and storytelling style has led to films woven like a series of memories or dreams. And this has never been as true as it is with The Tree of Life.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s work here is possibly the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen put to screen, with every last shot leaving me wanting more. The cinematography works in complete unison with the film and Malick’s style. So rarely does the camera stand still that when it does, it is almost shocking. The free-form camera work lends to the memory-like feel that the film has, benefitting the story instead of being distracting.
The film is too specific in its intent and in its form to not be an autobiographical attempt at remembering the moments that haunt him still.
We see moments of Jack, played as a child by Hunter McCracken, tormenting his brother, misbehaving and one perplexingly beautiful moment where he breaks into the house of a middle-aged woman he has been spying on. These moments are shown to us with such nostalgia and underlying guilt that it seems impossible that they were not drawn from personal memories. The moments feel so true and specific that they become universal.
When Jack screams “you’d like to kill me” to his overbearing father, played by Brad Pitt, we know exactly why this moment has remained in the film. It is a moment that one remembers due to embarrassment and guilt. Guilt is the theme that keeps this film together, and the beauty and truth presented to us is often too much to handle.
Many who have viewed this film are frustrated by the fact it does not have clear answers. With this film Malick tells us that we cannot always understand life, nor the actions of God. Instead we are forced to accept the world as it is, in a way we must “accept the mystery” to quote from the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man.
This film is Malick’s response to Job. It is not our place to fully grasp everything that occurs in this film, as we were not there at its creation.