Terence Malick's "Tree of Life" begins with a quote from the book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?...when the morning stars sang together." In the book of Job, this is God's answer to Job's quite justifiable complaints: I know more about what's going on than you do.
The ensuing story is about a Texas family, the O'Brien's, in the 1950's. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram, at home, that brings grim news. She calls her husband (Brad Pitt) who is at work. We slowly gather that one of their three sons has died.
Then, in the ultimate flash-back, Malick goes all the way to the beginning of time. Assuming the big bang theory and evolution, Malick gives us his version of the creation of the universe, and 5 billion years of history. We see a flickering flame, crashing waves, primordial chaos, light upon water, life coming into cells. We even see a dinosaur who appears to have a moment of compassion.
This dramatic opening raised hopes for a movie that might operate in the context of a Teilhardian-Tillichian view of life. These two 20th century theologians, especially Teilhard, wrote Christian theology for people living after Darwin. (People today often associate the Christian faith with opposition to evolution. It is not so. The majority of Christians actually take the opposite view, i.e. that God created the universe and used evolution to do it.)
The O'Brien family's story is set within the context of the on-going creation of the universe. Creation is in process, and creation images abound throughout the movie. The water images signify the watery chaos. The light images signify God. The trees signify the "tree of life" in the Garden of Eden.
Mr. O'Brien is a loving but stern father. He has moments of great affection with his three boys, but also some moments of heartlessness, even cruelty. He was not atypical in his time. He insists his sons call him "father"--it was an age when everyone supposed that "father knows best."
We learn that Mr. O'Brien had his own grief. He had wanted to be a classical pianist. That dream had been unattainable, and he'd had to "settle" into a white collar job at the industrial plant that supported his middle-class family. His disappointment is expressed through his exhortations toward striving, as if grief could be overcome through exhortations to accomplishment.
Several critics have talked about the interplay of "nature" and "grace" in the movie. Mr. O'Brien is said to be a figure representing the harshness of nature, while Mrs. O'Brien is the character of loving grace. This seems too pat. More on point is that the griefs and trials of life, expressed in their own ways by both Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien, are seen in the context of all of creation where there is, yes, loss and grief, but also light and hope.
The story is told from the perspective of the oldest son, Jack, who appears also as an adult played by Sean Penn. Jack is the one who most feels the contradictions of his life. He sees tragedy around him, and seems to feel it in his bones. His father's way of discipline and striving is not only inadequate to the proportion of the human problem, but also seems to issue in despotism. When your world is careening out of control, it can be tempting, if futile, to try to re-assert control.
You might say this is a Christian movie--God is both at the beginning and end of the movie, as well as all the way through it--but it would not be considered Christian in the familiar way of Hollywood. There are no glib answers or easy pieties, in other words.
Yet, near the center of the movie is an image of Jesus in stained-glass. He is wearing purple. Purple is the color of royalty. In the ancient world, purple dye was quite expensive. Only the king could afford to wear it. Purple is also the color of suffering and spiritual depth. Purple is the color of Lent for these two reasons.
The Biblical story behind the image is from John's gospel when Jesus is standing before Pilate, and Pilate asks his famous question, "What is truth?" The question seems to haunt Jack. What is truth? Jack is frequently shown gazing toward the light, but he mostly looks to the light through a window. An invisible barrier seems to keep him from breaking through.
Of course it does. Malick's view is that life's tragedies cannot be understood, just as Job's trials could not be understood. We cannot, by striving, overcome tragedy. Tragedy can only be endured unless or until some revelation serves to place it in a larger context. As the Greek poet, Aeschylus, put it:
Even in our grief, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our despair, and against our own will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Is "Tree of Life" a "good" movie? Yes. Malick deals with some weighty material. The book of Job, after all, deals with one of the most central questions of life: Why do bad things happen to good people? The O'Brien's are good people. Indeed, they are very nearly the archetype of what was considered "good" in the 1950's. Yet, they are punished, and each of them tormented. Something isn't right. Father is wrong.
To his credit, Father admits it. When his son dies, he expresses remorse that he had been too strict with his son. He had been too much of a perfectionist about getting his son to turn the pages properly as he played the organ. He links his son's death with his own personal tragedy and now realizes that his perfectionism, his search for mastery, has gone nowhere.
Is that why Mr. O'Brien never became a classical pianist? In order to perform at that high a level, more than technical skill is required. You can focus so much on playing the right notes that you miss the "music" that lies in, with, and under them.
Is this movie hopeful? Yes. Suffering is seen in the context of the cosmos, and tragedy is ultimately redeemed. Nothing about it was easy, but grace and love endure in the end. Is it beautiful? Yes. Terrence Malick has crafted some of the most beautiful images ever to appear on film--see "Days of Heaven" for example--and this one is like unto it.
The musical score is magnificent. For themes of this nature--the creation of the world and human suffering--only classical music will do. Mahler, Smetana, Mussorgsky, Holst, Gorecki drive the movie. (Is this just me, or did Mr. O'Brien have a moment of revelation during his playing of Bach?)
Now for some criticism. Is the movie entertaining? No. The movie is long, non-linear, and sometimes incoherent. People have gotten frustrated, and walked out--a fair number of them by this report. Long stretches are tedious, and sometimes seem pointless.
The voice-overs want to sound insightful and "spiritual," but come off sounding rather affected and pretentious. No clear narrative line exists, which can be frustrating and confusing. It is never quite clear who Jack is. Is he a younger brother, or the older?
The scene of heaven--the beach scene--seemed surreal and grim. Everything is there--all has been recapitulated--but Jack seems unaffected. Finally, it was too long. Archetypal imagery is splendid, but a little goes a long way.
Some critics have said that this is a movie you either love or hate. Either you find it emotionally deep and compelling, or you find it tedious and pompous. Contrary to the critics, my reaction is somewhere in the middle. You have to applaud Malick for his ambition and insight, and gorgeous cinematography. On the other hand, is there a rule that the great themes of creation and redemption must be murky and laborious? Mystery is one thing. Tedium is quite another.
That said, the sunflower scene was the heart of the movie for me. We are the sunflowers, Malick seems to say. We all share the same basic questions of life. Yet, each sunflower is also different from every other. No two are exactly alike. The same basic questions affect and wound each of us in different ways.
This is why sunflowers keep their face to the sun. The light offers no answers to any dilemma, no philosophies to help one endure, no method by which one may attain peace. The light brings only light and life. This may not be what we wanted exactly, but it's exactly what we need if all of life, both joy and sorrow, is to be held in God. In its way, this is God's blessing.