The Tree of Life: A Film Review

The subject here is a movie, one I think could be the most important made in my lifetime, at least in terms of cinema’s future. Its importance doesn’t make it a favorite nor even that I have especially enjoyed seeing it. Do we “enjoy” seeing, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III? A particular production maybe, or the acting maybe, or the language for sure, but the play itself? There are works of art too full of greatness to be reduced to the categories of “enjoy” or “like”. Think of how silly and superficial a man reveals himself to be if we hear him say, as most of us have probably heard on some occasion, “I don’t like Shakespeare.” It wouldn’t be much different if I said I enjoyed the movie we’re talking about. It is too important a film for any particular person’s enjoyment to matter.

Since I’m not saying I have enjoyed it, I don’t necessarily recommend it, not unless you see cinema as an art form. A lot of folks don’t. Movies are nothing but entertainment to them. But then, if film is an art form to you, you have probably already seen this movie if you live within striking distance of one of the limited number of screens where it showed after its release last year, and have probably now seen it more than once since it came out on DVD and Blu-ray.

On the other hand, if you don’t see many movies but understanding life matters to you, even though much of it will always be a mystery and therefore beyond complete understanding, you may care to see the film. Just don’t expect to be entertained. The film is for thinking and reflection, not escape.

We are talking about The Tree of Life. The man who made it is the near-mythic Terrence Malick. In a career of more than forty years, he has made merely a half-dozen films, including, back in 1978, Days of Heaven, perhaps the most beautiful film ever made in this country, visually speaking — at least before The Tree of Life.

The film won the Palme d’Or, the top prize and most prestigious award in the world of cinema, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was also nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, though host Billy Crystal disparaged it with the line, “What’s it about?” The question echoed the remarks of many audience members who walked out on the movie when it showed on U.S. screens. “It’s not about anything,” they complained.

Precisely therein lies the importance of The Tree of Life, and also its significance in terms of cinema’s future, if cinema is to have much of one. It is not “about” anything. There is no story.

Now, if cinema matters to you, you may know that the very first filmmakers envisioned the medium as a visual art — like painting, except the pictures would move. However, the technical means for fully realizing that original vision did not exist. As a consequence, after a few years (the late 1890s) narrative became indispensable to making movies. Indeed, cinema would become the most narrative-driven of all the arts.

The trouble for cinema is that there are only so many stories (boy meets girl; a stranger rides into town, eliminates the bad guys, rides out of town; a quest for a treasure; etc.). The endless repetition of these stories and variations on them, with the fresh faces of new actors playing the parts, may suffice to provide entertainment, but other media, like television and video games, can do that job as well as cinema (and at less cost). However, the technical means now exist to begin to realize the original vision of cinema. That is what Malick has done.

If there is no story in The Tree of Life, there is a situation. We see a forty something man played by Sean Penn on the anniversary of the death of a brother. We don’t know for certain how the brother died (it is known the filmmaker, Malick, had a younger brother who committed suicide) but we see Penn’s character grappling with the death. The question arises: How do you understand the end of a man’s life, especially a suicide, without knowing something of what went before, how he grew up, his beginning, and before that something of his parents and family, and before them the world, the universe, Creation? So we see all of that. In a word, we see “the tree of life.”

It is striking that Malick begins his film not with an image, but a text. It is from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The obvious answer is that no man was around, we weren’t yet created, so what we see of Creation is an abstraction. It has to be since no one but God Himself was present to observe the actual event. But with his images of Creation, in which perforce God must be (invisibly) present, Malick prepares us for all the images to follow in which we do not see but feel the presence of God much the way He somehow seems to be present in great paintings of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras when artists were less concerned with projecting themselves onto canvas, as in our day, and more with what could be seen were the images being painted reality itself.

In the film, the images of Creation are attended by footage of lava flows, the weather and other stuff — this world taking shape — that could be part of a National Geographic nature film. There are even glimpses of a couple of dinosaurs. Though perhaps necessary to the overall rhythm of the work, this section of the movie could be tedious, were it not for Malick’s use of music to keep it going

Soon enough, however, we see three young boys, brothers, and their parents in a small Texas city in the 1950s. The family — I don’t think it is incidental — is Catholic (it’s how Malick grew up). We had earlier briefly encountered all of them in a kind of prelude in which we heard there are two ways of life, the way of grace and the way of nature. It was the mother speaking, and she was unequivocal that the way of grace is preferable. The father, who is a veritable force of nature in human form, is musical. (In one scene we see him playing the organ at the parish church.) He once dreamed of being a “great musician”. Malick’s use of music throughout the film is a key element of it, but is nothing compared to the images — the moving pictures.

