Terrence Malick’s recent film The Tree of Life does not appear to be a dangerous movie. It’s essentially a long, lyrical evocation of Malick’s nineteen-fifties boyhood in an upper-middle-class enclave of Waco, with an idealized mother (Jessica Chastain) and a stern, distant father (Brad Pitt)—and what could possibly be mood-altering or soul-shaking about that? The most potent emotional response the film seems likely to evoke is exasperation at Malick’s art-movie pretensions: the opening epigraph from The Book of Job; the excerpts from Mahler, Berlioz, and Brahms’s most thunderous symphonies that propel much of the soundtrack; and, most notoriously, Malick’s decision early in the film to take an extended special-effects detour far away from his main narrative, which takes place in nineteen-fifties Texas, all the way back, beyond recorded time, to the very origins of life on Earth. It’s like a deadly serious version of that dialogue exchange from Airplane II: “Jacobs, I want to know absolutely everything that’s happened up till now.” “Well, let’s see. First the earth cooled. Then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned to oil…”
But I shouldn’t make fun of The Tree of Life, no matter how tempting a target for mockery it presents, because it sent me on a flashback detour of my own. Not to the dawn of time, I hasten to add, but to about thirty years ago, when my family went camping near Kingston, Ontario. I was maybe nine. I had always hated long car trips and any kind of boat ride. Travel made me queasy, a tendency that exasperated my father, a tall, Ukrainian steelworker with a shaved head and eyes as pale and blue as ice. I always found him terrifying, not because he was violent (he’s actually kind of a pussycat), but because I had no idea how I’d ever develop my weak body and weak personality into something that would live up to his precedent.
Most of the details of this trip were blurry even at the time—I was nauseous for a few days after drinking some sulfurous water at our campsite’s communal fountain—but I do remember with perfect filmic clarity a small, charged moment that I’ve never quite gotten over. The family had disembarked from a guided boat tour of the Thousand Islands, and I picked this moment to complain, again, about my stomach, which was apparently one more complaint than my dad was willing to put up with. He gripped me by the back of my head and bent his great body in half to bring his eyes level with mine. He gritted his teeth and told me, “Listen—you are not ruining this goddamned trip for us. Is that clear?”
Part of what makes The Tree of Life so evocative is Malick’s decision to shoot the scenes in question not as an adult’s fading memories but as the immediate, in-the-moment experiences of a child. His camera remains low to the ground, underneath tables and looking up at the ceiling and the sky, the first seeming almost as far out of reach as the second. So uncanny is Malick’s visualization of childhood that in the scenes where Pitt bends down into the frame to berate his son, sometimes even grabbing his head, the sense memory of my own father confronting me during that old family vacation came rushing back so suddenly and acutely that I was almost unable to breathe.
Hours after seeing The Tree of Life, it was that memory (interspersed with flashes of Brad Pitt clenching his jaw in quietly suppressed fury) running through my head in the small of the morning as I scuttled about my apartment on all fours, mumbling to myself about needing to connect with the Oversoul while my terrified girlfriend watched me from across the room, wondering if I would ever come to bed again.
I sense my bout of Malickpsychosis is not unique; witness the revealing interview Sean Penn granted last August to Le Figaro reporter Jean-Paul Chaillet. Penn gets second billing in The Tree of Life, but his role is essentially an extended wordless cameo (Unhappy Man Riding Elevator In Huge Impersonal Glass-And-Steel Office Tower). Much to the amusement of those detractors who found The Tree of Life to be an impenetrable swirl of disconnected images, Penn admitted that the damn thing left him baffled as well.
“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script,” Penn was quoted as saying. “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there!”
I wonder how long it took for The Tree of Life’s spell to wear off so that Penn could become his irascible self again. Did it perhaps happen right there in the interview, the fierce Malibu sunlight and the heavily accented questions of an earnest French journalist combining to burn off the magic-hour fog still lingering around his brain? Was the sensation something like the confusion felt when a hypnotist’s volunteer comes out of his trance and uneasily registers the applause of the crowd, not entirely sure what mortifying things he might have done to earn it?
