The Tree of Life: A Contemplative Masterpiece

by Michael Bird on June 21, 2011

in Print Reviews

Eric’s review was posted here already, but I watched “The Tree of Life” this past weekend and was also inspired to write this review:

Watching “The Tree of Life,” one sentence kept recurring to me: “Humility is appropriate.”

Is that statement with regard to writer and director Terrence Malick? Maybe, but given that he doesn’t really tread the familiar ground of other, “big personality” filmmakers, I don’t think he’d find it personally relevant. But it is what I think I took away most succinctly from the experience of seeing this film.

Honestly, that experience, like that found in all the films of Terrence Malick, is not for everyone. If one consults movie reviews for such things, you might have been told that Malick’s films tend to be very beautiful, thin on spoken words and that they contain challenging narrative structures. These are relatively subjective assessments, but insofar as they apply to Malick’s style, they’re fairly spot-on.

You might be given the impression from these statements however, that his style is obtuse and unengaging. This is not true. His films will engage you, but only if you are willing to meet the director halfway. Where people find his films of use will fall primarily along the axis of that criterion.

You may often hear his films referred to as more art than cinema, and this is not at all inappropriate. While I would simultaneously argue that they are in some ways a more pure cinematic experience, this film functions within defined precepts more in keeping with modern fine art than typical of modern cinema. It employs deep ambiguity to allow the viewer to make the experience his or her own. While the filmmaker ponders a certain point of view with the film, there is more here that begs questions rather than offering definitive answers. Interpretation is fair game and it is apparent that Malick means for this film to spark debates.

You may hear some people refer to this film as indulgent or pretentious. It is indulgent, yes, but I assure you that you want your art to be indulgent, and all the best art is unrepentantly indulgent. After all, meditation is indulgent. Contemplation is indulgent. Any quiet moment spent apart from interaction with another is indulgent.

If art is not indulgent then it is pandering, and if it panders, then it supposes you were more capable of making a given piece of art all along. If that were true, then why is there art at all? Shouldn’t you have already made it all? Pandering never results in an honest dialogue.

To my mind, The Tree of Life never turns its back on its audience entirely and I don’t think one could make a case that it does. There is a narrative here that you can follow if you have your wits about you, so there’s that to consider. Do you want to bring your wits with you the theater? Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. Nothing inherently right or wrong about either decision, but your enjoyment hinges on it so you should know before going in.

The film traces the life of architect Jack O’Brien (played alternately by Sean Penn as the elder Jack and masterfully by Hunter McCracken as a pre-adolescent boy), not only from his birth but steps back into the thousands of millennia that preceded that birth, to put the life of the individual in supreme context. Jack’s life is defined by his ultimate choice between two paths as defined by his mother (Jessica Chastain), and also somewhat by the death of his younger brother, who had won the favor his father (Brad Pitt), despite Jack’s best efforts.

As for those charges of pretension, I cannot understand at all what people suppose this film pretends to do that it does not. It does not pretend to supply answers. To the contrary, it redresses the most glaring example of pretense itself: the pretense that we might presume to have those answers or could ever be given such answers.

“The Tree of Life” is not a film that asks why we are here, but rather asks why we are preoccupied with knowing why. In the grand view of existence, is it presumptuous or even arrogant to suppose that it is within our ability to understand a definitive answer to that question? Have we already been given the answer and have failed to comprehend it?

Much of the film hangs on prayers as heard in voiceover, whispered by the film’s lead characters. They are prayers that seek a dialogue with God, that question and suppose God’s intent. But within the scope of the film, God’s part of the conversation was spoken long before the question is even asked. Literally, the film begins with the quote, from Job 38:4. God implores where was he, whom would ask of God these questions, when God would have actually created the universe (including the questioner).

More and less subtly, the film returns the viewer to the moment of creation, where one may observe how all that is relevant to us came to pass. The viewer is to see how insignificant our pain is when compared to the scope and grandeur of all that has existed before us, so that all which does exist may exist in the here and now.

That considered, the film views as deeply spiritual while not really at all religious. Religion is experienced, but without a definitive tone of unflinching reverence. To attribute the voice of the film as one that necessarily regards a deity as a capitalized “G”/archetypal character in all the classic senses would be limiting. One of my particular favorite aspects of this film is that it manages to talk about a creator in a fashion that, while specific to a Waco, Texan, Christian family, it is specific only to the analogy. Rather, god is experienced in this film as the sum of all that is creation, including the parts we do not personally appreciate.

The metaphor of that family itself is key to seeing this intent. Two paths are defined at the beginning of the film: that of nature, and that of grace. Within the family at the center of this film, grace is given personification by the mother, nature by the father. One is concerned with love, the other with survival. Neither are complete ways of being within the context of the family. When either one becomes dominant, the family suffers and the eldest son of the family wrestles internally with maintaining the balance of the two. Survival is necessary, but meaning is to be found in the love of those with whom we are closest. We lose that meaning when we look for it in our means of survival, while love offers no means to survival unto itself. Jack’s existential crisis is that he fails to find himself the true inheritor of either birthright as presented by his parents.

I could go on interpreting this film but that would be the truly self-indulgent act. And I am loathe to steal the opportunity for you to place your own meaning on what you find in this film. I’ve discussed the philosophical questions at the heart of it, but what I love most about “The Tree of Life” is that despite this, I’ve not come anywhere close to encompassing what a viewer may find in the layers of this film (a statement which portends another layer of meaning with regard to that of the artist and his audience).

If you, the reader of this review, wonder whether or not this film would be to your taste, then you need only ask whether or not these are questions you yourself ask or feel can be answered. If so, then you most certainly should see this film. It will hit you certainly and resoundingly where you live. If you feel these questions are too large or a waste of time, then no, this film isn’t for you. In either case, humility is appropriate.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Xavier Robertson July 3, 2011 at 7:33 am

I think that people use the word pretentious as an easy out when describing something they didn’t like. If it seems too complex or high-brow they stamp the label pretentious on it instead of thinking about the content. I guess it makes some people feel justified in not challenging themselves.

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