Curtains gently billowing in a breeze on a warm summer afternoon, sunlight refracting in droplets of water, autumn leaves lying on the sidewalk — the beauty of these and other images is past words’ describing. (If words could convey everything, there would be no need for pictures, or music.) Malick’s images, I think, are his answer to anyone who would ask, “What point is there to living?” He is saying, “Look around you and see.”

“Anyone” could include a dead brother.

Something has to be said about the acting in this movie. The absence of self-consciousness in the three boys who play the brothers is incredible. Jessica Chastain, the actress cast as the mother, has been reported as asking Malick how he wanted her to play the character. It is said he told her to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and look at paintings of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She must have done.

Brad Pitt plays the father. In The Assassination of Jesse James (and other work) he had already shown himself to be far more than an aging pretty boy. It is clear in The Tree of Life that in fact he is one of the best actors in the English-speaking world today. Look at his face, a father’s face, when he is told the unexpected news over the telephone that his grown son is dead. There is acting, and of a very high order.

The Texas family is of course the family in which Sean Penn’s character grew up. We discern which brother is the one whose death is being remembered. If he did commit suicide, was there something in his growing up that eventually and inevitably caused it? The question could torture the members of a family confronted by such a tragedy.

It would be easy to blame the father. As if this sensitive and gifted man had been brutalized by the “reality” he saw forcing him to abandon his dream to make music — the “reality” of marrying and raising his sons — there are moments when he is almost a caricature of macho. Did he ride his sons too hard?

What about the responsibility of the oldest boy, the one who would grow up to be the Sean Penn character? We see him betray the trust of his brother. The betrayal of trust is always traumatic.

What about the mother? Was she too “naïve” (the father’s word)?

Who knows? Does it matter? Aren’t all of us finally responsible for the shape of our own lives, whatever our experiences, however we may be treated by others? Was it a “flaw” in the dead brother that he let circumstances control his life instead of controlling his reaction to them? Isn’t that what the father did when he gave up his music? The questions pile up. “Only God knows,” we may finally be driven to say.

Of course any questions we could ask of this family in Texas sixty years ago can be asked of ourselves. Have I forgiven my father the narrowness of his ways? Why didn’t I show more appreciation to Mom? Did I ever tell my brother I was sorry? Most important: What is meant by “way of grace” and “way of nature”? What are the consequences when we follow one or the other?

American critics who trashed The Tree of Life, and there were influential ones who did, were especially hard on the end of the movie, comparing it to that unlamented failure of yesteryear Zabriskie Point. It does superficially look like that. We see Sean Penn in a jejune desert landscape. We see him see his parents, his brothers, many others, flashes of the past. Is this Heaven or at least life after death? Like the film’s images of Creation, it is certainly an abstraction. Of what? Enlightenment? I don’t know. It is not the film’s last image, but what we see for sure is the Sean Penn character finally on his knees before a pair of sandaled feet.

If you take the trouble to watch The Tree of Life, do not expect — I repeat myself — to be entertained. What you will feel is the movie making on you the demand made by all great art: to think, to reflect and, yes, to feel. If you make the effort to meet the demand, you will be left in a state at once sober and somehow exalted.

I say that knowing that many persons in ex-Christendom today have lost the capacity to be moved by art. I do not speak of our new barbarians, the young predators who roam the streets of our major cities or their vacant-eyed suburban counterparts “hanging out” in malls everywhere, but ordinary folks who live in a society too often given to rewarding mediocrity and even moral squalor while ignoring the rare and excellent — as witness the general indifference of America’s large movie-going public to The Tree of Life. All they want — all they think they need (for “relaxation”) — is entertainment. Seeking entertainment is not positively evil if the entertainment isn’t — no more than leading an unexamined life has ever been. But that’s the point here: There is more to life beyond either the “reality” of the daily rat race on the one hand, or entertainment on the other.