Terrance Malik’s films have always been difficult to describe, and yet much ink and binary code has been dispensed trying to do so. The Tree of Life is just the fifth movie of his thirty-eight year career, and it appears that it is the masterstroke for which he will be most remembered.
On opening night in Nashville last Friday, the packed-out Belcourt Theater was buzzing with anticipation. After all, Malick is sixty-seven now, and this could very well be his final effort. For those who appreciate artistic expression and philosophical breadth therein, The Tree of Life is bursting with the ever-evolving complexities that make up our lives…and Life itself.
I’ve always described Malick’s style as “visual tone poems.” Hard to define, yet full of perception. Abstract, ponderous, and even audacious in its scope. You know when a film opens with portions of the 38th chapter of Job where God asks of the man’s ability (or lack thereof) to comprehend His ways, that substantive weight will ensue.
There are basically two story lines interchanging throughout The Tree of Life. First is the somewhat biographical story of filmmaker’s upbringing in Waco, TX during the 1950s and how it has haunted him into his adulthood. Simultaneously, there is much representation in stunning special effect and visual manipulation of deep space images showing the very beginnings of the universe. The wow factor is high as we see the progressive development of galaxies, then into our solar system, our planet, and the epochs that brought life here in its various stages. And even though the seventh day was set aside for rest and reflection, it apparently is not just in the past, but a still unfolding present that can cause continual awe. As the interwoven themes reach their end, it would seem clear that we are, indeed, all made up of star dust and mutually share much in common.
That is where the Everyman themes of the formation of a family anchor the piece; “hitting home,” as it were. The scenes of infancy within the Texan family are some of the most innocent yet captured on celluloid. The closest I can think of would be the excellent documentary, Babies, which came out a year ago. These waifs are completely unaware of a camera as they sleep, explore, and interact with others.
As the family grows from just Mr. and Mrs. O’Brian (played with intensity and lovely restraint by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, respectively), to three sons, it settles in around the time that the kids are aged nine, eleven, and thirteen. The eldest, Jack, begins exploring the boundaries of his will vs. his father’s, and much tension ensues. There are scenes of cruelty, overbearing discipline, and deep rage that bring forth long-lasting fear and insecurity. But there are also times of unfettered joy, camaraderie, and familial bonding that we can all recognize in the unpredictable relationships of our upbringings.
It is when death is introduced on several occasions, and the subsequent grappling with grief that is rendered over many decades that I was most moved. The bewilderment and depression generates many brief prayers—mostly in the form of questions—that are whispered over these contemplative scenes. Having lost my Father and fourteen friends over the past several years, I found myself fighting back tears at various moments that resonated deeply.
And even God can grieve. That is shown as the series of images play out. We all long for that coming back together, a unity beyond the splintered status quo.
When we see Jack as an adult (played quite pensively with very little dialogue by Sean Penn), he has developed into an even more regimented version of his dad. Equally creative, yet living in a very linear, hard-edged world of sharp angles, glass, steel, structure, and meticulous order of an architect. He has tried to control his life, and yet he is overwhelmed with a sense that there is something profound, even transcendent that must be in play for it all to make sense. He is grappling with the meaning of it all, and simultaneously trying to “break on through to the other side,” as Jim Morrison once wailed. He is longing to be free of these entanglements, and perhaps even more so, to be forgiven. There is much imagery of open windows and doorways beckoning the viewer to depart from the past, see beyond the present, and perhaps enter-in to a new perspective.
The characters tell us that there are basically two ways of understanding life: either through the lens of harsh Nature, or through the eyes of Grace. The first is represented with clutching, domination, grabbing, bitterness, confrontation, demand, uncertainty, jealousy, fighting, revenge, and arbitrary violence. The second is shown via more feminine qualities like patience, kindness, play, creativity, laughter, compassion, embraces, warm touch, reassuring forgiveness, open skies, dancing flocks of birds, light in the midst of darkness, and the wide expanse of the constantly birthing universe. Some have commented that, in essence, the father represents the Old Testament, and the mother the New Testament.
Only a few other films have been as visually evocative as this one for me: 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Koyanisqqatsi: Life Out of Balance. Both were heavy on imagery of how mankind has missed the point of the glory of creation, that our humanness is very much imbued with something much more eternal beyond the scope of our own machinations. Likewise, those masterpieces, as with The Tree of Life, do wonders with evocative scores that include music from symphonic geniuses, as well as searing stretches where no sound is proffered at all. The silence makes some of the images all the more is reverential; the moments more profound. We live in that silence, that pause between breathing-in and exhaling.
It is those contrasts that make this such an exhilarating piece of art. We are prompted--maybe even reminded--that science and religion are inextricably connected, just like doubt and faith, conflict and resolution, life and death.
In the end, the essence of The Tree of Life seems to come down to the same themes told in the oldest story known in recorded history, that of Job. Ultimately we have to release what we are holding onto that is painful and surrender to God who put everything, including us, in play.
For anyone who is ponders things beyond the stuff of earth, I highly recommend The Tree of Life to encourage your steps along the curious way.