The Tree of Life (2011)

I was introduced to American filmmaker Terrence Malick by my friend Jonathan Green, a graduate of Savannah College of Art & Design, St. John’s College, and American Film Institute. I was unfamiliar with his small but seminal oeuvre: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005). Malick has become one of my favorite filmmakers. As Dana Stevens of Slate says, “His films can change the way you look at the world.” Exploiting the full potential of the visual medium with an inimitable style, his stories are primarily told through images, not words. His films are icons – conduits to grace and transcendence. They invoke fear and trembling, holy silence, and joyous revelry. The Tree of Life, his most overtly Christian film yet, was released this summer and won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival; it is his fifth film in a forty-year career. Below is a trailer and insightful excerpts from reviews.

Roger Ebert (Chicago-Sun Times): Terrence Malick’s new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude….

Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune): This may be the most overtly Christian mainstream picture since “The Passion of the Christ.” Unlike that one, though, Malick’s comes with a generosity of spirit large enough to get all sorts of people (including non-believers) thinking about the nature of faith and what it’s all about. While Malick often expresses his characters’ yearning in born-again argot (“You spoke to me through her, before I knew I believed in You”) the key line, I think, comes from one of the boys, speaking to their mother. “Tell us a story from before we can remember,” he says. “The Tree of Life” is that story.

Manohla Dargis (New York Times): “The Tree of Life” is Mr. Malick’s first film since “The New World” (2005), a title that could work for this new movie as well. Running 2 hours 18 minutes, it is a personal, impressionistic work — beautiful, nonlinear, trippy, flawed — that unfolds largely in fragmented flashbacks, tracing not only the arc of a single life but also that of creation itself. As the title suggests, Mr. Malick has nothing less in mind than the origin of life, a beginning (or Beginning) in which vaporous swirls, gurgling lava and fiery explosions give way to the sight of a meteor hitting a planet (presumably Earth), an explosive vision that Mr. Malick audaciously, riskily, joins with the image of a pregnant woman’s belly.

The issue isn’t merely that Mr. Malick visually connects the impregnated planet, as it were, and the expectant woman, an association that sets a Mother Earth motif in motion. It’s also in the seriousness and sincerity with which he makes this connection: The film is an affirmation of Mr. Malick’s belief in the power of cinematic images to express the sublime (the cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki) and, perhaps, of his faith in the audience to meet him with equivalent seriousness.

It also serves as a reminder of how few contemporary filmmakers engage questions of life and death, God and soul, and risk such questioning without the crutch of an obvious story. It isn’t that these life questions aren’t asked in our movies; they are, if sometimes obliquely. Rather it’s the directness of Mr. Malick’s engagement with them that feels so surprising at this moment, and that goes against the mainstream filmmaking grain….

In “The Tree of Life,” God is everywhere and nowhere — in a ray of sun, a blade of grass. The film opens with a quotation from the Book of Job — “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” — taken from a passage in which God, like a hectoring, aggrandizing father, challenges Job with questions. It’s a section that Walt Whitman, as readers of the poet have long pointed out, seems to answer in “Song of Myself” (“In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass”), a work that Mr. Malick may have drawn on, given how both the poem and the film exult in a cosmic oneness with the world and are more circular in form than linear. Any number of the poem’s lines (“The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag”) could describe images from the film.

A. O. Scott (New York Times): At the beginning and the conclusion — alpha and omega — we gaze on a flickering flame that can only represent the creator. Not Mr. Malick (who prefers to remain unseen in public) but the elusive deity whose presence in the world is both the film’s overt subject and the source of its deepest, most anxious mysteries. With disarming sincerity and daunting formal sophistication “The Tree of Life” ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them. In this case a boy, in whispered voice-over, speaks directly to God, whose responses are characteristically oblique, conveyed by the rustling of wind in trees or the play of shadows on a bedroom wall. Where are you? the boy wants to know, and lurking within this question is another: What am I doing here? ….

The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality.

Embedded in the passages of cosmology, microbiology and spiritual allegory is a story whose familiarity is at least as important to the design of “The Tree of Life” as the speculative flights that surround it. The world of neatly trimmed lawns and decorous houses set back from shaded streets is one we instinctively feel we know, just as we immediately recognize the family whose collective life occupies the central 90 minutes or so of the film….

In his view, rooted in an idiosyncratic Christianity and also in the Romantic literary tradition, the loss of innocence is not a singular event in history but rather an axiom of human experience, repeated in every generation and in the consciousness of every individual. The miraculous paradox is that this universal pattern repeats itself in circumstances that are always unique. And so this specific postwar coming-of-age story, quietly astute in its assessment of the psychological dynamics of a nuclear family in the American South at the dawn of the space age, is also an ode to childhood perception and an account of the precipitous fall into knowledge that foretells childhood’s end. It is like Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” transported into the world of “Leave It to Beaver,” an inadequate and perhaps absurd formulation but one that I hope conveys the full measure of my astonishment and admiration….

