In late May of this year Terrence Malick will release his fifth feature film, titled The Tree of Life. The trailer indicates that it has all the hallmarks of Malick’s aesthetic vision and directorial practice—foremost stunning cinematography, meditative voiceovers, and a plot structure perhaps best described as lyrical rather than traditionally dramatic. Moreover, while it’s obviously risky to judge the content of a film from a two-minute trailer The Tree of Life also appears to be of a piece thematically with Malick’s other films.
After all, via a voiceover spoken by Jessica Chastain (as the mother of the young boy who is the film’s protagonist) we are given this claim: “There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.” This and early press about the film that summarizes it as an account of the “loss of innocence” of a young boy growing up in ‘50s America suggest that the film contemplates an essential divide in human nature between the pragmatic necessity for survival and a kind of original state of wonder.
The Tree of Life
Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
(Fox Searchlight Pictures; US theatrical: 27 May 2011 (General release); 2011)
This will hardly come as a surprise to enthusiasts of Malick’s work. Indeed, I will argue that even though Malick’s films are set in profoundly different times and places—ranging, for example, from early 17th century America to the Pacific theater of the second world war—taken all together they present essentially the same story; or more specifically, they are installments of a career-long fascination with the archetypal narrative of a transformation from a state of innocence to one of experience. For again and again Malick’s films rehearse, in ways both literal and figurative, one of the oldest and most abiding stories in myth and literature: the expulsion of human beings from a kind of paradise, an expulsion that in Malick’s work is emblematic of humanity’s painful estrangement from a state of transcendent union with the larger world and, indeed, with the cosmos.
This is not to say, however, that Malick is simply a wistful dreamer offering gorgeous but plaintive encomia to states of lost perfection. Certainly, some features of Malick’s works can support such a view; it’s no accident that words like “Edenic” and “idyllic” proliferate in commentary on the films, especially in reference to the villages of the Powhatan tribe in The New World or the tropical island of the Melanesian people in The Thin Red Line or the vast farm in the Texas panhandle where the better part ofDays of Heaven is set. Each offers, for a time at least, a vision of relative social harmony and human life integrated, however so precariously, with the natural world rather than at odds with it.
What saves Malick’s films from being artfully crafted exercises in nostalgia for prelapsarian perfection, however, is their willingness to recognize that any such vision is not simply fragile but also in a sense delusional—this for two reasons. First, the relationship between the beauty and purity of certain landscapes and the inward states of the characters who move through or inhabit those landscapes is not one of simple correspondence between personal virtue and beneficent environment. In fact, the desire to escape the mundane world and its demands can coincide with a profoundly disturbed, indeed psychopathic, worldview.
Second, and by extension, Malick’s Edens do not exist prior to individual indiscretion or crime or, for that matter, the tribulations of history. They are unstable refuges that shelter both admirable and ignoble people, virtuous and criminal characters. They are, in other words, sometimes the recourse of the desperate and damaged and they bear the imprint of those who find them. We can start to get a better sense of the problematic nature of states of grace by looking at scenes from the films that currently bookend Malick’s career, Badlands (1972) and The New World (2005).
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In the advent of open conflict between English settlers and the natives toward the midpoint of The New World, the young daughter of the native leader (who in certain respects closely resembles the historical Pocahontas) proposes to her lover John Smith that they flee their respective communities to escape the oncoming violence. Smith looks forlorn and replies with equal parts sorrow and cynicism: “Where would we live? In the woods? In a treetop? A hole in the ground?” Crestfallen, Pocahontas runs from Smith who, for his part, turns back to the fort where the settlers fearfully await an attack by the “naturals”. The exchange both anticipates the end of Smith’s and Pocahontas’ relationship and marks the beginning of the eventual displacement of the native tribes by European settlers.
I will return to the historical consequences of European colonization but for the moment I want to note that Smith’s and Pocahontas’s brief conversation echoes an extended sequence in Badlands. That film, loosely based on the crimes of Charlie Starkweather, presents the love affair and killing spree of Kit Carruthers and his teenage girlfriend Holly Sargis as they traverse the Midwestern United States in the early ‘50s.
Like Pocahontas and Smith, Holly and Kit share a powerful mutual passion discouraged by larger society. More significantly, Badlands presents the very vision of a life removed from the larger world and its conflicts and catastrophes that Smith dismisses as childish fantasy. After fleeing Lincoln, Nebraska, Kit and Holly set up camp in a forest, an experience that Holy describes thus: “We hid out in the wilderness down by the river in a grove of cottonwoods. It bein’ the flood season we built our house in the trees…” and, later, “I grew to love the forest.” Given the obvious correspondences between the scenes one might be tempted to understand Smith’s rejection of Pocahontas’ invitation to run away together as Malick’s revision, repudiation even, of a kind of youthful naiveté or belief in the possibility of a life unfettered by the constraints of society. What, after all, is a tree-house but the embodiment of children’s dreams of escaping the adult world with all its rules and obligations?
The problem with this interpretation, though, is that it ignores the unnerving dimension of Kit’s and Holly’s idyll in the forest. The two have fled Lincoln after Kit’s cold-blooded murder of Holly’s father, who has forbidden her from seeing Kit. If he and Holly are a kind of fugitive Adam and Eve, the only man and woman in their isolated little world, they have already committed a terrible crime. And everywhere we see the residue of that crime and the society in which it was committed—a toaster that Kit takes from Holly’s father’s house, a painting hanging crookedly on the wall of their shelter, a small mirror. In short, Kit and Holly are, at best, trying to reclaim some essential innocence rather than protect against its loss.
