[The Tree of Life was a surprise nominee for Best Picture in the 2012 Academy Awards nominations on January 24. This is our review of the film originally published on June 20, 2011. For full Oscars coverage and commentary, visit our special Oscars season blog, Movie Minister, by Fr. Jake Martin.]
As I left the theater, having just seen The Tree of Life, a woman waiting in line to see it asked, “How was it?” Awesome! I said, just as another patron declared, Awful! And that pretty much sums up how Terrence Malick’s provocative new movie has been received.
Spoiler alert now in effect.
My fellow moviegoer may have been commenting on the film’s minimal plot, which centers on the O’Brien family living in Texas in the 1950s. The storyline about the family (with the father played by Brad Pitt, the mother by Jessica Chastain, and their three sons) proceeds in fits and starts, moving back and forth across time. There’s no linear narrative with a tidy ending that we have come to expect of big American movies, no comforting order that divvies up the good and bad guys and makes sense of the world, at least for the few hours we sit in the dark munching popcorn. At the outset, the narrator declares, “There are two ways through the life — the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to chose which one you’ll follow.” Not standard big-screen fare.
Or perhaps her complaint, made in an art house at the epicenter of liberal America, was spurred by the movie’s Christian perspective and images of baptism and confirmation, stained glass windows, and, most overtly, a lunar eclipse that looks like a giant eye accompanied by a voice intoning, Follow me. (That would be God.)
But the film isn’t about Christianity or any other religion, for that matter. It is a visual meditation on the nature of grace and the fundamental human need to find meaning. Life’s big questions pepper the narrative, asked of God in yearning whispers, “Who are you?” “Where are you?” “Do you care about us?” Divine replies come in the form of stunning imagery shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that captures simple beauties (of fluttering curtains, birds in flight, soap bubbles) as well as vast galaxies delivered with Miltonian opulence and scale. In frame after frame of heart-stopping beauty, Malick insists on the primacy of the grace embodied by the world itself. It’s not surprising to learn that he was once a philosophy professor, a student of Heidegger, and as such vested in the “thingliness” of things and the exquisite world we have been given, and so often fail to appreciate.
Malick takes on the entirety of what is seen and unseen, all of it animated by the Spirit that runs through every individual, every bird, every ocean. His deep reverence advocates the necessity of environmental responsibility and stewardship. Wake up! Malick seems to be saying. Look around. You are surrounded by miracles! And the film delivers those miracles, not just in the cosmic expanses of outer space or the energy of roiling seas, but the everyday grace of a child’s dancing shadow, swimming in summer, sunlight caught in a woman’s hair, all the loveliness of the ordinary.
Seeing, however, is a multifaceted activity. Sometimes it involves intense focus and sometimes it demands the willingness not to focus on any one thing but, unblinking like the moon that morphs into the All-seeing, to bear witness to everything that comes into view. “Unless you love,” the film reminds us, “your life will flash by.”
Though part of life’s larger continuum, each of us must deal with our individual histories. The film meanders between displays of nature with a capital N and the oldest son Jack’s memory of his childhood, recalled in impressionistic flashes. Extreme long shots of the adult Jack (Sean Penn) picking his way over desolate rocky landscapes provide a glimpse of his inner emotional ecosystem and suggest a one-on-one relationship with the ineffable. The film never fully explores the stunning grace arising from human relationships, the Darwinian implication being that it’s Everyman and Everywoman for themselves. A loss.
At one point, Jack says, “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” The task of life is untangling, or at least reconciling, one’s familial roots with present reality and the unknown future. That task is made more difficult because the past, present, and future all inhabit any given moment — a point Malick returns to repeatedly.
Jack’s observation takes on another dimension at the film’s end when Mother raises her hands to the sky and a female voice says, “I give you my son.” Most literally, Mrs. O’Brien has relinquished her child, who has died, to God. Her anguish mirrors that of archetypal mothers and fathers throughout history who have been asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, whether the goddess Demeter, the patriarch Abraham or the Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross. Most provocatively, the voice echoes God’s words about Jesus — This is my son — making it unclear whether Mrs. O’Brien, the Mother God or, per Jack, Father Mother God is speaking. By obscuring the gender of the Divine, which is not male, female or anything that humans can fathom, the filmmaker liberates us from yet another confining historical definition of men and women. Two points, Mr. Malick, and thank you.
Playing with what film can do
The Tree of Life is also a movie about movies, exploiting the possibilities of cinema itself — here, the medium is the message. Malick plays with what film can do once untethered from the conventions of the stage, understandable scale, or need to connect the plot’s dots. James Martin, S.J., aptly compared the film to “living inside a prayer,” while the Los Angeles Times panned it for embracing “every cheesy cinematic cliché,” (although Leah Rozen’s review does provide an excellent guide to movies made about heaven).
At one point, the film dispenses with dialogue altogether, and revels in the first moment of creation — of the universe and of a child. It helps to surrender to the camera’s quixotic movement, sudden screen blackouts, and lack of anything so quotidian as reality. The insertion of digital dinosaurs is just plain silly, but, hey, dinosaurs happen. Like life and faith, the movie moves inexorably toward the unknown. It becomes the very mystery it seeks to elucidate.
This is not a perfect film — and it’s not trying to be. A work of art will always fall short of perfection, inevitably failing to attain the brilliant, redemptive, cosmic and/or comic dimensions that the artist first envisioned and struggled to express. That’s the nature of art and our nature too. The Tree of Life stumbles along as we do, amidst flashes of brilliance, boredom, sorrow, joy and hope.