There are very few films I can think of that convey the changing interior weather of a child’s mind with such fidelity and sensitivity. Nor are there many that penetrate so deeply into the currents of feeling that bind and separate the members of a family…

This movie stands stubbornly alone, and yet in part by virtue of its defiant peculiarity it shows a clear kinship with other eccentric, permanent works of the American imagination, in which sober consideration of life on this continent is yoked to transcendental, even prophetic ambition. More than any other active filmmaker Mr. Malick belongs in the visionary company of homegrown romantics like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and James Agee. The definitive writings of these authors did not sit comfortably or find universal favor in their own time. They can still seem ungainly, unfinished, lacking polish and perfection. This is precisely what makes them alive and exciting: “Moby-Dick,” “Leaves of Grass,” “The Bridge” and “A Death in the Family” lean perpetually into the future, pushing their readers forward toward a new horizon of understanding.To watch “The Tree of Life” is, in analogous fashion, to participate in its making.

Brett McCracken (Christianity Today): Eschewing traditional cinematic narrative, Life is structured in movements. The film is bookended by allegro movements—sweeping montage visions of the universe coming into being and a grandiose finale evoking what could be interpreted as a Christian eschatological climax. In the middle is the adagio section—a slower-paced, intimate observation of one Texas family in the 1950s. Though the spectacles of the beginning and end are jaw-dropping (dinosaurs, molecular reproduction, asteroids, a cosmic light show), it’s the middle section that reveals the most truth. Here, in one humble corner of a universe unimaginably large and complex, the true mystery of existence is manifest: A father, mother, children, love, death, hate, forgiveness, reconciliation. Together, this micro memoir and macro meditation form nothing less than a virtuoso triumph that will be talked about, remembered, studied, and treasured for decade….

In Life, as in his other films, Malick is trying to show us the glory: How the world around us—its majesty and miracle—cannot help but humble us. Another way of looking at the film’s nature vs. grace dialectic is to understand it in terms of pride vs. humility. While “grace doesn’t try to please itself,” says Mother, nature “only wants to please itself … to have its own way.” As fallen humans, we’re prone to the way of pride — to demand freedom, control, to dominate rather than be dominated.

To survive in this world, you must have “fierce will,” Mr. O’Brien tells his sons early on. But by the end of the film, after Mr. O’Brien loses his job, he comes to realize that he’s been misguided, losing out on the glorious presence of life and love in the midst of his ruthless insistence on success. “I dishonored it all,” he says. “Didn’t notice the glory.”…

In the battle between nature and grace, grace always wins, in the sense that survival is, in the end, out of our hands. It’s in God’s hands. It’s only by his grace that we can breathe in summer air, touch the butterfly, chase the bubbles, and swim in the creek. Even majestic creatures like dinosaurs are humbled, laid to utter waste by one massive rock flung to the earth. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” says Grandmother (Fiona Shaw) in one scene. “That’s the way he is.”

The Tree of Life manages to showcase both man’s glory and his inestimable smallness. Life, in the end, is not about us making a mark. It’s about tuning our ears to the symphony of life around us, paying attention to the bigger story, and doing our best to love each other and receive grace in the time we’ve been given.

Dana Stevens (Slate): When Malick sees a tree, he really sees it—and by some alchemy of camerawork, language, and music I’m still trying to figure out, he offers you that experience in such a way that it feels like your own. Here’s a testament to this reclusive, stubborn, visionary director’s stunning achievement: His films can change the way you look at the world by showing you how another person sees it….

This timeless quality is more apparent than ever in The Tree of Life, a movie that is, in large part, about time and the mystery of our passage through it. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” God asks Job in the Biblical epigraph that opens the film. In the context of the Book of Job, this reads as a somewhat guiltifying rhetorical question: Who are you to complain, buddy? But Malick’s intent is to pose the question seriously. Where were we when the earth’s foundations were laid, whether by God or by the inexorable laws of science? (Either way, the mystery is equally great.) And if we could somehow be present to witness the beginning of everything, would that help us to understand our own lives? ….

The middle section of the film, in which we follow Jack’s childhood in a series of fragmented memories from birth until about the age of 12, is as astonishingly precise a rendering of the way the world looks to a child as I’ve seen on film. You know that Emily Dickinson poem about “a certain slant of light”? Every slant of light in this movie is a certain slant of light, evocative of an individual and irreplaceable moment in time. The camera—wielded by Emanuel Lubezki, who also performed cinematographic miracles in Children of Men—not only creates visually beautiful images (like the recurring painterly close-ups of the mother rinsing her feet in a lawn sprinkler.) It provides Jack’s perspective on what we’re seeing, makes us notice the things he notices, whether it’s light from a jack-o’-lantern held down at a toddler’s eye level or a tiny, momentous shift of expression on a parent’s face.

Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal): Mr. Malick uses his film to ask the sort of existential questions that he has posed in such earlier works as “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line”: Why does misfortune befall good people? How can faith be sustained in the face of tragedy that is, by nature, incomprehensible? What of God? Where do we belong in the raging indifference of the cosmos? To set the larger context—larger being a colossal understatement—the film gives us a long sequence the likes of which hasn’t been since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (with special effects by Douglas Trumbull, the same wizard who conjured up Mr. Kubrick’s marvels). Successive segments look back to life’s beginnings—this tree has really deep roots—and out to the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter and the infinitude that surrounds us, paying special attention to violent creation and violent destruction. You do not come out of this film feeling like the king of the world.

