The Tree of Life
starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken
written and directed by Terrence Malick
I immediately knew this was a Terrence Malick film, well before I saw the credits. It took only a few seconds to recognize his work. The giveaway is that Terrence Malick films feature such stunning photography and sound that they almost rank as Nature documentaries. The colors are pastel. Malick seems particularly taken with jungle green. The sounds - crickets, birds, wind, rustling leaves, ocean waves, creaking floorboards, distant barking and traffic, thunder, falling rain, etc. - are simply overpowering. Visually I would like to rank Malick’s film higher than I do, but for me it is difficult to get the story through its visual and auditory brilliance. Like the last Malick film I saw - the World War Two story The Thin Red Line, based on the James Jones novel, which also featured Sean Penn - in The Tree of Life Malick seems to be striving to conduct a conversation with God. In that sense the films feel not just spiritual, but prayerful. Characters continuously whisper their conversation with God, marveling at the magnificence of creation while pondering their place in it.
Two things are happening in this film. 1) Malick is exploring theodicy, the problem of the existence of evil in a world created by a benevolent, compassionate, caring and good God; 2) the theodicy problem is set against the background of a man’s childhood memories growing up in Waco, Texas with an overbearingly strict father. A younger sibling dies in childhood. The fabric of the family is nearly ruptured. Where is God? Why should humans strive to be good if God is not? Who are we to God? In this case these questions translate into the father-son relationship. Who are the children to their father? If the father is not good why should his sons try to be as well?
The only way to be happy is to love.
Incidentally, the film brilliantly exposes boy behavior, the way young boys horse around privately. When my daughter was watching the movie by herself, after me, I stuck my head in the door and said,
“You know, Emma, that’s real boy behavior. That’s what boys are really like when they are playing outside, alone.”
I’m conservative enough that I want a story to make better sense to me, faster. In this movie I sat through a full half hour of nature stuff overdubbed with classical music. Hubble Telescope photographs of the cosmos, planets, gas clouds, asteroids striking the earth, unexplained shots of dinosaurs. Come on! I seriously thought of quitting the DVD early, something which I very rarely do after paying money to rent it.