“The nuns taught us that there were two ways in life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.”
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is not a movie. At least not in the conventional sense. It does not follow a straight narrative. It does not have a clear protagonist and antagonist. It does not progress in a linear way from Act I to Act II to Act III with a stirring climax and then a denouement. It features as much, if not more, voiceover from the characters than dialogue between them. It is not a movie that you can distill down to one or two sentences to clearly explain it. What it is, though, is a work of art. And beautiful work of art.
Most of the movie centers around a family living in a small Texas town in the mid-1950s, a father(Brad Pitt), a mother(Jessica Chastain), and their three boys. The parents are as much archetypes as actual characters, with the father embodying “nature” while the mother embodies “grace.” Both outlooks on life are shaping their kids, for better and worse. We see the childhood lives of these three boys from the perspective of the oldest son with occasional voiceovers from the father and mother as well. Intercut with all of this are scenes involving the oldest son as an adult (played by Sean Penn), reflecting on these things and more and struggling to find some understanding during a difficult day of remembrance. And intercut with all of this, are images of nature and the universe around us, going as far back as the creation of the world, to the dinosaurs, to the end of time, even. That is the movie boiled down to its barest bones. And yet it does not come close to doing the movie justice.
I knew going into that it was an atypical movie. One reviewer had described it as “impressionistic” in a review I had read. A lot of times, I find movies described in similar terms to be more “pretentious” than anything. Also, when it comes to art, I would say I have a hard times appreciating impressionist painters. Also, while some people swear by him, I am not the biggest Terrance Malick fan. I liked The Thin Red Line, but I only saw it once when I was a teenager, and was more caught up in the thought, “This is not as good as Saving Private Ryan” at the time. I think there might have been a lot in that movie I missed. But in anticipation of this movie, I also watched Days of Heaven and Badlands, and I thought they were only alright. Aside from being fascinated that Malick being intensely private and that he took nearly 20 years off from directing in between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, I am ambivalent toward Terrance Malick in general. This movie, though, captivated me. To me, it is probably the best movie he has ever made. It’s like a magnum opus piece, the culmination and pinnacle of someone’s body of work.
On a purely visceral level, the film is amazingly beautiful. I can only imagine that the Blu-ray of the movie is presentation-level material for showing off how awesome HD can look. The scenery is lush and vibrant and seems to comes alive for the camera at times. It is a totally different movie, but if I had to compare the awe I experienced at some of the sights this movie, it would be Avatar and some of the stunning imagery of that movie. But Malick does not need 3D to wow the eyes. The CG involving the space/creation sequences are resplendent. Some of the most beautiful and amazing imagery in movie history reside in this movie, I have no reservations in saying that. There should be no way that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Cinematography for this movie.
On an emotional level, this film resonated with me. A lot of the childhood scenes are evocative and probably universal or collective on some level. It really captures a lot of what would be mundane, everyday life. The movie feels as much like it is observing as it is telling a story. Brothers playing, wrestling, fighting. Bringing a lizard into the house to terrorize their mother. Swimming together at the local swimming spot. Being reprimanded at the dinner table. Hiding from their mother as she’s calling them to come in for the night at dinner. Climbing and walking over the church pews on a Sunday morning. And mixed in with all of this, though, are examples of “nature” and “grace” all around them, and the parents trying to do their best to lead them through the world and bring them up right; whether that means telling them to keep their elbows off the table when they eat, or shielding their eyes and leading them away from a man in the background having a seizure. And the oldest son, through whose eyes we see this world, grapples with feelings he doesn’t understand and questions he doesn’t know how to ask and beginning to grow up in general.
Finally, on another level, this movie is deeply spiritual and meditative. It opens with a verse from the Bible, Job 38:4,7: ““Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth . . .When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” While it opens with a passage from the book of Job, taken as a whole, the movie plays out like something from Psalms. Characters cry out to God, questions why things are happening or even questioning if God is even listening, before eventually seeing God in everything that surrounds, and accepting and embracing the divine at work in the world. The one line that stood out to me as the most spiritual was a voice over of the son saying, “I didn’t know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me.” I’ve seen very few films that moved me spiritually like this movie did. Even the long origin of the universe sequence, which a friend of mine didn’t like because it was “all about evolution,” was, given in the context of the film, infused with a sense of creative, divine design behind it all.
The Tree of Life is not a movie that I think everyone would like or appreciate. I know that the reactions to the movie run the full spectrum from loving it to flat-out hating it and everywhere in between. Count me firmly in the former group. Movies like this are the reason I love watching movies. For the rare moment when a movie lives up to your expectations or surpasses them; when it stays with you long after you’ve seen it; when you are moved by what you’ve seen. The Tree of Life is one of those rare pieces of art that transcends it medium. It is not just a movie. It is an experience.