Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Tree of Life - Movie Review

The Tree of Life
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Moral rating:  

Director Terrence Malick's latest cinematic art piece has finally reached Memphis TN. It recently won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has opened in several other cities across the country. I have been a fan of Malick's movies for years and have been eagerly awaiting "The Tree of Life" as a child anticipates Christmas. Indeed that is the level that his films are set. Following "The Thin Red Line" (1998) and "The New World" (2005), "The Tree of Life" dives into the depths of life. While "The New World" -Malick's narrative of the Pocahontas story- and "The Thin Red Line"- his ponderous Pacific WW2 epic- were more about immersing the audience into the location and the setting of the film's events, "The Tree of Life" is more about immersing the audience into the minds of the characters.

Entering the theater I knew that "The Tree of Life" was going to be heavy, but I didn't realize just how deep a filmmaker Terrence Malick was. The film opens with a death, as The O'Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive news of the death of their middle son. This scene is juxtaposed with one several years into the future in which their oldest son Jack (Sean Penn) is struggling with a crisis of faith and life purpose. This sets the stage for 2 hours of some of the most breathtaking cinematography, music and poetic musings that the cinema has ever seen.

While most films follow a narrative, "The Tree of Life" is a collection of scenes and visuals that weave together an emotional progression. Most of the film is from Jack's early life as he is raised by parents that follow two conflicting life-views. His mother follows the 'way of grace' as Malick likes to describe living by faith in God. "Unless you love, your life will flash by." Chastain whispers in one of the films many thought provoking voice-overs. While these principles are presented in a more vague, existentialist manifestation, as a Christian I saw spiritual truth and Biblical references dotted all throughout the script. "Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries." "There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow."

This choice is at the heart of what "The Tree of Life" is all about. If Jack's mother was a follower of God, then his father was a follower of mankind. All throughout his childhood Jack struggled with these conflicting ideals. We experience the internal struggle as he thinks- "Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will." Mr. O'Brien was a rough man who sought respect and fear, mistaking this for love until his sons are older and turning into the man he is. He constantly tells his boys that you can't be too good if you want to be successful in life "It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world." As we experience Jack grow up, we see this ideal start to take hold, in less than preferable ways. As Jack questions the existence and nature of God, he struggles intensely. "What are you?" he asks God. "Where are you? Why do you allow bad things to happen? If you aren't good, then why should I be?" This soon paves way to grief and bitterness as he realizes the emptiness of his life. "How do I get back to where they are?" Jack asks God as he sees his brothers and mother's true joy.

 I struggle with this film because as as Christian I understand that it is Christ that brings true life, and that HE is the way of grace and life. Malick unfortunately never spells this out completely.Several elements in "The Tree of Life" indicate that Malick is Catholic, and we see characters in church and praying at an altar with a cross, yet the name Jesus is suspiciously missing in all this. For 2 hours and 20 minutes our characters struggle with life, asking questions about death, the meaning of life, our place in the universe, and how we are to follow God in the midst of a crooked world. The characters on screen are implied to know the ONE who is the light in the darkness, and while Malick maybe doesn't present as much truth as the could have, he certainly should be commended for pointing at the love of God for true fulfillment in life. 

This view of the majesty and glory of God is beautiful in the film, made even more beautiful by the accompanying film score by Alexandre Desplat. Perhaps one of the most unique and breathtaking sequences was an extended 15 or 20 minute sequence early on in the film in which we see the origins of the universe. From the formation of the galaxies and heavens, the formation of earth, to the creation of life - this is perhaps the most captivating part of the movie. While implied to be an evolutionary view of creation, the sequence is to make the point of the vastness and power of God. As we see dinosaurs roam the earth, the oceans churning and the loss of innocence, we are suddenly aware of how small our lives are and how magnificent God's love and grace are in light of his majesty. As old Jack thinks on this, he realizes this beauty and significance in his life. As he lets go of his hurt, we also see a flashback to his mother letting go of the death of her son years earlier. "I give him to you, my son." "When did I first love you?" Jack ponders as he thinks about the fingerprints of God all over his life. 

And fingerprints indeed to we see. The beauty of the little things that Malick captures on film takes my breath away. From the wonder of a baby, to his first steps, to his first words, the birth of this brothers, his love for his mother, his love for his father, his pains, his struggles, ball playing in the yard, riding bikes, laughing, crying, loving hurting- Malick somehow captures it all. I felt as I left the theater that I had just lived an entire life with someone. I struggle with how to review this movie, what to tell you and what to let you find out for yourself. But one things is certain, "The Tree of Life" WILL make you think about life. You get out of it what you let yourself get out of it. There is no official "point" to this film. It is as the friend I went with said - "Beautifully pointless." As a believer in Christ, I saw the beauty and the wonder. I cannot imagine what it would be like to see it without hope, though.

If deep, thought-provoking movies are your thing, please don't miss "The Tree of Life." If maybe you are someone that enjoys a movie that is strictly entertainment, then this may be too existentialist for you. But see it at some point! :-)
Until next time, The Real Bowman.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to update one comment I made. Apparently Malick is not Catholic, but Episcopal. Sorry for the confusion!