Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Tree of Life

This may be one of the most difficult reviews I have ever attempted. Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, is unconventional to say the least. It doesn’t fit into any neat pattern or genre. It’s one of those films you are going to love or hate. There’s no middle ground. I’m not sure it fits into any type of story structure I’ve ever seen, nor does it follow the traditional three act structure to which we are all accustomed.

In some ways, it reminded me of 2001 A Space Odyssey, another film you either hated or loved. The Tree of Life is an ambitious film that aspires to explore the origins and meaning of life. Where do humans fit into the grand scheme of things? The film attempts to encompass all of existence and view it in the eyes of one family. In part, The Tree of Life is both a metaphysical and reality-based inquiry into the nature of God and His plan for our lives.

The plot at times is not easy to follow. In fact, I’m not sure there is a plot. The Tree of Life is viewed through the eyes of Jack (Sean Penn), a successful architect who seems to be lost and trapped in a world of high-rise buildings and enclosures. He sees a tree planted outside of his building that causes him to flash back to his childhood of Texas in the 1950s. We are introduced to Jack’s family, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and his two younger brothers.

We watch Jack grow up through a series of daily life routines, which includes playing, fighting, embracing and loving each family member, crying, and family activities. It becomes clear that The Tree of Life serves as a metaphor for life’s journey.

The film presents life as a choice between two pathways—the path of grace and the path of nature. The path of grace is represented by Mrs. O’Brien. She views the world as a place full of wonder to be explored and embraced. She is gentle, nourishing, loving and forgiving. Mr. O’Brien embraces the path of nature. He sees the world as a place where one must fight to survive. Being too good is a detriment. He is strict with his family in an authoritarian way. He teaches the boys to fight. The world is a place where you take what you want by any means necessary.

The Tree of Life is essentially a struggle between these two natures. The boys are exposed to two vastly different world views. There is a conflict between what they are taught in church and what they experience at home. Jack especially struggles as he wants to be good but cannot find the strength to do so. He does what he does not want to do. He asks the question, “If God is not good, why should I be good? As a result, Jack becomes more rebellious, and his relationship with his father deteriorates, even to the point that he wants his father dead.

The Tree of Life is a very philosophical and spiritual movie. We are all trying to understand God’s nature, and we all ask questions. Aren’t we all pleading to God for answers? Where are you? Who are you? Just like Jack and Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, who are dealing with the tragedy of the untimely death of a brother and son, we are all facing some difficulty, and we can’t understand why God has forsaken us. The struggle is real. Which nature will we follow? Which pathway will we choose? Is it the pathway of grace, which leads to forgiveness and redemption? Or is it the pathway of nature, which is self-centered, greedy and ultimately destructive? These are the types of issues and problems that The Tree of Life pose not only to the films characters but also to the viewer.

Terrence Malick has created a beautiful film. The images are mesmerizing and thought-provoking. Perhaps, he could have cut 10 or 20 minutes out of the run time of the 139 minute film; nevertheless, the film he has created has the ability to touch us on a very human level. His themes are universal because we all find ourselves caught between grace and nature. I see few movies that tackle these complicated and thought-provoking issues.

If you approach this movie with an open mind, you may very well come away with something very profound about you and the pathway you have chosen. The world we live in is confusing because, essentially, we have been taught two conflicting pathways. The Tree Of Life presents a strong case that trying to be a good person is not enough. We are going to have to look for something larger than ourselves. We’re going to look for God and find his nature.

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