I’m haunted by a film I saw this week. By haunted, I don’t mean the usual sense of the term–as in scared by a ghost. Rather, I mean it in the sense that Flannery O’Connor used the word: a surprising and (usually) deeply moving moment, scene, or event in a story that gives me such deep insight that I will remember it for a long time. (For a definition closer to Flannery’s, and some wonderful examples of what she meant, check out Kris Rasmussen’s 2009 list of Top 10 ‘Haunting’ Movie Scenes.)
The Tree of Life is a soul-haunting experience. As our media-saturated world becomes ever more experiential, writer and director Terrence Malick has created a film that is much more than powerful story: it’s a cinematic experience that is deeply satisfying and probing at the same time.
There is no way to describe in one sentence what this film is about. The trailers show that it is the story of one family’s journey–father, mother, and three sons–but it’s more than that because their story is placed within the context of the human experience, with plentiful “commentary” in the form of cinematic, visual poetry–I really don’t have words to describe it, but it was an amazing experience. Here’s a completely inadequate one-sentence description:
The Tree of Life seeks to explore the scope of the human experience by dramatically contrasting the intimate life of one family in 1950s Texas, with the creation of life on earth.
The fact that I cannot “capture” what this film is about in one sentence means that Malick has done what the greatest film directors do. As Flannery O’Connor used to say when people asked her what her stories meant, “If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have had to write the story.”
This film has instantly rocketed to my list of top ten films of all time.
Visually, auditorily, and narratively, this film is a delight. The scope of the film is simultaneously vast and tiny–we ponder both the evolution of life on earth, the depth of grief and loss, and the specific characteristics of a particular family living in the 1950s. The cinematography makes this journey very personal for the audience, bringing us in close and deep–to each character, to each subject, with a creative eye for details. (When the boys play “kick the can”, we watch it almost from the perspective of the can itself before it is kicked away. The close-up of the newborn son–so close it distorts–is striking.)
One of my favorite things about the film is that it demands that the audience actively engage in the narrative. Nothing is given away. There is no easy to follow, contrived storyline. The scenes from the family’s life are not in chronological order, so we must puzzle out the clues we are given, imagining what is left out. The cinematically poetic imagery and music which provides commentary on the narrative not only give us more clues, but encourages us to reflect on our own experiences: of love, of acceptance, of sibling rivalry, of the first betrayal, of the power that parents wield over their children, of the startling first consciousness of moral choices.
While we are not given a complete picture of the details of the story, we are given a well-rounded, deep perspective of the characters of the family: the parents and the two older boys. As I was watching, I didn’t even think about the actors because they were so fully the characters they represent onscreen. The film was particularly profound for me simply because the characters were so real: I have known these people in my own life; at times, I have been one of these people. Incredible directing and acting.
In places, the film is filled with one-liners that could become a power idea for your entire life, such as the mother’s line in the trailer: “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
Yet, The Tree of Life is much more than a narrative: director Terrence Malick plays with the cinematic form to create an experience for the viewer that includes both narrative and commentary. The “commentary” contains very few words. Instead, through powerful music and gripping imagery, it evokes the audience’s emotions, encouraging us to engage even more deeply, contrasting the details of our tiny lives with the immensity of the creation of the universe.
Malick, a truly masterful writer and director, shows his mastery in using all the power of the cinematic medium to evoke not just a powerful story of the human experience, but the audience’s emotions about their own experience. I left the theater wrung out, moved, inspired, and extremely grateful for the giftedness of life.
The meditative, sometimes-impressionistic style of the film may discourage some casual viewers. It’s not an easy film to watch. (At its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it was both applauded and booed by the audience. It then went on to win the Palme d’Or–the top prize of the festival.) The engagement required by the film isn’t instantly gratifying, and this may prevent some viewers from staying with the film to experience the deep satisfaction of the journey.
The only other limitation is that The Tree of Life should be seen on the big screen. I think it might lose a lot of its power on the small screen, such as the contrast of the vast scope and the tiny details, the raw energy of some of the visuals, and the immersive experience of going so close on the details.
Window to the Soul?
The Tree of Life is absolutely a radiant window to the soul that achieves what few films do: a sense of the transcendence of God. This film is a profound exploration of the human experience: what it means to be human, to “be” family, to make a moral choice, to experience grace.
The film is framed by a quotation from Job 38: 4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding; when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” It encourages a profound reflection on the nature of the human person, on how we can discover God in the world and in our lives.
For those who are interested, themes included in the film are:
- Giftedness of life
- Presence of God
- Life and death
- The Question of Suffering/Evil in a World Created by a Loving God