Andrew O’Herir (Salon.com): Even by this idiosyncratic filmmaker’s standards “The Tree of Life” tells nothing close to a conventional story, and during the dense barrage of images and sounds that fill the first half-hour or so you may wonder whether it has a story at all. Malick might respond to that question with a question of his own; he was once a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Oxford, after all. Does the Bible tell a story? Do the Upanishads? Does the 13 billion-year history of creation — large or small C, as you prefer — tell a story? Because those are relevant touchstones or reference points for “The Tree of Life,” a massively ambitious work of allegorical and almost experimental cinema that seeks to recapture the lived experience of a 1950s family, after the fashion of a Texas Proust, and connect it to the life of the universe, the nature and/or existence of God, the evolution of life on earth and even the microscopic chemistry and biology of life…

We are here, living and dying on this little blue rock in the middle of space, mesmerized by the mysterious relationships between parents and children that defines our lives, connected at every point — a tree we plant, an animal we feed, the earth we dig in, the thoughts we think — to something much larger we can’t really understand. Trying to get at some of that in a 2011 movie-star vehicle that cost many millions of dollars to make, and is partly an autobiographical family story and partly an indecipherable spiritual allegory — well, that’s nuts. Right now I suspect that “The Tree of Life” is pretty much nuts overall, a manic hybrid folly with flashes of brilliance. But even if that’s true it’s a noble crazy, a miraculous William Butler Yeats kind of crazy, alive with passion for art and the world, for all that is lost and not lost and still to come.

Jeffrey Overstreet (Image): Malick’s work reminds me of Tarkovsky’s declaration: “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.”

Thomas Hibbs (First Things): Some critics have found the final scene problematic but most object to Malick’s fusion of what they are calling an IMAX nature film with the story of the O’Brien family. But Malick’s film is a corrective to the contemporary Christian tendency to avoid nature and science altogether. In flight from the doctrine of evolution and in fear of what Pascal calls “the silence of these infinite spaces,” many Christians have little to say about the physical cosmos or our bodies.

The danger, as writers as diverse as DeKonninck and Walker Percy saw, is angelism, the temptation to think of ourselves as if we were not animals—as if we were not part of a grand, terrifying, and mysterious universe, crafted by the same God who created us. The wonder inspired by encountering the vast power of nature should increase, rather than diminish, our awe of God. It also should increase our appreciation of what it means to be a creature. As DeKonninck said, “We will only be able to understand ourselves when we understand the universe. Our present is filled with the past.”

Kristen Scharold (Books & Culture): The Tree of Life has provoked strong responses from audiences, from awe to anger. That should come as no surprise. For over two hours, Malick presses and presses, posing challenges to the viewer that are intensely counter-cultural. Rejecting the assumptions of a society that often props itself up as judge and arbiter of faith—unpersuaded until reason convinces—Tree of Life does not coax the viewer to accept the likelihood of God, but rather begins with his existence and then expects the viewer to reckon with it. Instead of “does God exist?” the question is “what will you do in response to him?” “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Malick asks in the first frame, citing Job 38:4.

Largely ignoring romance, Malick lifts up a selfless agape love instead. As one reviewer pointed out, “in a culture where romantic love is the dramatic engine behind 90 percent of what passes for entertainment, Tree, in its attempt to articulate the very meaning of life, arrives at the conclusion that it is love.” And there is no doubt that the love conveyed is that of the Christian variety, as evidenced by the film’s opening quote from Job, the sermon heard during a Sunday morning scene, the face of Jesus the camera pans past, the example of Jack’s mother giving water to a prisoner before he is taken away, not to mention the myriad lines—usually in hushed voice-overs—that are wholly Christian, not in any trite sectarian sense but in the fullness with which they understand the gospel.

Malick also shakes and jostles our dependence on human achievement. By insisting on God-inspired selflessness, the beauty of “naïveté” for the sake of love, Tree unmasks the myth of the self-made man and points to a greater strength beyond one’s boot-straps. Human life is full of meaning and dignity, but it is not of our own making; it is endowed with significance by the creator of the universe. Thus humility and love, not power and self-sufficiency, are the only paths that truly matter in the end. “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end,” Jack mother’s says. “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

Finally, in a culture so sure of life’s bounded materiality—nothing here but us—The Tree of Life points to a spirituality that inflames the universe with God-bestowed beauty. We pray to God because he exists, and our eyes are renewed as we begin to love him. “All things shining,” goes the last line in The Thin Red Line, and the line might as well sum up the rapture in every frame of The Tree of Life. God’s creation is indeed ablaze with his glory, and we are called to acknowledge it.

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3 thoughts on “The Tree of Life (2011)

  1. Pingback: Tree of Life, again. | anne.marie.dimond.

  2. Pingback: “To the Wonder” (2012) | Bensonian

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