I mentioned a while back that I fell in love with a movie trailer—the one for The Tree of Life. I saw the movie the weekend after it opened, and I’ve refrained from commenting until I had time to reflect on it. I need to see it again (and again). It’s not a film one can take in in a single viewing. (That’s what DVD is for, I guess.)
Also, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to love it—not with whatever combination of tastes and prejudices I share in common with its writer and director, Terrence Malick. So take my words with a grain of salt. But as you do, please go see it. You’ll have to go to an art-house theater. It won’t be at the big multiplex down the street. But it’s so worth it. It’s a great movie. Powerful. Heartbreakingly beautiful.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, the movie features the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen. I think Slate or Salon did a parody of Terrence Malick’s films a while back called “Nature documentary or Terrence Malick film?” Whatever. The nature part of this film, which includes the Big Bang and CGI dinosaurs, along with some spectacular astronomical and microbiological shots, is astonishingly good. These scenes communicate to the viewer, life, any and all life, is miraculous and good.
The heart of the movie leaves Jurassic Park behind after while (too long a while, Lisa, my wife, would want you to know) and settles in a small Texas town (Waco? I can’t remember) in the 1950s, with a family of two parents and three sons. We already know—I think it’s the opening scene in the film—that one of the three sons has died at 19. The mother gets word by telegram.
The movie seeks to probe the meaning of the son’s life and death. The tip-off is the quotation from Job, the beginning of God’s response to the put-upon victim of the Satan’s wiles: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
Biblical allusions abound. Here are a couple. When the oldest son (played as an adult by Sean Penn) is coming of age, around age 12, he says in a voiceover, “I can’t do what I want to do, but what I hate,” echoing Paul’s words in Romans 7. Another Romans reference: When the stern, ambitious father (played wonderfully by Brad Pitt, by the way, in a role intended for the late Heath Ledger, who would not have been better) loses the job for which he had sacrificed so much, he has a moment of self-awareness. He says to his wife, whom he accuses earlier in the film of being too soft on the children, “I missed the glory” (echoing Romans 3:23).
I have never seen a movie that said as much with so few words—not even close. The film is completely comfortable letting images (and the musical score) tell the story. Everything feels un-rushed, natural. The dialogue, such as it is, feels overheard, rather than scripted or staged. Watch the scenes in which the oldest brother, about three years old at the time, plays with his baby brother. The camera just lingers there! I’ve never seen that before. It’s so incredibly beautiful! Again, it communicates, life is miraculous and good.
I felt this way about many other scenes, including these: The brothers’ running through a field and rolling down a grassy hill. Or children playing in a fog of DDT behind a pesticide truck.
A couple of recurring symbols predominate: The sky is God. Not that we needed to hear this, but the mother tells one of her sons earlier, “God lives up there.” With that in mind, I’ll have to think about the differences between shots of open sky versus the sky mediated through windows (another motif). Water is grace (I think). There’s a surreal scene in which a child is swimming in his room (which is underwater). But there’s also a scene in which a child drowns in a pool. Hmm… I’ll have to think about that.
Again, that’s what DVDs are for. The studio didn’t send me a reviewer’s copy.
In one of the film’s more controversial series of scenes (controversial because it goes against the grain of a deeply pessimistic popular culture), Penn reunites with his brother and family—in a heavenly place, represented by a beach and ocean, naturally. This appears to be a vision—rather than Penn’s character’s afterlife—because after this reunion, we see him in present time, with a faint smile on his face. We know that he’ll be O.K.