I recently had the delight of watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for the first time. Given it’s theatrical release was some time ago, I’d had plenty of feedback on the movie from friends and such like, so I must say I went into it with mixed feelings. I was however pleasantly surprised – yes, you could say it was self-indulgent, pretentious, lacking as an attempt at story-telling, and I must say I was frustrated by not being able to hear a number if the voice-over reflections. But, negatives aside, you could also say a lot more about The Tree of Life. At one level it’s a film about spiritual-searching; a reckoning with the nature of God, and the perennial relationship between God and suffering.
The story is set in 1950’s Waco, Texas, one of the cities in which Malick himself lived in his earlier life. Indeed there is a strongly autobiographical dimension to this film if you know a little about Malick and family and upbringing.
It was evocative at so many levels. As one friend reminded me, and this was my experience as I watched it, “its very meditative”, i.e. there’s something wonderfully rich to be gained from engaging this film contemplatively – a kind of film-divina – a kind of divine seeing; a way of engaging what was most alive in me; most in need of being held by me; of being opened by me – of being entered into. Malick’s fusion of visual image, sound, movement, symbol, narrative, and humanity deeply nourished the journey, particularly once I was able to sink beneath the surface of my life and sit with its deeper and altogether frail realities. In this sense my experience of The Tree of Life was a deeply sacramental one; an experience enriched by the wonderful film score.
A number of commentators have described it as a “mytho-poetic” work. Others have rightly commented on the fact that Jack’s character(s) (played by Hunter McCracken & Sean Penn as the adult Jack) grows along classic Oedipal lines, i.e. a strong attachment to his mother, and conflict with his father which is eventually resolved, both as Jack makes peace with his Father (whom he’s more alike than he imagines) and with himself in midlife. The central narrative / visual-symbolic thread that tied it together was the altogether natural human instinct to create a polarity between grace and (human)nature / natur(al) law. Or perhaps between love and law – “you must love in order to be happy!” These dualisms are embodied in the characters of Mr and Mrs O’Brien. Yet, against the backdrop of creation these polarities need to be understood as two sides of the same reality. There is an intrinsic unity between grace and nature.
- Grief and death.
- Healing and meaning-making, and the importance of nature in the healing process.
- Relational and family dynamics.
- Disappointment and the loss of dreams.
- Crisis & awakening. The personal invitations to face into reality, the invitations to change and to growth, especially directed at males (cf. Mr O’Brien – who by the way falls within very normal limits as a father, particularly one in the 1950’s, but equally likely he’d fit in respect of some of his behaviours in the 21st century as well. For me the film highlighted very natural and acceptable differences between males and females and the ways in which they embody and enact their various roles. As one commentator has written, and I read myself into his words, the portrayal of Mr O’Brien is “less the stuff of Dickensian nightmare than a portrait of a well-intentioned but all-too-human man who falls short of his own standards in any number of departments” (PDF of the review here). Mr O’Brien’s is a journey into a deepening sense of his humanity, both its brokenness and its profundity. His is no less a journey than any of ours, and he appears no less open to that than anyone else; perhaps his experience of crisis and grief predisposes him more than others? As a male I both cringed at and delighted in his character, played so well by Brad Pitt, and ultimately I found him a misunderstood (by Jack in particular) but ultimately hopeful character). His, like all of our humanity was a broken and wounded one, but they were realities he appeared willing to face into redemptively and transformatively.
- The role Mystery in human living and relating.
- The importance of Beauty in human living.
- The importance of Nature and Creation / reverence and awe.