That innocence, however, is problematic not only because of Kit’s and Holly’s crime but also because it is pretty silly. The forest is essentially a giant playground where Kit acts out a little boy’s fantasy of being an Indian by spending his days running around shirtless and clutching a rifle, a bandana tied around his brow. For her part, Holly plays house, doing chores and putting on makeup. I do not think that Kit’s and Holly’s immaturity exists at odds with their crimes; rather, Kit’s murderousness and Holly’s collusion epitomize their immaturity. (Along the same lines, I don’t think the gleefulness of the music incorporated into the film—which includes the pop classic “Love Is Strange” and, repeatedly, excerpts from Carl Orff’s “Musica Poetica”—serves as mere ironic commentary on the terrible crimes the couple commits. It suggests that on some profound level Kit and Holly are having a really good time, utterly untroubled or unperturbed by the horrors for which they’re responsible.)
At the same, while we should be wary of understanding the film as an indictment of ‘50s America or viewing Kit and Holly as simply the symptoms of some larger disease, we should acknowledge that their fantasies are not idiosyncratic. Rather, they draw on the archetypes that inhabit the American mind. After all, when he’s not playing Indian, Kit—in appearance and mannerism at least—is the very image of the cowboy: lean, laconic, clad in blue jeans and cowboy boots. They key term here, though, is appearance. Kit’s boots are for show, all shiny leather and ornamentation, the stuff of delusion. The point is brought home early in the film when Kit goes to work at a feed lot—after telling Holly he’s going to be a “cowboy”—and finds the actual work tedious, depressing, and brutal. In short, it is nothing like the romanticized life on the open range that Kit presumably has in mind when he tells Holly about his new job.
Importantly, Holly and Kit are not the only ones living in a fantasy world, not the only ones whose pleasant or unremarkable outward appearance conceals an inclination to malice. The home where Holly has grown up is full of the stuff of prosperous middle class life—fine furniture, ornate lamps, appliances (including that toaster that Kit insists on taking with them to the forest)—but this seemingly genteel appearance is a cover for, or at least coincides with, paternal tyranny. Holly’s father, after all, shoots Holly’s dog as punishment for her relationship with Kit and this may be intended to resonate with the suggestion at the outset of the film that Kit poisons dogs along his garbage route (after coming across a dead dog on the route Kit dares his coworker to eat it; we then see Kit throwing a scrap of food into the yard of a barking dog).
Is all of this simply indictment of the bourgeois? Possibly, though I think its implications are larger. Past a penchant for cruelty Kit and Holly’s father are alike in their dubious relationship to reality. Mr. Sargis is a commercial artist—a sign painter—whose work appears to consist mostly of advertisements, the most significant of which we see when Kit confronts him on a lonely stretch of road. Holly’s father is painting a billboard for “Kauzer’s Feed and Grain.” The scene it depicts—with its perfectly straight rows of bright green plants, happily milling chickens, frisky horses, and bright yellow farmhouse—is so idealized as to be laughable.
At the very least, the cartoonish images bear no resemblance to the lot where Kit works—the place where Kauzer’s products, or something like them, are consumed. There “healthy” cattle stagger around dusty pens and gorge themselves at feed troughs while diseased cattle struggle futilely to raise themselves from the ground. The billboard offers a fantasy image of the product it advertises as, in a sense, do all advertisements. Here though the discrepancy between the happy small farm depicted on the billboard and the industrial feedlot is not only ridiculous but deeply disturbing.
The implicit similarities between Holly’s father and Kit should not, however, lead us to overlook their differences. Mr. Sargis trades in idealized images for the sake of personal profit—it’s his business after all. Kit trades in idealized images for, well, for what exactly? He’s not really greedy; when, for example, he steals a rich man’s car later in the film he does so out of necessity. Whatever his sociopathic tendencies Kit is not compelled to accumulate things. As Holly says of him, he likes to travel light (a football that Kit shoots while parked at the side of road being one example of the kind of extraneous stuff that he can do without). What Kit seems to desire is a life more richly charged with excitement and significance than his jobs and life in a small town Nebraska can provide.
That being said, there’s little room in the film for the viewer to admire what we might call Kit and Holly’s romantic dreams. Not only are they profoundly childish in their fantasies, they also fail to learn any ethical lessons from their experience. They express no remorse for the murders they’ve committed or colluded in. Moreover, their imaginations, for all their rebellion, are profoundly limited. They reject the society that rejects their relationship and they reject at least some of its conventions but they are still constituted of some its essential desires.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the end of the film. The law eventually catches up to Kit—but only after Holly indicates to him that she no longer loves him (it’s as if their mutual infatuation is a kind of protective magic that enables them to elude the police and once it’s gone they are subject again to the world beyond themselves). Kit’s eventual capture presents a veritable mishmash of archetypal images. The police pursue him in a helicopter while he sprints away clutching a scrap of iron like a shield and firing his gun wildly—a kind of paladin gunslinger facing a machine dragon. And of course the subsequent car chase is simply an updated version of that standby of Westerns in which the posse, here in the form of a police cruiser, chases the outlaw over endless dusty plains.
As it turns out, though, Kit’s capture is the best the thing that has ever happened to him. Beginning with the comment by one of the arresting officers that he resembles James Dean, Kit finds himself in a world of celebrity and attention that he only dreamed of in his heretofore obscure and unremarkable life. It is not in the woods, living with Holly, that Kit finds his longings for attention and larger-than-life significance fulfilled. It’s in the world whose laws and customs he has violated. The final image of the film is gorgeous and an early example of the astonishing panoramic visual sense that Malick developed in his later films: a small plane rises above a layer clouds into an expanse of golden sunlight. This plane carries Kit to his trial and, presumably subsequent execution, but its grim destination cannot detract from the transcendent notoriety that Kit has apparently happily achieved.