The Tree of Life

Most of what we see on movie screens follows the mythic structure of storytelling.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is the first movie I’ve seen that borrows from a different pattern. It is contemplative or devotional literature. While it is the most visually gripping movie I’ve ever seen, it is far more than breathtaking pictures. It pulls you into a serious consideration of God, the origins of life, death, grace, heaven, and the variegated textures and touches of life on earth.

Much of the dialogue is whispered. You hear characters thinking. Perhaps we hear God’s thoughts. My hearing is poor, but I think I heard a version of Romans 7:19 ~ “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.”

As a story, The Tree of Life leisurely serves vignettes of life in the middle of the 20th century, in the middle of America. We see the O’Brien family – father, mother (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) and three sons. We see their tenderness and strict discipline, familial requirements and forgiveness, church services and family prayer. (I never did figure out why Sean Penn was in the movie. Apparently he didn’t either)

The way they cope with losing a child certainly rang true to me. I grew up with those people. They always seemed to view life on earth through a heaven-mounted telescope.

The dialogue is simply stunning (albeit difficult to hear). I’ve never seen a movie that handles such sweeping ideas in dialogue so well. Consider:

  • “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”
  • “I didn’t know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me.”
  • “I wanted to be loved cause I was great, a Big Man. Now I’m nothing. Look. The glory around… trees, birds… I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”

And, the Voice that starts the whole movie belongs to God: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” ~ Job 38:3,7

4 thoughts on “The Tree of Life”

  1. darrell a. harris

    I became a Terrence Malick fan at some point around ’82 when I stumbled upon his “Days of Heaven” on cable TV one Saturday afternoon. I sat thunderstruck and dumbfounded. This was obviously the work of a completely original artist. Not just an original point of view but a distinctive voice and unique style in communicating it.

    I’ve never managed to catch his “Badlands” which preceded “Days,” but have continued my near awe of his work in “The New World,” “The Thin Red Line” and “Tree of Life.” It is interesting to note that Malick also wrote “Amazing Grace.” Only a person of perceptive faith could have written so tenderly and sensitively of John Newton’s journey into the deep sorrow and unmitigated joy of true repentance.

    Although Malick films in many ways are all of a piece, “Tree of Life” may well be the magnum opus of this master-craftsman. All his films are transcendent. But this one may be in a category of one.

    It is easily in my All Time Top 20, probably even in my All Time 10, Top 5 or above. I’ll only know that with the passage of time. There are a few moments in one’s life where art transports into total ecstasy. Drinking in “Tree of Life” is one of those moments for me~

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