The Tree of Life

Arthouse family drama. Terrence Malik’s new cinematic exploration of the meaning of life and suffering through the experience of family and the universe. This is another poetically pondering, visually strong, story weak, humanly cold film in Malick’s portfolio of increasingly distant filmmaking. I must say, his films usually bore me with their self-absorbed pretention and lack of storytelling. But I have to say, with all its weaknesses, this one also had some strengths that made the overly long 2 hours and 15 minutes more bearable. It is the emotional journey of a family in the 1950s struggling with the death of their eldest of three sons, the youngest of which grows up (Sean Penn) and ponders it on the anniversary of his death many years later.

The movie begins with a legend of Job 38:4-7 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Eventually, the movie enters into a 15 minute or so cinematic evolutionary panorama of the universe that illustrates this Biblical concept of creation. We are introduced to a myriad of supernovas and condensing star galaxies all the way down to microbial ocean life on earth, up the chain to fish and amphibian, through dinosaurs, including the meteoric crash on earth and ultimately to the birth of a human baby. All of this is accompanied by an at times haunting ambience and at times operatic angelic chorus. It is all really quite spiritual, stunning, and grand, though an awkward tangent in terms of drama.

The theme of the movie is telegraphed through the interior thoughts of the mother of the family played as a silent longsuffering housewife by Jessica Chastain, as she ponders ponderingly, “There are two ways in life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have two choices which to follow.” She then describes nature in Christian terms of selflessness and sacrifice, while the way of nature is selfish and concerned with its own survival. She and her husband, played by Brad Pitt become the symbolic living versions of these worldviews. The father [incarnating nature] raises his three boys by being firm to the point of harsh, making rules and punishing with a distantness that nevertheless also requires the affection of his sons to kiss him goodnight as one of the rules. He teaches them how to fight, and he teaches them how to become strong in life, in a survival of the fittest mentality. He says, “The wrong people go hungry, the wrong people get loved. The world succeeds by trickery. You can’t be too good.” To the eldest, “Your brothers are naïve. If you’re too good, you’ll be taken advantage of.” “You make yourself what you are. You make your own destiny.” At one point he gets angry with the mom [incarnating grace] for her comforting nurturing refusal to engage in the father’s discipline, “You undermine everything I do. You turn my own kids against me.” And this is inevitable, for grace undermines nature in this Thomistic dichotomy of reality.

Yet, all along, the movie is accented with multiple interior dialogues as voiceovers expressing the inner emotional questions that haunt them, even the father, “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate,” “Always you were calling me.” The mother, asks in her pain, “Lord, where were you? Why? Did you know? Who are we to you?” “Life by life, I search for you. My hope.” The eldest son, “Why did you let a boy die? Why should I be good if you aren’t?” This is certainly the authentic struggle that everyone of us has who has faith in God yet honestly tries to face the hard realities of the world’s suffering and pain. And in some ways, the pondering voiceovers are exactly what those of us do experience in our quiet moments that correspond to the long drawn out beautiful cinematic scenes of this film. It just doesn’t work well as drama.

We see the eldest’s son’s coming of age as he teases a girl he is attracted to, sneaks into the neighbor’s house to examine a woman’s lingerie with characteristic male curiosity, and becomes ashamed before his mother in an analogy of the loss of innocence. And then his gang of young boys who walk around with destructive tendencies, breaking windows, tying a frog to a bottle rocket, and finally defying mother, “NO! I don’t want to do what you say. I want to do what I want to do. You let him [father] run over you.” In today’s extreme storytelling of gang rapes, gunfights, and teen sex, this is a refreshingly sensitive portrayal of the essential truth of the loss of innocence and coming of age that youth experiences.

The father, though he is a sort of 50s cliché of the hard working chauvinistic male who has no intimacy with wife or kids, he has redemption in the end as we hear his own inner journey of repentance after his son dies and he loses his job. “I wanted to be loved because I was great. I’m nothing. I dishonored the glory. I am a foolish man.” The mother ponders, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good, wonder, hope.” And in her prayers we hear “Keep us, guide us till the end of time.” “I give him to you. I give you my son.”

This is a deep exploration of a biblical spiritual journey with faith in God and suffering that resonates deeply at times. The biggest criticism I would make is that in the end it is so interior and isolated in it’s visual reality and lacking real intimacy of human drama that it tends to leave one sadly dissatisfied. One examines an intellectual spirituality that addresses the human and divine connection aesthetically, while lacking the human to human connection that is equally necessary to redemption of the human condition. It is not enough to experience a Gnostic monastic idea of God, we understand his fullness through humanity as well, human connection, community. It is the point of the Incarnation, God and man. After all, it was God who said, “It is not good for man to be alone” with God himself. We need community. Terrence Malik needs some community.