The Tree of Life: Thoughts on Narrative Economy

treeoflife_clip4In the last 72 hours, I’ve rewatched Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life twice. The first rewatch was my fifth viewing of the theatrical cut. The second was my first viewing of the just-released extended cut, which adds nearly an hour of footage and forms what Malick has called not an expanded film but a new film.

One of my favorite moments of the theatrical cut (one that was, unfortunately and in my mind inexplicably, altered for the extended cut) comes when twelve-year-old Jack is knelt at his bedside, reciting his prayers. The words he speaks are monotone, droning, and rote. But midway through the ritual, his spoken voice fades out, overlapped by eager internal whispers:

“Help me not to answer my dad . . . Help me not to get dogs in fights . . . Help me to be thankful for everything I’ve got . . .” Where do you live? “Help me not to tell lies . . .” Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.

It’s a moment that encapsulates, for me, all that is great about the film—its elliptical, snapshot feel, its narrative economy, its operation on planes both physical and spiritual. And, most important, its deep insight into its characters.

The Tree of Life is often maligned by a select group for what they perceive as a ponderous, over-earnest tone and an overreliance on archetypes and banal voiceover to mask the fact that it has no story. In my mind, these complaints are a complete misreading of the film. Indeed, something that impresses me more and more each time I revisit it is how subtle and dextrous Malick’s narrative economy is, and how he is able to take characters that on their surface could very well have been one-dimensional archetypes and render them wondrously, painfully real through the smallest of touches.

The elliptical editing of the theatrical cut of the film evokes the fragmentary nature of memories. Continuity is thrown to the wind—characters change clothes within a scene from one shot to the next, or start on one side of a room and end up on the other. The image can never stay still—DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is constantly on the move, and even when we land on a relatively restrained close-up, the film will often jump-cut to another take to maintain a sense of momentum. Much of the movie can’t be classified into “scenes” as such—in between interludes of sustained narrative, it’s near-constant montage, the camera catching the bare essentials of one image or interaction before blinking and taking the viewer on to the next impression.

When a story is told in this fashion, every single bit of footage has to count. What a more sedate film could say in a monologue has to be said in the space of a single sentence. Five minutes of footage have to be summed up in a single shot. Backstory has to be reduced to a look.

And those sorts of tiny information conveyers are everywhere in The Tree of Life. The aforementioned moment with Jack kneeling by his bed, through the simple act of layering three lines of voiceover over four lines of dialogue, sums up exactly what it’s like for a child to struggle between the rote legalism of organized religion and the innocent wonder that lies at the heart of their conception of God. Another perfect encapsulation of something that a different filmmaker could have taken pages and pages to say comes after Jack, who’s grown increasingly aggressive and confused over the course of the film, takes advantage of his younger brother’s trust and shoots him with a BB gun. Later, as they both sit in their room, he hands the brother a piece of wood and simply says, “You can hit me if you want.” It’s as pure an apology as I’ve ever seen.

Jessica Chastian’s nurturing mother, who Jack perceives as the embodiment of grace, could easily have been reduced to a one-note allegory for maternal womanhood, but she, too, is given interiority through the briefest of gestures. Her wordless, faceless memory of riding a biplane through the sky as a graduation present. The way the camera swoops up and away from her as she reads a telegram carrying the news of her middle child’s death, putting us inside her vertigo with one yawning pull. The bare, despairing accusation in her voice as her words play over a montage of the birth and death of the universe: Was I false to you? Who are we to you?

The place where these little moments hit hardest for me, though, is in the relationship between Jack and his dictatorial patriarch of a father, played by Brad Pitt in the best performance of his career. There are so many heartbreaking snippets of missed communication and unexpressed desire that pass between the two of them in single shots or exchanges throughout the film.

There’s the moment when Pitt is lecturing Jack for the umpteenth time on the way he’s done the yardwork. Without warning, Jack turns and clutches onto his father in a silent, desperate hug. Pitt simply stands there, then puts his arm around the boy, and for a second you think things will be all right. But then he says, “You’re cropping those too close,” and walks away.

Or the moment when Pitt’s second-eldest son starts accompanying his piano-playing with his guitar practice, and Pitt stares in wonder and deep, deep love—all while Jack looks on from the background of the shot, taking it in and hating both of them.

And then there’s the culmination of their arc. Toward the end of the film, Pitt has been fired from his job at the plant, and has to pull up roots and move the family elsewhere. As the family prepares for the move, he and Jack have an exchange that seems to represent the conclusion of their journey toward an understanding. “Maybe I’ve been tough on you,” Pitt says. “I’m not proud of that . . . you boys are about all I’ve done in life, other than that I’ve drawn zilch. You’re all I have, you’re all I wanna have. My sweet boy.” They embrace, and shake hands, and you feel yourself warm up a little.

In the next scene, the boys are saying their silent, mournful goodbyes to the old house. Jack stands there, holding a suitcase. Pitt brushes by and says dismissively, without looking at him, “You just gonna stand there like a bump on a log?”

It’s his last line in the film.

In a single sentence, every bit of understanding that father and son seem to have worked toward comes crashing down. It breaks my heart every time I see it.

I picked a handful of the moments that burrowed deepest into my mind to spotlight here, but I could have chosen any number of others. After all, the movie plays out like a sudden stream of memories and associations, Sean Penn’s adult Jack traveling through his entire life in the blink of a Proustian eye. In some ways, that’s one of the film’s many theses—that these snapshot moments, hazy images and composite characters and youthful revisions of memory, are more powerful and enduring than any sustained narrative.

Watching the extended cut of the movie is what made the the theatrical cut’s narrative economy truly hit home for me. Strangely enough, this 180-minute version, which Malick assembled at the tail end of his most experimental period to date (the divisive three-picture run of To the WonderKnight of Cups, and Song to Song), plays much more like a “conventional” film than the theatrical cut does. Entire conversations are far more frequent; scenes and setpieces last for lengthy periods of time before moving on to the next. And while a lot of the new material is a joy to watch and contains a host of interesting details, I was struck by how unnecessary so much of it was. Malick had already communicated the essence of these characters and their relationships in the theatrical cut, with almost no direct exposition beyond bits and pieces of voiceover. He’d stripped things down to the barest, rawest essentials, and they were arguably more powerful for their fleeting quality than they would be if he’d shaped them into a traditional story.

The film’s detractors may complain that it devolves into images for images’ sake, that Malick is more interested in capturing light and plants than people, but in the theatrical cut he’s been documenting these characters, painstakingly laying out what makes them tick, all along. He’s just so good at it that we take it for granted.

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