Although it has an overall positive score on sites like Rotten Tomatoes (85%), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has nevertheless garnered some negative reviews from critics and moviegoers alike. Having seen this film, I can see how confusing it can be to those who were curious to see what all the hullaballoo was about, as well as those who know and appreciate the work of one of Hollywood’s most private and reclusive directors.
In tandem with some of the most gorgeous and captivating cinematography to date, the story paints a beautiful journey from carnal nature to the state of grace. The overarching theme/story of the film is undoubtedly a reflection of Malick’s deep religious beliefs. This is the key to understanding the film. If Stephen Baldwin represents one extreme of religious conviction, then Malick clearly belongs on the other end of the spectrum. Both passionately express their beliefs in very different ways. It’s like comparing the art of Michelangelo to Thomas Kinkade, the lyrics of Mos Def to Vanilla Ice, the work of Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Bay— you get the idea… while it can be argued that each can be considered an auteur, there is a certain elegance and verve to how Malick approaches his belief and craft.
The Tree of Life is Malick’s modern take on the biblical story of Job. The question of theodicy (how humanity questions and struggles with the existence of an all-loving, benevolent God in the presence and face of evil) is central to the story. There is another important theme that courses through the film, and it is a question that Malick poses to the audience, though indirectly. How will you choose to carry on through life, even in the midst of pain and suffering? Early in the film he juxtaposes two states of being: nature and grace; the carnal, self-serving person, and the good, self-giving person. With regard to our response to evil, Malick wants the audience to consider that choice is our gift, and that the way of nature or grace will determine how we weather the storms of life.
So how are we to reconcile tragedy and loss when it befalls the innocent and/or the good? This is the story of Job, who tragically loses just about everything (kids, property, wealth, etc.), yet holds his tongue from crying out to God for several days until he can keep silent no longer. But instead of cursing God in his grief, Job, convinced of his innocence, questions what he has done to deserve his fate. And this is where Malick takes his cues. No one does voice-over narration better than Malick. To know the thoughts of characters through voice-over is considered “cheating”, but Malick always uses it so cleverly and expertly with his cinematography, that you are drawn into intimate, and dare I say, voyeuristic moments. You are experiencing the thoughts and prayers of his characters.
God’s response is paralleled in the very long and silent sequence in the film many detractors are supposedly walking out on. Rarely have I seen films that engage all my senses at once. Yea yea, I know you can’t smell or feel a film, but I believe a well-shot flick can draw you in with the way certain images are framed. The only other film in recent memory that evoked the same feelings is There Will Be Blood. My mind was following every shot with intense wonder and awe, and this surely must have been Malick’s intent— to draw us in to the creation narrative— the same one that God invokes in his response to Job’s question of “What did I do to deserve this?” God never answers the question, but rather explodes it by saying, “I’m God. Who the hell are you?” Not that God doesn’t care, but the film serves to underscore the fact that we are still creatures in a very vast, complex universe, and that the God that has created life is not accountable to anyone but God’s self.
Malick, though, is a fuckin’ genius. He doesn’t end the film there, but puts us on a journey through the eyes of a young and old Jack, while toggling between the past and present (and possibly future?). Jack struggles, tries to understand his own hypocrisy and rebellion in light of the truth and grace he sees embodied in his beloved mother and deceased brother. He loves and resents his little brother, and just as in the story of Cain and Abel, the elder son gives in to impulse, hurts his brother, and breaks the bond of trust. The relational dichotomy of innocence and carnality appear over and over again. Jack’s brother is like his mother: pure, kind, forgiving, and able to show restraint; Jack is the opposite, given to his passions and even within himself wonders why he cannot return to the same innocence. We also see the mounting tension and resentment Jack feels for his domineering father. Ultimately they reconcile, with Jack concluding that he is more like his father, than his mother. These relationships are crucial to understanding the themes of nature and grace in the film. The father represents the desperate need for validation and recognition, ultimately self-serving and vain. Surrounded by noisy machines, and driven to succeed, his quest for securing the future leaves him unable to hear and experience the present moment. By contrast, the mother is an ethereal, sacrificial figure; playful, caring, nurturing, and always in the present with her children, though is seen by the husband/father as “naive” and by the son as weak, for being too passive.
Sound familiar? It should— see The Thin Red Line.
I won’t write about the ending, as I definitely have written too much already, but needless to say, I was again swept away by a beautiful score and cinematography. One of my favorite flicks of all time, for sure. But if you don’t get the theological underpinnings of this movie and its relationship to the story/dialogue/images, it’s going to be a lonnnng 2 hours and change. Let me leave you with this caveat: if you don’t like deep, existential films, this is one to avoid— your money would be best spent towards Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which I also enjoyed, though for obviously different reasons.