The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Eliot and the Discipline of Art
Mary Kate Reynolds | On Jun 23, 2015
In Spring 2015, Joshua Sikora led a Media Studies class examining the celebrated work of Terrence Malick, the elusive auteur behind films like Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life. This article, written by Creative Writing student Mary Kate Reynolds, looks at how Malick crafts nuanced characters in The Tree of Life in ways that echo elements of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. We also invite you to check out other articles from the class as they’re posted throughout the summer.
I think that Terrence Malick understands art as a kind of discipline, and one place where he shows what art should do is by showing discipline with the wrong objectives. In The Tree of Life, there is a difficult scene where the dad gets angry at his sons at the dinner table, seemingly for being disrespectful. The scene takes a harsh turn when the dad shakes the table, reaches across and grabs one of the boys by the collar and then locks him in the closet. The purpose of this discipline is not to hurt his son bodily, but to produce shame. This is further emphasized by the son who turns off the light so that he is sitting in total darkness.
Metaphorically, this is full of meaning, particularly in the context of Genesis. Instead of communing with his father, walking through the garden as it were, the boy sits in darkness and shame, literally hidden from his family. He has not been turned towards the possibility of good because he has learned to isolate himself from the world. When he rebels, he is cut off from the love of his father and is taken out of communion. The catch is that we never see the father restore his son to the family. What is much more likely, given the way the family acts, is that later the mother comes and lets her son out. However, the relationship between father and son is deeply broken, in large part because the father uses shame to achieve order.
Order is extremely important to the dad, shown in this scene by his straightening the table after the upset. He is not the kind of man that can live in disorder, which is actually virtuous on his part. I would argue that you can also see virtue in his love of music, especially Bach, arguably the most ordered of all music. The difficulty is that he tries to achieve order by force. This is especially shown in the scene directly after the dinner confrontation. While she passive-aggressively washes dishes, he accuses her of not supporting his authority and turning his kids against him. When he comes over, she tries to hit him, and he restrains her. The scene is notable because there is a justification for what he is doing since she probably would only hurt herself in her anger. However, there is something rightly disturbing about seeing him physically restrain her, even if it was well intentioned.
When he physically restrains her, she struggles, a little like a bird with a broken wing trying to fly. Once she sees that she cannot get away, she crumples and begins to cry. That moment, more than any other, sums up what their marriage has become. Brad Pitt’s character tries to achieve order, but he feels that he can only obtain that order by force, as if the world is against him and he must fight. There is an entire scene where he tries to teach his sons to fight that shows the conflict he feels, because on the one hand, he loves order and music, and on the other hand, he wants his sons to be tough to survive in an unfair, cutthroat world.
The issue is that force cannot create permanent order because even if you can force things into an order for a while, things will eventually escape the artificial confines. This is one reason why propaganda, or media for the purpose of a message is not ultimately effective, because propaganda seeks to impose an artificial order. One thing that the mother in The Tree of Life has is a sense of freedom. She can be constrained, but not without being broken. That is the tragedy of the scene where she and Brad Pitt’s character fight — he tells her to stop, and she is quieted, but there is a sense that he had to break her spirit to achieve that quiet. It might be necessary in that scene once she becomes frantic, but in the larger analysis, that moment only occurs because he is trying to use shame to put his family into a super-imposed order.
Malick’s depiction of his characters is nuanced though. The dad isn’t the embodiment of evil in the film just as the mother isn’t the embodiment of good. They are just people and not symbols. I think it’s arguable that the way Malick writes his opening voiceover could predispose the audience to think in those binary terms, but the actual movie is not binary. There is a level of sympathy that the dad evokes — he always works hard and is faithful but he still gets laid off from his job. The motif of Job’s questioning applies to him as well as to others, “why do the righteous suffer?” He sees a world that is unfair, that cuts corners and hurts the people who work hard and tries to protect his family from it. He does that by trying to impose order upon them, but ultimately he is not strong enough because he is not working with nature but against it.
One of the first things we see in the movie is chronologically one of the last actions, where the dad is working at an airport and gets the news of his son’s death. The full pain of the scene isn’t immediately evident until you realize that for all the order that he has tried to impose to save his family, there is a larger machine that he cannot control, death and war. Cinematically this is depicted by his voice being drowned out by the noise of the plane engines. Just as he cannot make himself heard over the drone, he cannot control forces that are ultimately too strong for him. War is a violent, brutal way to die, but even if his son had not died in war, his son would have died. The father cannot save his family by his own efforts, as much as he tries.
Still, there is a great deal of good in the father. Although his attempts are ultimately probably more harmful than helpful, they come from love and even if that energy is misapplied, still it is love. I think that is why, in the final scene of the movie, the family is together. A binary expectation of the movie would predict the father not be in the heaven-like place, after all, wasn’t he responsible for much of the suffering? The answer is yes, he did cause a great deal of damage to himself and his family. The larger truth though, is that we all cause a great deal of damage to everyone we love, even in the pursuit of virtue.
T.S. Eliot writes in his poem Little Gidding, “of motives late revealed, and the awareness/Of things ill done and done to others’ harm/Which once you took for exercise of virtue.” The truth is that when people most think they are doing good, they are often actually hurting the ones they love. The only thing, ultimately that we can do is do our best to purify our motivations, to try to act out of love, and hope that in the larger analysis we are forgiven the misapplication of our love. Eliot says this when he writes “And all manner of thing shall be well/By the purification of the motive/In the ground of our beseeching.”
Ultimately, I think Eliot and Malick agree in their art, as would make sense if art is a communication of reality. The final scene of the movie is in a place that seems outside of time, a place that we cannot fully rationalize or account for. Eliot writes near the end of Little Gidding that, “This is the use of memory:/For liberation — not less of love but expanding/Of love beyond desire, and so liberation/From the future as well as the past.” These words are a helpful lens through which to understand The Tree of Life.
In the end, there is a real love between the family, between nature and grace. Our individual actions may mostly be wrong, but somehow in memory, outside of time, these acts are reconciled into a greater reality. Sean Penn’s character finds “liberation from the future as well as the past” because ultimately, all of time must be redeemed.
Come back next week for new student articles that explore more ways that Terrence Malick challenges his audience with his cinematic work.
Mary Kate Reynolds grew up in Southern California before moving to Houston and is a senior in Writing at HBU. She enjoys poetry, piano, baseball, and discussion.