Why You Should Give The Tree of Life a Chance

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Film and Television

I, like any other, love a trashy movie. And by trashy, I just mean godawful. Contrived. Filled with beautiful people and dramatic one-liners. Though there are very few who would even question this about myself, let me lay aside any doubt for all by unveiling my  love for Gossip Girl. I’m not even really sure why, other than to observe a world I will never interact with and the off chance Ed Westwick will turn and look straight into the camera and utter in that ridiculous husky American accent, “Bri, I’m Chuck Bass.” and wink. Now that I’ve rabbit trailed and set my soap box on high cinematic standards, hoisted by the likes of Blake Lively and Josh Schwartz, I also love intellectual films and have been wanting to unravel and process a bit over Terrence Malick’s lastest film The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, the lovely Jessica Chastain, introducing Hunter McCracken, and cameo-ed nicely by Sean Penn.

When I first heard of the film, I was listening to NPR on my way home from work when the broadcaster announced that on average 10% of movie goers watching it left within the first 20-30 minutes. I laughed out loud because it reminded me of the 10th grade and going to watch Malick’s then last film, A New World, with my sister Ashley, not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. I guess I was hoping for a little more “Colors of the Wind” action and an intense moment or two where it’s imperative that Collin Ferrel take his shirt off. If any of you have seen it, you’ll remember nothing remotely close to either of those things happened, which at any age as a female, can be overwhelmingly disappointing. Since then, I’ve grown into Malick’s auteurism a bit more, probably thanks to Russian montage viewing assignments college. I’ve only seen a small handful of his films –Badlands, Thin Red Line, A New World, and now, this one.  I’m not sure he’s automatically going to be any movie goers favorite -maybe that’s a wrong assumption- but he is known for making lengthy films, where sound design seems to be its own character in every movie, and deep audience participation is required in piecing together his films. And not in a “Is that guy a good or bad?” sort of way. I’m talking about the kind of piecing where it might take awhile to find any sort of narrative footing to lean on the entire first half. Doubt me? Google “Terrence Malick difficult” -i’m sure you’ll have a few pages worth to paruse. While it may be easy to shrug off these movies and leave them to the “artsy” people, it’s beneficial to try to examine a few and experience a beautiful art form that is often swept under the creative rug. I too have struggled with these films and also been moved by many of them, but it’s hard to encourage someone to pick up films like Malick’s without sounding misleading, or even worse, being pretentious – which can be an ugly flaw of mine. But I thought I would try to encourage you via blog, sans the snooty. So without guise, may I recommend to you Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life?

This 1950s film set in Waco Texas, centers around the O’Brien family coping with the loss of their son, R.L. who is presumably a teenager.  This is juxtaposed at an earlier time with their oldest son Jack (McCracken/Penn) becoming of age and coming to terms with death, good and evil, and the existence of God though his angelic mother (Chastain), hardened father (Pitt), and two rambunctious younger brothers, R.L and Steve. The whole piece is centered around nurture and grace, while understanding the character of God, which I found surprisingly refreshing. There was nothing in the depiction that was stale or overdone. The questions this young boy asks God throughout the film gripped me and commanded my thoughts. Most of the thoughts uttered by the characters to God brought a bittersweet pain to hear, mainly because they were honest. And ones I asked myself at an earlier time. Reviewer Stephen Greydanus puts it this way:

“Here is a film that not only asks, with unusual insistence, why God allows suffering, but contemplates God’s own answer to that question in the Book of Job, amplified by the sweeping vistas of the natural world available to modern science, the Hubble telescope and Hollywood special effects: God did all this; who are we to think we can judge or question him? It also asks why a stern, bullying father hurts his children. Is God like that father?”

Accompanied by these beautiful questions to God are montages of how the universe and earth was formed in highly elaborate, usually slow motion shots of the universe in motion. They. Are. Breathtaking. So beautiful, in fact, I began to consider Godfrey Reggio a poop manufacturer (okay, one; that isn’t entirely true and two; I knew would be pretentious as soon as I tried not to be)

I cannot remember watching a film that had me so still. The film is shot in swooping motions, almost as if the spirit of God reassured or reminded each character of his Presence and I would argue, His goodness. I was lost in the beautiful scenes and cinematography, the unbelievable acting, and dramatic score. But while it was all of those things that made The Tree of Life so memorable, it was my own questioning along with the characters that truly made this movie remarkable, a film I believe you should watch. I’m not asking you to love it. I’m asking you to consider it and also consider these thoughts from another blogger, Christopher Page who wisely points out,

“We are accustomed to our entertainment being delivered in simple straightforward easily consumable bites. Terrence Malick does not cater to such tastes. He requires patience, openness, and a willingness to allow the film to unfold over time. But, I have become convinced that these are not the major obstacles to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” There is something deeper going on in peoples’ resistance to this film. I believe that the difficulty many people are having with “The Tree of Life” has nothing to do with the quality of the film. People are not objecting to the film because the script is bad; it is in fact beautifully and poetically written. It is not that the acting is poor; almost everyone agrees the acting is uniformly superb. Certainly, almost no one argues that the movie is poorly filmed; the cinematography is stunning. It is hard to complain about the music which is stirring and powerful. None of these things is the real issue people have with “The Tree of Life.” The problem with this film for many people is that our culture struggles with gentleness and vulnerability. And “The Tree of Life” is full of gentleness and vulnerability.”

If you’ve seen this movie -I want your thoughts! Was it a waste of time or something more for you?

4 Comments

  1. “gentleness and vulnerability”

    SO TRUE. The people I know who like this film have these personal traits in common with the film.

  2. Steve Snediker says

    I love the work of Terrence Malick because (deferring to Google) — Terrence Malick is difficult. “Tree of Life” slays me, makes me wonder about my life, my family, my God, about the things I believe.

    Thanks Bri, for manifesting the lessons of the past and being brave enough to submit a pretty darn good Film Theory critique even though you aren’t in the class anymore. As your former prof, I feel vindicated.

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