The Tree of Life (part 1)

This is a movie I have been eagerly anticipating for a long time–ever since I saw the trailer in which the line is said, “Someday we’ll fall down and weep and we’ll understand it all. All things.”

Let me just say this: The Tree of Life (directed by Terrence Malick) is one of the greatest cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. I can’t fully explain it’s effect on me quite yet since I only saw it last week, but I can safely state there are many moments within the film that have the capacity of affecting me even more deeply if I truly study them.

Like No Country for Old Men and many Kubrick films I have great affection for, I can’t recommend this film in the ordinary sense. I would gladly tell people they should see it, but not for the same reason I’d tell someone to watch The Dark Knight. The Tree of Life is not to be viewed for the purpose of entertainment. It’s to be viewed for the experience–to be wowed by the whispered dialogue and profound visuals. It should be watched in order for the movie to “wash over you,” as long time Terrence Malick editor and collaborator Billy Weber recently said. I admit I don’t usually approach movies in this fashion, but I can’t conceive of any other way to engage Malick’s latest masterpiece.

So much has been written about this movie already, but I can’t help but throw in my two cents. This is going to take more than one blog post, so let me just start with the beginning of the film where Job 38: 4,7 is displayed. This Scripture is when God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” The words reach Job’s ears after he has endured some pretty horrendous stuff, and in the beginning of the movie the main characters aren’t much better off: A mother and father get word that one of their three sons is dead. They receive the news and react with their own personal sorrow, wandering through the streets of their neighborhood and trying their best to deal with a pain that it close to engulfing them both. At one point, a woman gives the mother some well-intended but horrible advice, just like the friends who talk to Job. “You still have two sons…” she says. Of course, this does more harm than good.

Then, as if trying to visually show us Job 38: 4,7, Malick takes us to the beginning of time. This is really when you need to allow the film to “wash over you,” keeping in mind that the Scripture from Job is the key to unlocking what the movie means. There can be a myriad of ways to interpret the rest of the film, but I think keeping God’s response to Job in mind helps the viewer frame everything on screen within the correct context. The parents wonder why God would let such a horrible thing happen to them by taking away their son, and Malick takes us to the laying of the foundations of the earth to–if not answer that question–at least ponder it. (That’s something I’m going to keep coming back to as I write these posts. Malick doesn’t solve the puzzle; he just makes the puzzle bigger.)

Watching this makes the viewer feel infinitesimal. It’s like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon; you deeply perceive your mortality. The same can be said when viewing the spectacle Malick takes us on while displaying cells and cosmos: it’s both grand and beautiful. I can see how a lot of people could be split into two camps concerning these primordial scenes, and I’ll try tackling that in part II.