Review: The Tree of Life (Christian perspective)

There are head-on attempts at bringing Christian doctrine to bear on the life of our society [however] … something less direct and more reflective is called for. - Albert Borgman

A few weeks after Tree of Life was released, movie critic, Roger Ebert tweeted a picture of a small sign posted outside a cinema in Stamford, Connecticut.  The sign encouraged "all patrons to read up on the [Tree of Life] before going to see it ... and [to] please go in with an open mind".  When Michelle and I saw the film on a Sunday in October, right after church, it was hard to ignore that about a quarter of those watching had left within the first forty minutes.  However, this movie is, in my humble opinion, one of the best and also the most misunderstood film of 2011.  It may not conform to traditional story-telling, but if you have an open and attentive mind you will come out of this movie changed or at least with something meaningful to discuss.  My hope is that after reading this review you will take time to watch this movie - even for a second time (or attempt).

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together And all the sons of God shouted for joy?  Job 38:4, 7
The Tree of Life was written and directed by Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), and focuses on the O'Brien family in the 1950's. The family comprises of a father (Brad Pitt), mother (Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter) and 3 boys.  At the centre of the story is the relationship between the father and his eldest son, Jack.  Comparisons, even to Malick’s previous work, are difficult with a film such as this, and even films that come to mind are only similar in a superficial way.  Of all Malick’s films it is best compared to The Thin Red Line which not only has reflective portions but also deals extensively with human frailty and suffering.

The acting in Tree of Life is remarkable.  Each part is pitch perfect and completely at home in its setting - especially the three children, whose acting is the best child acting I've seen since Catinca Untaru in Tarsem Singh's, The Fall.  Brad Pitt is very convincing as a hard man and disciplinary father and Jessica Chastain is phenomenal as the gracious, understanding and protective mother.

The movie starts off with the above quote from Job 38 and the mother explaining that everyone lives by either grace or nature, the former wanting the best for others and the latter wanting the best for his or her own sake.  Jack's mom personifies grace while his dad exudes nature.  Then the O'Brien's discover that their nineteen year old son has died and the variety of reactions that come with the news:  We hear the mother cry out, a friend attempting to give comforting words and a priest's assurance that the boy is "with God now", to which the mother whispers in reply "Wasn't God always with him?"  These scenes form a patchwork with no continuous plot or story, they serve to convey the grief of the parents over their lost son.  Intersecting these are scenes with Jack - the eldest son - as a middle-aged man (Sean Penn), dealing with the anniversary of his middle brother's untimely death, many years later.  

"Lord, why? Where were you?""What are we to You?"
It is out of this untimely death that these questions arise, and it is the basis for the rest of movie.  The cinematography and visuals are striking, haunting, beautiful and otherworldly throughout.  Malick expects his audience to do the thinking and interpreting while watching.  He's not interested in giving easy answers and hints to what things could mean.  And such is life, making the movie all the more painful and effective - but there is no trace of nihilism here, the images are as meaningful as they are beautiful.  The only answer to these questions we get out of Malick is the answer quoted from Job at the beginning of the movie (above), it is the same answer Job got in his suffering and it is the only answer the film is intent on exploring.  In this Malick is daring - almost reckless - allowing the audience the time and space to reflect on these questions during numerous  sections of the movie that can be best described as introspective.  The creation sequence that follows the grieving parents scene is utterly awe inspiring and done almost entirely without the use of CGI effects (believe it or not).

It is not until about halfway through the movie that Malick comes to focus on the 1950’s family, the opposites of grace and nature (personified by the mother and father) and Jack, as a boy coming to terms with the loss of innocence and his disciplinary father.  The tree imagery through out the film brings the viewer back to the first family, the first case of lost innocence, passing the point of no return.  

Hopefully this purposefully vague and inadequate description gives the impression that there is a lot more going on here than a simple father/son story, as the movie deals with larger themes of loss, pain, anger, rejection and grace; and never in hollywood format.  The film demands engagement from the viewer, to relive some of the painful feelings of inadequacy and hurt that everyone has experienced from their own loss or from their parents, and the anger that can result from it: especially sons towards their fathers.  

“Wasn't God always with him?”

Most importantly, it deals with these issues the same way Scripture does, not by trying to solve the mystery of suffering or provide universal principles or guidelines for life (which many "Christian" movies attempt, and are disingenuous as a result), but by revealing the deep humanity of the characters and their utter frailty, brokenness, flaws and sin.  In this way the movie is imminently relatable, and although it does not point to Christ it leaves the door open for a response, that something beyond this visible world and just out of sight is perhaps still within reach; just as God was there throughout the creation of the cosmos, He is also here with us, and with you always.

If I sound like I'm gushing, it's because I am.  I have really only discussed the first hour of the film because this is a movie that must be experienced and not explained and is better felt than understood, especially as the story-telling runs into sections that are more 'poem' than 'prose'.  It is the high point of what poetry, story, art, and emotion can produce when masterfully caught on film - the climax of which, if you will allow it, is worship.

If you are interested in other great movies that deal with familial issues, I would suggest two films.  First, the 1953 Japanese film Tokyo Story (dir. YasujirĂ´ Ozu) about an elderly couple who go to visit their children in Tokyo only to discover they are too busy to care.  And second, the 1948 Italian movie Bicycle Thieves (dir. Vittorio De Sica) which is a touching movie about a father and son trying to earn enough money for their family in the poverty stricken, post-WWII Rome (it is available on Netflix).