"Tree of Life" illustration. (Leif Parsons / For the Los…)
Since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" has sparked all manner of reflection and debate and (even among its admirers) exasperation. The film's abstract, meditative story about a 1950s Texas family and its place in the Scheme of Things invites its audience to form its own impressions. And, as sound designer and frequent Malick collaborator Erik Aadahl puts it, "It's more about the questions than the answers."
Which is good. Because we have questions. So we invited three of the film's key contributors, Aadahl, actress Jessica Chastain and editor Mark Yoshikawa, to fill in the blanks and offer their thoughts on a few of the film's mysteries.
The first image seen in the film is a flickering, flowing glow that pops up again periodically throughout the movie. What does it represent?
Chastain: "To me, that light is the indefinable existence, the beginning of the soul. It could signal the beginning of the universe too, so it's a joining of spirit and science."
Aadahl: "We referred to that as the lumina. Is that what was there before the universe began? Is it the spark to the universe that everything comes out of? I don't know. But what we did with the sound is we used waves, evoking the timeless, infinite rhythm of nature. You see that in-and-out breath in all things, and it's something Terry very much connected to."
Yoshikawa: "You can look at it religiously as the life force within us or as the universe's big bang. We used it to provide little chapter breaks to give you a moment to reflect."
A big dinosaur encounters an exhausted smaller dinosaur near a stream. First it puts its foot down on the smaller creature's head but then appears to change its mind and lifts its foot. The pattern repeats. Could it be a consoling gesture?
Chastain: "A lot of people say, 'Why dinosaurs?' I think it's a reminder of the impermanence of things. They dominated the Earth, and now they're gone. Might that happen to us someday?"
Aadahl: "The movie contrasts nature and grace, and this is a little moment of grace."
Yoshikawa: "It's the birth of consciousness and a very spiritual moment. Whether it's mercy or grace, it's something beyond survival. A choice was made. You can also see aspects of the father and boys' relationship in there. Or a higher power having benevolence on the weak. It all ties in together."
The woman at the door frame
Sean Penn, playing the adult version of the oldest of the film's three brothers, wanders a barren landscape, eventually meeting a woman standing by a wooden doorframe. Who is she and where is she taking him?
Chastain: "It's the beginning of a journey. The way he was living, the way his father had encouraged, wasn't fulfilling. He was living a modern life devoid of love. So when he goes through that door, he's going into his mind, in a way. He's looking at his childhood. He's coming to terms with his relationships with his family and what death is."
Aadahl: "I don't want to say." (Laughs) "I will note that there is a line in the beginning of the film that mentions the door being open."
Yoshikawa: "Terry has touched on this in his other films too, this idea of guiding spirits who are always around. We had more of this in the movie originally, but we didn't want to push it. We didn't want to be too hokey or literal."
(Seemingly) random oddities
Like that weird clown Jack spies at the fair. Or that strange shot in the attic where we see a small boy riding a tricycle and a big man reading a book. What's up with that?
Chastain: "There are so many possibilities. The attic could represent the part of the brain where, in dreams, hidden memories lie."
Aadahl: "There's an interesting idea with stairs and attics that used to be more elaborate. It comes at a point where the boys are becoming men and learning about some of the realities they were protected from."
Yoshikawa: "There are these little reveries that are dreamlike, and they seemed to fit when the movie hits a point where it's at the end of the day, where your mind is at its most susceptible. What does the clown mean? What does the attic mean? I had to resist defining those things. They're from the young boy's perspective, and whether they're the fear of the father or death or the unknown, I don't know."
The movie closes with a long, wide shot of a field of sunflowers. Signifying …?
Chastain: "I see it as the golden mean, the combination of two things where it meets in the middle."
Aadahl: "Sunflowers are these impossibly beautiful things, and, like any phototropic flower, they follow the sun. They're almost in prayer to it."
Yoshikawa: "For me, it's about the multitude. And these sunflowers are turning their big faces to the sun, looking for light and guidance. And with that field of sunflowers, it did open it up to all of humanity for me. It's us."