Please note that the following post may contain spoilers.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a very ambitious film that details the life of a family living in a 1950s Texas suburb and then places the family within the much broader context of the birth of the cosmos. Our focus is on the development of Jack, the eldest of three siblings, as he tries to understand the world and find meaning within it. Scenes of the young Jack are juxtaposed with scenes of an older Jack, a middle-aged architect (a fascinating detail) reflecting back on his life.
The film opens with the following narration:
There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
The best approach to the film, I think, is to ignore this. Some people, such as blogger J.D. at Edward Copeland on Film, might consider this narration a key to understanding the film. J.D. writes:
I believe that this passage is integral to understanding Malick’s film and it becomes apparent that the mother represents Grace, accepting insults and injuries, while the father represents nature, lording over his family.
I cannot disagree more. The film itself, as constructed through its images and music, is far more interesting, far more compelling, and far more profound than this curiously limiting and philosophically naïve piece of narration might lead you to believe. If you take this narration too seriously, you will try to box the characters into one of the two categories: nature or grace. This is what J.D. does, but in his attempt to define the mother and father by these vague terms, he actually highlights the futility of the undertaking:
Malick presents two approaches to parenting: the mother is a nurturing figure while the father is a stern disciplinarian. She is in tune with nature while he represents structure.
So now, despite his previous conclusion that the father represents nature, J.D. claims that it is the mother who is in tune with nature. The father, in turn, represents structure. If we are to understand structure (especially “discipline”) as the human imposition of order onto seemingly chaotic nature (i.e., as something completely at odds with nature), it is clear that the previous categorizations of nature and grace are simply inadequate. The characters are just too rich and complex for such categorizations. To be sure, if the father does not represent grace, why do we have the sublime scene where he plays piano while his young son R.L. accompanies him on acoustic guitar? What in that scene is nature and not grace? And if the mother does not represent nature, why is she so attuned to the natural world, so earthy, so maternal? And why should we even accept the narrator’s negative valuation of nature in the first place?
As you can see, the film’s opening narration is not simply trite; it’s misleading. Bizarrely, the film even attempts, during one of its oddest moments, to apply the concept of grace to a dinosaur. As if dinosaurs were capable of altruism or mercy. The scene, of course, rings false, and all comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey should stop right there.
Despite these faults, The Tree of Life is breathtaking cinema. The stock NASA images, Douglas Trumbull’s visual effects, Emmanuel Lubezki’s impossibly skillful cinematography, the emotional classical music selections (especially Preisner, Berlioz, and Brahms), and Alexandre Desplat’s original score–all of these filmic elements are edited together (woven, if you will) by Malick and his team of five editors into a tight celluloid patchwork quilt. There is a loose narrative structure, but the film is mostly poetic in form, choosing to focus on specific perceptions and sensations and to explore them visually. Malick is interested in using cinema to do things other than simply advance a linear plot.
The film’s visual language is created mostly through Lubezki’s cinematography. His greatest achievement is probably the way he manipulates the camera to suggest the point of view of the young children. In this, we experience the world of the children as they’re experiencing it–with a sense of wonder and mystery. Dark rooms, tall trees, the social world outside the home–these sorts of things are met with awe and curiosity–sometimes with terror.
There is just one more problem that I want to discuss. It has to do with Malick’s attempt to visualize an afterlife* at the end of the film. These scenes, set among an unimaginative rocky beach, so homogenized as to bring to mind Thor’s Asgard, use what Jim Emerson calls the film’s “weakest, most banal imagery.” I had the same reaction: disappointment. With all that has come before, why end with images of such unashamed sentimentality and clichéd composition?
The strength of what comes before, however, is so impressive, so beautifully crafted, that we can appreciate the film on an aesthetic level even if we find it wanting on some of its philosophical ground. If you are interested in cinematic art, you will be interested in The Tree of Life, even if thematically (as I discuss previously), it’s not to your personal taste.
*Do we know if these scenes really depict an afterlife? Despite what a lot of critics are saying, I would say no. I really think that the scenes reflect a wish fulfillment fantasy–Jack’s hope for an afterlife, not an actual afterlife (or at least his hope for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation as far as his family is concerned). Perhaps that’s why the film succeeds where other religiously minded films fail. It’s not about religious dogma or theology or Christian morality; it’s simply about the strong human desire for meaning, for purpose, for victory over death. The film is a yearning for something, maybe God, and like all metaphysical delusions, it just doesn’t exist.