In Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this series I discussed the Hegelian dialectic between Nature and Grace represented by Jack’s father and mother, and the way that dialectic is used to give structure to the film.
The Dialectic Within Jack
Just as Thesis and Antithesis are embodied within the characters of father and mother, so too are they embodied within Jack. And it’s through Jack’s wrestling with both sides of the dialectic that we experience his journey, in relation to his mother, his father, his community, his God, and most importantly, his brother.
Jack’s journey is an evolutionary one. The first phase takes him away from the Grace of his mother, and toward the violent Nature of his father-a nature Jack pushes even further than his father would dream, by letting go of love almost entirely and succumbing to hatred, jealousy, and betrayal in their rawest forms. He rages against the mother who loves him, contemplates killing his father while he works under the car, and betrays the trust of his adoring brother when he shoots him with the bb gun.
The second phase of his journey takes him back toward his mother’s Grace, as he makes peace with his brother, and tries to once again be deserving of his brother’s trust and love.
But just as Nature failed to protect him, so too does Grace.
Despite Jack’s love, his brother is taken from him, leaving him completely alone in the world, isolated from his family, his work, and from God.
Eden is lost, and to find his way back, Jack must somehow find a new Synthesis that reconciles the dialectical opposites of Grace and Nature in his world and in himself.
The Dialectic of Images
This is what it means to truly wrestle with a question-to push both sides of a dialectic to their extremes of success and failure, and expose how they both work and don’t work in the universe.
But Malick pushes his dialectic to a cosmic level, which transcends time, space and even character relationships. In almost every image of the film, he captures the omnipresence of death within beauty, and beauty within death. Nature within Grace, and Grace within Nature.
In the big picture, his opposing styles of storytelling for an even bigger Hegelian dialectic, between the vastness of the earth, time, universe and God captured in the meditative sequences, and the small, family drama of earthly realities, pain, and beauty that seem so important in the family story, and so small when juxtaposed against the scope of the universe-building toward a profound synthesis, which doesn’t try to answer the question, but instead to surrender to it.
And in that surrender, to finally find catharsis.
The Dialectic of The Film Itself
Like movies such as Memento and 500 Days of Summer, The Tree of Life tells its story in a non-linear way in order to capture the essence of its main character’s experience.
Rather than unfolding linearly, the story unfolds dialectically, stepping into the swirl of memories in Jack’s mind, and juxtaposing moments of Grace and Nature from his past and his present.
But it’s actually the strong linear journey, and the character driven dialectic underneath all these flash forwards, flashbacks, and meditative sequences that allow the film to jump around in time so effectively.
Once you’ve created a strong linear journey for your character, you can slice it up, flash it back, take it out of order or toss it like a salad. You can play around like an experimental jazz artist, departing from the beat and then finding it again. And if you do it right, your audience will delight in putting together the pieces, and figuring out how they are connected.
But if you start tossing before you know the real structure of your film, you’ll be left with the kind of cooking no one wants to eat.