My take on “The Tree of Life”

We had just purchased our movie tickets when the matinee audience streamed out of the theatre. Two women accosted us with a warning. “It’s horrible,” they said. “Don’t go.”

I wasn’t entirely surprised at their vehemence, because Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain,  has been getting rather strong reactions from critics and audiences alike. Seems it’s one of those movies that folks either hate or love, and can talk about or argue over for hours. At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir called it “pretty much nuts overall, a manic hybrid folly with flashes of brilliance…[but] noble crazy, a miraculous William Butler Yeats kind of crazy…”

It has craziness about it alright. It’s the story — though “story” is a stretch, given its lack of narrative and its non-linearity — of a Texas family with three sons growing up in the 1950s. And the story of creation! We learn early on that the middle son has died and that not a day goes by that oldest son Jack doesn’t think about his brother. Penn doesn’t have much to do in the film, it seems, besides look brooding and unhappy in his world of skyscrapers, but it leads into reflection, through a gorgeous long sequence on the unfolding of the universe, as it were, which leads to Jack’s birth and then into reminiscence on his childhood.

Child actor Hunter McCracken is wonderful in his role as young Jack. This section of the movie depicts the delights of childhood, and also, as Jack grows, loss of innocence. Mother is warm, almost an angel, and Father full of contradictions — loving one moment and brutally demanding the next. We see Jack’s confusion, his growing resistance, his awakening to sexuality. There isn’t much dialogue in the movie, but there are voice-overs, like the mother’s opening words about the “two ways, the way of nature and the way of grace… choose which one you’ll follow… no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end” (which sounds like the biblical Wisdom literature) and whispers against shots of the sky that seem to be prayers: Lord, where were you? and Did you know? and Hear us, Lord and I search for you. This section of the movie ends with the family moving away from their familiar and beloved neighbourhood. The movie segues back to Jack as an adult and into a strange, almost ethereal, coda which may represent a sense of reconciliation with his past. Or may represent something else; I’m just not sure.

The movie is profoundly religious on several levels. It depicts the religious practice of the family, at a baptism, listening to a sermon, speaking prayers at meals and bedtime and church. It also contains many scriptural allusions, including the title, and asks those philosophical questions we ask — of God or life — such as mentioned above. Since the movie opens with a quotation from  Job (38:4,7) — Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation… while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — it seems to me this ought to be taken as some kind of clue about Malick’s intentions for the movie. Job’s questions about his losses and grief weren’t really answered, and to that extent, it’s fair to speak of God as a disappointment, though in fact God does eventually speak, if from an entirely different perspective.

I make no claims to understand what Malick is really up to with The Tree of Life, but I would certainly like to see the movie again. The emotional effect it had on me was quite unlike that of most movies we see. Generally one experiences in moviegoing an entertainment of some sort, with its release in laughter perhaps, or the vicarious satisfaction of romance or justice, or a takeaway thought to mull over further. This one, however, pulled me open to the core, tense with fear over the father-son relationship, stunned into a sense of worship through the photography and music, frustrated that it was so obvious one minute and obtuse the next, and altogether reeling with the power of it though unable to say exactly why.

If, and when, you’ve seen the movie, what did you think of it?

A movie that did the work of a sermon

It’s not often that a movie does the work of a sermon for me — the work a sermon may do, that is, of linking text/truth to some situation in my life and touching it with compassion, perhaps, or conviction.In this case it was conviction, and the movie was “Up in the Air.” 

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air

“Up in the Air” is a charming, thoughtful film about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who is constantly flying around the country doing his job as a employment termination specialist — he fires people — and whose personal goal it is to accumulate ten million frequent flyer miles. His lifestyle doesn’t allow time for settling down, not to mention long-term relationships, but he doesn’t really mind. In fact, Ryan also does gigs as a motivational speaker, helping people become freer, more unfettered, as he is. The metaphor he uses is that of a backpack, too stuffed with material possessions, too full of people. A backpack that needs to be burned, or emptied at least.

As the story unfolds, Bingham’s philosophy is challenged by people who demand his reluctant attention, and by an affair premised on his own ideas which reveals its true emptiness when he finds himself falling in love. 

The day H. and I went to the movie had been a busy one, a day in which I’d felt the backpack of obligations pulling heavily on my shoulders. I’ve gotten better over the years at discerning what to say Yes to, and better at saying No, but it’s not always the planned involvements and thought-through lists of our lives that get us down. It’s the things we haven’t planned that derail us. When I was a young mom, for example, it was the unexpected exigencies of children’s lives that could upset a nicely considered schedule again and again.

Now I’m in that swelling demographic of women who find themselves looking after elderly parents. Not looking after in a live-in situation, perhaps, but very much on call for driving, shopping, cleaning, decision-making, and so on. As anyone in this situation knows, there’s nothing predicatable about the lives of the elderly either. 

Whenever our obligations overwhelm us, the easiest reaction is frustration with the people who adhere to them. It is they, rather than the tasks, who seem to be hurting our shoulders. And the easiest solution, at least Bingham’s in “Up in the Air,” appears to involve taking distance from those people. But, as he discovers, that’s a pretty lonely place to land. And driving home from the movie, it hit me squarely. The people in my backpack aren’t the problem. As I trace the web of my relationships, in fact, I see that they’re the source of so much of my life’s value and joy. 

The challenge of how to balance the competing demands of my life probably won’t go away. When the kids were small, it involved constant negotiation, inner and outer, between the obligations imposed by their existence and my (then tiny and seed-like) sense of a call to write. And the negotiation never seemed to end, at any stage, and is still going on, now, in figuring out how to best to fulfill my vocation and take care of these other responsibilities too. 

“Up in the Air” clarified my thinking, re-oriented my heart. I realized anew what’s non-negotiable. It really was as good as a sermon. So maybe this week I can skip church. (Just kidding, Pastor Dan.)

From the movie “Precious”

Precious, an abused and confused 16-year-old, barely able to read or write, pregnant with her second child, is enrolled in an alternative school with several other girls, each of whom is to introduce herself by name and her favourite colour and something she does well. At first Precious doesn’t want to say anything, but she listens to the others and then hesitantly raises her hand and says her name and that she likes yellow. Although she doesn’t think she does anything well, she finally acknowledges, at the coaxing of the teacher, that she can cook. Then — 

Precious: I never spoke up in class before…

Teacher: How does that make you feel?


Precious: … Here. It make me feel… here.