Filmmaker Terrence Malick isn’t known for being forthcoming about his personal life. He refuses interviews, avoids the premieres of even his own films, and has evaded enough photographers that TMZ recently called him a “Hollywood bigfoot.” In the first three-plus decades of his filmography, his personal stories appear equally absent: It goes without saying that he never went on a killing spree through the American badlands, baled hay as a migrant worker on the Texas prairie, dodged landmines in the Pacific theater of World War II, or sailed to the New World to frolic with Pocahontas.
But though the tight-lipped director may be known as a hermit and a recluse, Malick’s latest two films, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, are remarkably autobiographical.
Start with The Tree of Life, which is inspired in large part by Malick’s own experience growing up in Central Texas. (Malick shot the film in Smithville, not far from where he grew up around Austin and Waco.) Malick, like Jack, the film’s main character, was the oldest of three brothers. According to Peter Biskind’s excellent 1998 Vanity Fair profile of Malick, from which I’ll draw most of my biographical facts, the young Terrence “was devoted to his mother” but “had terrible fights with his father, often over trivial issues”—for young Jack, this is the central conflict of many of his scenes in the film.
Above all, though, The Tree of Life sees Malick struggling with the death of his own brother, which helps explainer the outer framework of the film. Malick’s youngest brother, Larry, like Jack’s younger brother R.L. in The Tree of Life, studied classical guitar, and even traveled to Spain to learn under the great Spanish master of classical guitar, Andrés Segovia. Biskind reports that when Malick was 24 years old, he found out that “Larry had broken his own hands, seemingly despondent over his lack of progress.” Malick’s father traveled to Spain out of concern, but came back with Larry’s dead body. Malick’s little brother had apparently committed suicide.
A version of this scene opens The Tree of Life. The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, receives a Western Union telegram, telling her that her son is dead. We never learn how the son dies, and many have assumed he dies in Vietnam. (Wikipedia, without citing any source or evidence, states that he died “in military service.”) I ventured the same guess when I first saw the movie, if only because R.L. is said to be 19 years old and the scene appears to take place in the late '60s. However, as far as I can tell there’s no evidence that this is the case. After all, Larry died in 1968, at around the same age. In fact, the only way we infer who it is that died is that Malick shows the mother looking at the classical guitar in R.L.’s room, and then the film cuts to a brief flashback of young R.L., playing the same guitar.
Old Jack, played by Sean Penn, perhaps resembles the older Malick, still haunted by his younger brother’s death. His scenes take place on the anniversary of that death, and he spends the day wrestling with it—why was such a horrible thing allowed to happen? According to Biskind, who compares Malick to the family members of others who commit suicide, he “must have borne a heavy burden of irrational guilt.” Malick’s first wife Michèle told him that “the subject of Larry was never mentioned.”
There's another clue in the film's dedication. If you watch through to the end of the credits, you’ll see that Malick made the film “for LRM,” which likely stands for Larry Malick—R.L.'s initials seem to be a reversal of Larrry's—“and CBM,” which may be the initials of Malick’s other brother Chris, who died in December 2008 as Malick was finishing the film.
To the Wonder resembles another chapter out of Malick’s life. The male lead (Ben Affleck), named Neil, is an American man who, while in Paris, falls in love with a French woman (Olga Kurylenko) named Marina, the mother of a young daughter (Tatiana Chiline). When the three move to America, Marina has a hard time adjusting. The two grow apart, and in voice-over Marina says something like (I’m paraphrasing, the line is not in my notes), “Where does he go?” All of these details parallel what we know about Malick’s second marriage:
One day in 1980 or 1981, Malick’s landlord introduced him to Michèle, a tall, thirtysomething blonde Parisienne who lived in the same building. She had a young daughter, Alexandra. … In a year or two, the trio moved to Austin, Texas. … Michèle did her best to adapt to Austin. … But she was out of her element. … Malick would often just leave, for hours, days, or weeks. She never knew where he went, and it made her crazy.
Eventually Marina returns to Paris, just as Michèle did. While she’s away, Neil takes up with a woman he knew in his youth (Rachel McAdams). At this point in Malick’s life, he married his high school sweetheart, Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace, to whom he’s apparently still married.
Other aspects of Malick’s life experience are, of course, drawn upon more loosely. Affleck’s character, for example, inspects the land around oil digs; Malick’s father was a geologist for Phillips Petroleum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where To the Wonder was filmed.
And there’s at least one way in which the Malick of Biskind’s profile seems, perhaps, to have changed. According to Michèle, Malick always hid his work from her, refusing to ever let her into his study; he told her, “I want my personal life to be completely separate from the movies.”