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The Tree of Life
I debated about whether I should put a spoiler alert on this. On the one hand, I do reveal most of what happens in the movie, but on the other hand, is it really giving away the plot when the story is this nebulous? Either way, consider yourself alerted.
I wasn’t quite sure what to think of The Tree of Life at first. I definitely enjoyed watching it, but there were a few glaring problems that caused me to at least question whether it deserves to be a truly Great Movie.
In case you haven’t seen it, the story revolves around a boy growing up in the 1950s and his relationship with his father, mother, and younger brother. The movie cuts somewhat between the past and the present, with Sean Penn playing the boy as a grown man. Apparently Sean Penn said in an interview that he didn’t know why he was even in the film. Frankly, I don’t either. The movie gains nothing from his scenes in the present, in which he mostly mopes around and thinks about the past. I don’t mind the nontraditional structure of the movie, the long break from the story to explore the creation of the universe, or the whispered voice-overs, but the one place the film did lose me is in the end when we see the adult protagonist daydream about the people from his childhood.
Aside from that, though, I think The Tree of Life is fantastic, full of gorgeous visuals and interesting biblical allusions. It opens by quoting lines from Job chapter 38, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” followed by the introduction of two parents learning that their child is dead. In voice-over the mother asks the expected questions about God, suffering, and death. From there the film begins to dramatically illustrate God’s response Job in a sequence that traces the history of the universe from the moment of creation to the generation of life, to the time of dinosaurs, and finally the Ice Age. Visually, this whole sequence is easily the most impressive thing I’ve seen in a long time. It combines chemical effects, photos of distant galaxies, natural footage of oceans and volcanoes, and some computer-generated effects to weave together a coherent visual history of the known universe. Did I mention it’s gorgeous? And through the whole thing these astronomical events are set in contrast with the death of a single child. The result is profound, going beyond the simple “look how insignificant one human life is” to a broader sense of the beauty, wonder, and weight of the entire universe.
After going through the entire history of the universe, the film returns to the human characters in the story and the birth of who will turn out to be the main character. As we are presented with a montage of his infancy and early childhood, the passage of time gradually slows and finally settles into one time frame that dominates the rest of the movie. I kept waiting for the story to revisit the death of the son and the question of suffering, but it doesn’t. It seems that the whole Job aspect of the film is completed at this point.
Instead, the film begins to explore other biblical themes. The mother and father are presented as embodiments of two opposing ideas, Nature and Grace; or, I would suggest, God’s Judgment and God’s Grace. Brad Pitt as the father is a strict disciplinarian who devotes much time and effort to instructing his sons, but through his harshness creates a climate of fear in his house. The mother is the opposite: all comfort and forgiveness and unconditional love. For much of this section we see the oldest son grow increasingly fearful and resentful of his father, and increasingly affectionate toward his more caring mother, and the movie clearly seems to imply that she is the better parent.
But then the movie takes an unexpected turn: with the father away on a long business trip, the mother finds she has almost no control over her children. The oldest yells at her, leaves the house whenever he pleases, and indulges in acts of destruction and rebellion. If the parents represent God’s Judgment and Grace, then the theological implication is that both are necessary.
While this is happening, the movie also explores the relationship between the oldest and middle brothers in a way that echoes Cain and Abel. Whereas the oldest is rebellious, resentful, and mean, the middle child is sweet, innocent, and obedient. He enjoys special attention from his parents because of his aptitude for art and music, which clearly inspires jealousy in the oldest. At one point the mother discovers a painting that the oldest son has ruined. And in later scene, when the two boys are in the woods far from home, the older brother intentionally inflicts physical harm on the younger, paralleling the first act of violence in the Bible.
While I believe all these biblical allusions are clearly intended in the film, I think it’s important not to go too far in extending the allegories. I think Terrence Malick is more interested in calling up these archetypes to get at some universal themes about existence. These are just the elements that make up the whole. There is a plot here (despite complaints to the contrary), but to focus on the plot is to miss what Malick is really up to. I think you could look at the film as a mosaic of images, ideas, and archetypes that may or may not all connect to each other, but when taken all together present a unified and universal picture. Although I found a few individual parts of this mosaic unnecessary or tedious, they don’t ultimately detract from the beauty of the whole.
I like your review. The God’s judgment versus God’s grace, and especially the idea of both being necessary didn’t occur to me. But I can see it now. I noticed the second time watching the movie the two kinds of touch associated with the two different “ways.” The father always grabs, the mother is more open-handed. The contrast between grasping and receiving, perhaps. A gentle touch to the forehead seems to mark moments of mercy, even in the dinosaur scene. I love when you can spend so long exploring connections a movie can make in you.