Gary Reviews “The Tree of Life,” a film by Terrence Malik

Gary Furr Reviews

“The Tree of Life,” a film by Terrence Malik      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478304/

 I, as did Rabbi David Wolpe[i], was immediately zoned in to the opening scenes of Terrence Malik’s movie, “The Tree of Life” when the haunting quotation appeared from In Job 38: 4 and 7, where God asks Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?”   I leaned over to my daughter Katie, who came to see the film and said, “Uh, oh.”

Every good seminary graduate watching this movie, and especially those of us who saw, “The Thin Red Line,” know what’s probably coming—mystery and unexplained mystical reflection.  This movie is an exercise in disappointing usual movie expectations.  An impelling story of a very average family in Waco, Texas (where, I believe, Malik grew up and I myself lived for seven years in grad school) is haunted by a tragedy that is never fully resolved, and never completely explained.   It dissolves into mystical reflection.

The tone of “Tree of Life” often reminded me of “2001, A Space Odyssey,” which from the time I originally saw it until now I have no clue about what it means.  Therein the similarities end, however.  “Tree of Life,” is superior to “2001.”  And the Job reference set me up to receive it.

Perhaps, I reflected later, the lack of biblical competency in our current time accounts for the difficulties expressed by the viewers sitting around us in the theater as they were leaving:  “Huh?”  “You mean we paid $7.50 for that?”  “I didn’t think that nature scene would EVER end.”  “I hate movies like that.”  And some just looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders.

The book of Job ends similarly.  Job finally gets his day in God’s court and God never breathes a word of his wager with Satan, his faith in Job or the purpose of life.  He backs Job into submission with a long rehearsal of creation, full of wonders in the sky, mysteries in the earth and giant monsters that send shivers down the human spine.  “If you were there for all of these things,” God says to Job, “I will tell you how it all fits together.  Otherwise, trust me.”  And Job does.  What else can he do?

This is a movie that left me unsatisfied at first.  I wanted all the storylines of part B, the microcosm story of the family in Waco, resolved and explained, and it is not.  I realized as I continued to reflect on it that this was a good thing.  The movie was like actual life—with prayers and sinful thoughts interwoven, bad people (Brad Pitt’s father character) also capable of beauty and tenderness.  The movie is a stream of collective consciousness ride that carries the viewer in and out of cosmic, primeval and intimate thoughts of the most ordinary and extraordinary sorts.  It soars at times, especially visually.  The long interlude about the universe, creation and evolution of the world is one of the most brilliant film sequences I have ever seen–I don’t know how else to describe it.  And you won’t enjoy it unless you quit worrying about the smaller storyline of the people in Waco.

I think a lot of people will not like this movie.  Not because they are not smart people or anything that condescending, but because they don’t go to movies for these kinds of experiences.  For some people movies are simply for fun, and that’s completely okay.  I go to predictable romantic comedies for the same reason.  This is more like every time I have stood by the south rim of the Grand Canyon and looked without speaking, or walked into the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.  Anything you say at those moments feels inadequate.

Malik’s visionary exploration (and I have avoided saying much more about the story in Waco so that I will not spoil it) is stunning.  It’s a movie that perplexed me, but then I have kept thinking about it, always a sign of a great film for me.  If you know the book of Job well, particularly those final chapters, I think it will make more sense to you—that things don’t, can’t, won’t make “sense” as we insist they do, but some instinct in us says, “They will and they do.”

The small story of the little family is well-acted– a frustrated musician-inventor husband played by Pitt, who turns another in a catelog of great performances; Sean Penn as grownup son Jack, whose inner struggles as a child are a significant part of the story; Jessica Chastain as Pitt’s graceful, loving wife, who is the embodiment of grace and faith counterpoised against Pitt’s character with his more brutal “nature” view of life.

You may not like it.  You may choose to wait and watch it on cable or UVerse, which would be a mistake unless you have a home theater screen, because the nature images in this film are IMAX material.  The cinematography is that good.  If you just want to be entertained, save your bucks and see something else.  No one should think badly of you.  But if you want to walk into a cathedral and sit down for a while and listen to the universe, you may find this film worth your while.  And when you walk out, it will walk with you.


[i] Rabbi David Wolpe, “The Religious Meaning of Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-david-wolpe/tree-of-life_b_868717.html   I waited to read Wolpe’s review until I had already read my own, so I would not be influenced by his interpretation.

About Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.

Posted on July 5, 2011, in Art, Hope, humanity, Movie Reviews, REVIEWS--Books, Movies, Music, Suffering, Theology, Theology and Life and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I totally disagree with you…you have got to be kidding. this was a cerebral mess. I disliked this movie for so many reasons and the justification you gave it just doesn’t float with me. I thoroughly enjoy quiet moments of reflection, the miracles of nature and the universe and can sit in awe of one simple flower and its beauty.

    But BOOO! Big Time BOOO! I think creativity in film is great. I think pushing the envelope is great. I think innovation is Great. That being said, self indulgence in film is not Great it is Offensive. I agree with the reviewer that the scenes of the evolution of the universe were beautiful, but WAY OVERDONE.. This film was tedious, boring and any beauty it brought was sabotaged by the lack of editing.

    The music was overdone…nothing like being hit over the head. The whispering narration was useless because you couldn’t understand or hear it clearly enough.

    The final scenes at the beach, again so drawn out … we just wanted to get out and be done with this waste of time.

    As much as this film wanted to be about something deep and eternal, something moving and surreal, it was a big hole with no real emotion. My friends and I left with the conclusion that…”It was so deep it was empty”

    I was hoping to like this film, I wanted to like this film and went despite my usual movie companion refusing to go. I usually don’t choose movies on reviews but I sure wish I had this time.

    Sorry…I give it a ton of thumbs down

  2. by the way, to address the aspect of spirituality, i am deeply spiritual although not religious and my life has been dedicated to this pursuit as well as doing my best to be a living breathing example of these principles so ideas of this nature are not lost on me. the execution and expression of any kind of wisdom in this film failed. Even the opening idea of nature versus grace was extraordinarily weak.

    To reduce the enormous failure of this film to a lack of some kind on the audience is incredibly audacious and for me a very pseudo intellectual defense. This movie is like the fable of the emporer’s new clothes and just like the emporer, this movie just has none and most people just won’t want to admit it.

  3. by the way, to address the aspect of spirituality, i am deeply spiritual although not religious and my life has been dedicated to this pursuit as well as doing my best to be a living breathing example of these principles so ideas of this nature are not lost on me. the execution and expression of any kind of wisdom in this film failed. Even the opening idea of nature versus grace was extraordinarily weak.

    To reduce the enormous failure of this film to a lack of some kind on the audience is incredibly audacious and for me a very pseudo intellectual defense. This movie is like the fable of the emporer’s new clothes and just like the emporer, this movie just has none and most people just won’t want to admit it…bad is bad, a mess is a mess and this movie was just that. Why try to elevate, explain and justify failure. This may have been a sincere effort that never came together and that is fine, but don’t make it out to be something it is not.That is a great disservice. I remember at the end of the film, people around me thought .. “Am I the only one who just didn’t get it” As soon as another person admitted that the movie left them cold as well, the cat was out of the bag. This was a whole lot of nothing wrapped up in grandeur… or to quote Shakespear, a movie full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

  4. while i did not want to call malik an idiot, here is the entire quote.
    “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth Quote (Act V, Scene V).

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