The Tree of Life’s effect upon Penn was temporary, but for other viewers, the condition appears to be permanent. Here’s film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, for instance, writing about The New World, Malick’s historical drama about Pocahontas, which came out in 2005: “Other movies have fans. The New World has disciples. To the disciples of The New World, each viewing is a new experience; a new opportunity to humble oneself in the presence of a great work of popular art….We disciples of The New World consider ourselves lucky to have identified this treasure when it appeared before us and then seized it and made it a part of our lives. We will see it again and again, as often as time and money and New Line Cinema permit. We love this movie more than words can say. Some of us love it so much that at some point during our daily routines, we have to make a conscious decision to quit thinking about it for a while, because there is a chance we may be moved to tears.”
Seitz never emerged from Malick’s hypnotic spell. There were a few hours after The Tree of Life ended when I wasn’t sure I would either.
I saw the movie In the company of my girlfriend, who seemed curiously immune to its charms. About thirty minutes into the film, during that peculiar excursion Malick takes back to the dawn of time, there comes a key sequence in which a giant, predatory lizard encounters a dinosaur from a different, weaker-looking species, apparently wounded, lying on the side of a river. The predator puts its foot on the smaller animal’s head, but some impulse—perhaps the planet’s very first manifestation of mercy or empathy?—compels it to suppress its natural instincts and spare the creature’s life.
At this point, my girlfriend excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. She didn’t come back for a very long time. I think I was dimly aware that she was not feeling well, and yet I remained where I was and continued watching the movie.
In my distracted state of selfishness, I think I was unconsciously following what Jessica Chastain refers to in the film as “the path of nature”—wanting only to please oneself and thinking little of others. But that’s an epiphany I’ve had only upon reflection. What was keeping me in my seat that night were the scenes depicting the fraught relationship between the stern, emotionally distant father, not quite abusive, but formidable and frequently short-tempered all the same, and the restless son, not quite rebellious but increasingly aware of his father’s failings, and alienated from his embittered, dog-eat-dog view of society.
By the time we returned to our apartment, it was nearly midnight and my girlfriend was ready to go to bed. But I didn’t join her; instead, I began obsessively sweeping the floor. It’s a cluttered apartment with many bookshelves crammed into a very small space, and dust and pieces of grit are always accumulating in the corners and underneath my desk and dresser—it’s hard to keep the place clean, even if vigilant. It’s hard even if you spend more than two hours on your knees, which is how long I spent down there with my brush and my dustpan, assuring my girlfriend that I was fine, really, and that she should just go to sleep.
Our apartment is a small loft—the bed occupies the same large room as the kitchen—so it was impossible for her to ignore me. I didn’t give her an explanation for what I was doing, but I’m not sure I could have offered her one if I tried. What did cleaning the floor (and, later, at around three in the morning, hauling out my ironing board and pressing all my shirts) have to do with my father? Or Brad Pitt? Or dinosaurs? I sensed she wasn’t even that enthusiastic about the movie, and so how could I explain that I’d just been exposed to too strong a dose of The Tree of Life and that I couldn’t allow myself to go to sleep, not until I’d scrubbed some of the squalor out of my life, removed all the dust and grime that I’d allowed to accumulate around me while I was wasting my nights indulgently watching movies and reading books?
Even at the time, I knew I was reacting incorrectly to the movie. I think Malick wants people who see The Tree of Life to revive their relationship with God (whatever that word means), to follow the thin thread of their lives back into their own past, and to feel a renewed sense of wondrous connection with their younger selves. I don’t think he wanted people to react the way I did, by feeling a grimy wave of shame wash over their lives. To feel small and selfish. To ruin another goddamned trip, this one a night at the movies.
The feeling passed. I crawled into bed at five in the morning and stumbled through work the next day. My girlfriend was understanding and forgiving, although she’d probably prefer it if I never watched The Tree of Life ever again. But that night at the theatre is one I imagine will always be part of me and which I’ll be regularly returning to and re-examining—especially, perhaps, during long rides in fancy glass elevators. When I do, will I be responding to the power of Malick’s images or the power of the memories they accidentally stirred up? Or both? I can’t say for certain. All I know is, I hope this dinosaur someday lifts its foot off my neck.