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.
Posted on July 5, 2011, in Art, Hope, humanity, Movie Reviews, REVIEWS--Books, Movies, Music, Suffering, Theology, Theology and Life and tagged art, creation, humanity, movie reviews, movies, suffering, Terrence Malik, The Tree of Life, theodicy. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.