Yes, at times, Terrence Malick’s movie is like watching a tree grow. Bamboo (a grass) grows faster. But there’s something to be said for a movie that can bore you and break you within the same 2 hours. Maybe because we have short attention spans, maybe because we demand to be entertained, maybe because we’re just not used to this stuff – but Malick has put forward something that needs to be seen, discussed, argued and wrestled with.
The Tree of Life centres on the O’Brien family in the US: three boys growing up with their mother and father. The middle son dies unexpectedly and unexplainedly, and the rest of the movie wrestles with the why. The mother’s questions to God are answered by a Planet Earth-like history of the Universe. It is haunting, beautiful, poignant (and slightly boring). You can hear God answer her: “Who do you think you are?” “Who is man that I be mindful of him?” “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” (emphasis mine)
I forgot until now that there are some hauntingly beautiful special effects. The creation of the universe and the evolution of life are miraculously rendered. A cute dinosaur drinks and plays possum on the same river bend that the boys go to later in the film. The dinosaur scene even plays out the nature vs. grace dichotomy that is at the heart and soul of this film. Death is dealt with, and light, windows and trees are used so incredibly often you’ll wonder if you are watching in a greenhouse.
The film sets up two ways to live: by grace or by nature. Jessica Chastain, the beautiful Mrs. O’Brien opines that grace is living for others, and by nature we seek only to serve ourselves. She models, imperfectly, how to live gracefully. Brad Pitt plays her husband: a tough father who loves his children, but seems to live out his oldest son’s fears of wanting to do what’s right, but not being able to, and hating the way that he acts. If you are a father, or a brother or a son, you will see yourself here in one way or another, and as the oldest son devolves into acting the way he knows he shouldn’t, one wonders how such seemingly small decisions can lead one down a road that is almost impossible to turn from.
Dialogue is sparse over the nearly two and a half hours of film, and therefore viewers will sift all they can from every single uttered line. What do you make of lines like: “He sends flies to wounds that he should heal”?
There is wisdom here. Shared almost exclusively by the mother. When told by the pastor that her son is in God’s hands now after he has died, she replies with, “He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?” and “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”
This is a movie that needs to be watched. Sure there are too many butterflies and weird dog shots. I didn’t need to see kids climb up that treehouse ladder 43 times, and I could have done without all of the skyscrapers. I nearly laughed when a mask floated underwater 2 minutes from the end. I’m sure Malick has reasons for all of these symbols, and I could watch it again and come up with another list. But sitting through this incredibly personal family drama against the backdrop of the birth of the entire universe made me think more about myself than any other movie I’ve seen this year. Go into it with no expectations, and you’ll be amazed at where it takes you – farther in than maybe you were prepared to go.