I have loved the films of Terence Malick from the moment I first saw Badlands. This only deepened with viewings of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Though I have wanted to see The Tree of Life ever since it came out in 2011, I never got the opportunity to until I ordered the Blu-Ray for my birthday.
The film won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was hailed by critics, and is considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Roger Ebert even compared this film to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It opens with some of my favorite lines from the book of Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?" It will be repeated later visually when the Mother, after the death of one of her sons, asks God, "Where were You?" The answer is a stunningly visual series of creation.
An ambitious and vast meditation of a film. At times like a prayer as it contemplates the two ways of life: the way of nature and the way of grace. These two ways are portrayed by the Father (played by Brad Pitt) and the Mother (played by Jessica Chastain), as well as by two of the sons, Jack, and R.L. Jack, the oldest son, struggles with his nature and, while he's drawn to grace, finds himself, like the Apostle Paul saying, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." This is shown in segments as Jack finds himself thrust in with a group of boys where he has to prove his strength and that he's not afraid (though it is quite obvious that fear is one of the things he struggles most with). In voice-over, we hear Jack say, "Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside of me."
A devout Christian, Malick has made a film that is deeply theological and philosophical film, embracing the Bible as well as Kierkegaard and Heidegger. For Malick, time is not chronological but the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously and can fold back on themselves, so that he tells the story of the life of one family in Waco, Texas in a nonlinear form. Its poetic in the imagery and the way that repetition and visuals ebb and flow like the waves.
In many ways, this is kairos, God's time, and not ours. That is why we are shown the beginning of time as well as eternity. In his Four Quartets Eliot wrote:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps in time future,
And time future contained in time past
Like Four Quartets, The Tree of Life has movements and repeated themes that run throughout it. Much like T.S. Eliot does in his Four Quartets, Malick uses film to meditate on time, mortality, faith, doubt, love, forgiveness and grace. This requires more from the viewer, who cannot be passive to appreciate such a contemplative film. This is not mere entertainment, but a rumination on the nature of life and of God. Not your typical film fare and this is far from most mainstream movie releases.
It has often been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey because of its ambition, but I see it more closely linked to a film like Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror, also a nonlinear film that tells the story of a boy's relationship to his absent, poet father and his lonely mother. Both films rely on voice-over and imagery rather than traditional narrative, plot structure, and character development.
Both Malick and Tarkovsky are more interested in poetry, theology, and imagery of film. Like The Tree of Life, The Mirror is about how history repeats itself through cycles of love and nature passed by generations both seen through the eyes of a boy, adolescent and grown man (all the same person).
Dreams and memories are all apart of his life with as much meaning as reality, since the latter is shaped and formed by the other two elements.
Both filmmakers draw from their own lives for these sublime masterpieces. Both are exquisite meditative journeys that draw in the viewer to make sense of the metonymy, ellipsis, and aposiopesis. These require the audience to move past traditional film watching where one passively sits there to not think but to be entertained. Instead, it's the audience who must make the connections and to see more deeply into what is unfolding onscreen before them. It is a rich and profound work that rewards those who are willing to undertake it. Many, however, will be put off by the film, so much so that when the movie was originally released, there were theaters who posted this at the box office:
This is cinema as art. There are frames of this film that could hang on the walls of any major museum and even bares resemblances to works by artists like Andrew Wyeth. I was even struck by how much Jessica Chastain resembled Helga, Andrew Wyeth's favorite subject.
The gorgeous cinematography was done by Emmanuel Lubezki (whose work can be seen in films like Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant).
This film ranks up there in the tradition of the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski. To call this film impressionistic and spiritual is to simplify the depth of it. There is such beauty and mysticism in this work that it challenges us. This film, like Tarkovsky's, does not just translate life into film, it transforms it.
It is a rare work of beauty, power, and poetry.
As the Mother (Chastain) tells her sons, "Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light." Malick's film does just that and I am thankful for it.