by Elizabeth Cantwell
For a somewhat significant period of time, I was terrified of elevators. I had nightmares about them—never about an elevator crashing to the ground, or even about getting stuck in one, but about the elevators themselves. In the dreams, I would enter an elevator and suddenly have an extreme feeling of dread. I didn’t know what would happen when the elevator doors opened. Where I’d be. What strange, unforgiving landscape might await me.
Several years later, in college: an impound lot. My father and I stared at the crumpled car in front of us. The way the steering wheel nearly touched the driver’s seat beneath it. The hood like a used tissue. I signed the form to legally identify it as my brother’s car, held the sleeve of my father’s coat. I heard something like a desperate voice: How did I get here?
What is this moment made of?
The images in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) flow from just such sensations, such moments. On what we understand to be the anniversary of his brother’s death, Jack (Sean Penn) has a moment in an elevator where he, too, wonders How did I get here? along withHow can I find you?
Glass and water.
Glass walls, waterfalls. The amniotic fluid we all swam happily in for months.
The glass we can break more easily than see through. The water that forgives. The water that takes and takes without sympathy.
The glass no one can hide behind. The glass we turn into cathedrals of solitude, of escape.
The “you” is simultaneously Jack’s dead brother, God, and Jack himself.
Going into the theater, I was prepared for a lack of plot—but, contrary to what I thought I’d read, The Tree of Life is not a film that chooses image over character or story. Rather, it revolves intensely around character and story, just not in any way we’re used to. As Jack relives the formative years of his childhood, we overhear whispered thoughts—pleas, really—that cement the psychology of his character in a more crystalline way than any planted backstory conversation in a coffee shop could do.
We watch as baby Jack discovers how to smile, as he learns to plant a tree, as he follows his mother’s gaze from the smallest clod of soil to the most magnificent view of the sun. That’s where God lives, his mother (a transparent Jessica Chastain) tells him. We watch young Jack (Hunter McCracken) find joy, and then we see him lose it.
As we all do, Malick implies—the eternal (yes, represented literally) loss of innocence that creates a space for doubt, introduces us to hatred, makes us break windows, pushes us to hurt the people we love. To hurt ourselves.
A boy with burn scars covering the back of his head, a freakishly tall man in an attic room. A convict, a dead frog, a father who asks you to hit him and will hit you back.
The things we are afraid of that make us harder. That make us less naïve. That take away our ability to fly, twisting in the air like a contorted Sleeping Beauty.
How will you act when grief seeks you out? How did you act before you knew it could?
The Tree of Life is, really, a cinematic experience narrated in prayer.
Not that the film preaches a specific belief system, in any way—but it is told through the language of spirituality that comes to us all in our most helpless moments. In some cases,prayer may just be the things we say to ourselves in idle moments, when we feel sorry, when we feel less than whole.
Watching the images unfold across the screen—especially that both glorious and controversial beginning-of-the-universe sequence—we, as audience members, are forced out of our default passive stances and made to “pray” with Jack. I found myself thinking things like How do we heal? Whose side am I on? Do I expect an answer to these questions?
Walking out of the theater, I felt very quiet. I did not want to talk to anyone. I did not want to wait in the parking garage with my validated ticket.
I wanted to stay in the desert that is nevertheless an unexpected paradise, in the reminder of what it means to feel like the odd one out, the one who deserved less. To not forget what doors we can walk through and what doors we can’t. To accept whatever landscape awaits me on the other side of the elevator doors.
To be forgiven, if not by a God, then at least (or at last) by myself.
Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.