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