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?