How does one even begin to write about Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life? When it first came out, critics were clear that this wasn’t your average film. I think I remember one review I read said something like love it or hate it, you won’t forget this work. It was called many things and there was a kind of hold-it-at-arm’s-length quality to some responses.
That’s why I approached it with a bit of trepidation. What if it’s great, but I just don’t get it? What if it’s terrible, but no-one wants to say that the master film maker’s made some Emperor’s New Clothes? Luckily, neither of these turned out to be an issue.
Rather than attempt a traditional review, I’d like to do write about what it made me think of. What flights of fancy I found myself on not only while I was watching it, but over the next few days as I thought about it. It was that sort of film. The perfect sort of movie to see with friends and then bicker about the meaning of certain things afterwards. Since I saw it alone, you’ll have to stand in for my friends who’d think my impressions were madness. You can do that, can’t you?
There’s nothing standard or even straight-forward about the narrative, so it actually seems appropriate to write about it in an equally impressionistic manner.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?’ (Job 38: 4, 7)
Seems like the entirety of the work is a swing back and forth from the mother’s side of the film to the father’s. The mother in the film is not only devastated that she’s lost one of her children, but also because she thought she had an agreement with God. If you’re weird about talking/thinking about God, then insert the word ‘universe‘ whenever I mention God. Even if you approach this topic purely on an ethical plane, it’ll make sense and even possibly be worth pondering.
the mother’s contract
The mother thought that somehow if she chose the way of grace, rather than the way of nature, that she’d be spared the indignities of life. That she’d not have anything as horrible as losing a child if she somehow followed a spiritual path. Yet that’s the whole point for those who believe such things. No matter what little deals you make with the universe, there are no guarantees. None.
We seem to think that doing good is a kind of insurance that goodness will come to us. That success has everything to do with our goodness. That it’s somehow a reflection of our kindness. From my perspective, what’s intriguing isn’t that she thinks she can make such a deal but that she’s so completely unprepared for the possibility that God wouldn’t keep up his side of the bargain.
In the middle of all of this, there’s a break in the story. Suddenly, there are scenes that look like they belong in a nature film. But one of the most delicious and beautiful nature films you’ve ever seen. The beginning of the earth and the evolution of sea creatures to dinosaurs are shown, as are geological forces a bit like something out of Koyaanisqatsi.
But back to The Tree of Life…
the father’s training
We hear his voice:
‘Your mother’s naive. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you’re good, they’ll take advantage of you…
Don’t do like I did, promise me that…get sidetracked…
the world lives by trickery. If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good.’
The mother is the symbol for the spirit, and in this case that means the father stands for raw natural forces. We see the father teaching his sons to box. We see his tempestuous temper, and we cower with the rest of the family not knowing what will set him off on one of his unpredictable tirades.
At some point, there’s a voice asking, ‘Why should I be good if you aren’t?’ For me, it’s the critical question that the film poses. The boy is in a battle with his father and his feelings about this are tormenting him. As much as he feels for his mother, he can see himself slowly becoming his father. That he’s already cold and cruel in the face of her love.
We’ve heard the father’s world view in the words I included above. The mother’s words are far more soothing and offer a kind of warning:
‘The only way to be happy is to love.
Unless you love, your life will flash by…
Be good to them…wonder…hope…’
We see the boy as an adult, and it’s almost as if he’s finally coming to terms with his mother’s earlier guidance. He doesn’t know exactly how to process the waves of emotion that’re rolling over him, but my impression was that the maternal prophecy was exactly what he was ultimately being faced with.
It’s not easy to watch. Well, if you simply watch one picture flow into the next, then I suppose it won’t be so difficult. It is beautiful, after all. But the questions of grace versus nature have been nagging me since I first saw it. My first response was to reject that those were even proper opponents.
Grace and nature can be on the same team, right? Not in this case. For our purposes, you’ve got to choose. And in a strange way, you’ve probably already made your choice. I know I have.
I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote I found in an essay The Religious Meaning of Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ by Rabbi David Wolpe. Here’s what he says, and I completely agree:
The great Dutch writer Harry Mulisch died this past year. Once asked the secret of life, he responded “make the puzzle bigger.” Malick makes the puzzle bigger, and so expands our sense of the intricacy and beauty of the world. In reworking Job for the 21st century, he teaches us anew of the grandeur of the world, and the grandeur of God.