"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"-- Job 38:4,7
On Thursday evening, I went to go see Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life at the Shirlington Theater. Malick is known for his beautiful cinematography, and this film was no different, leaving one in awe at times, the beauty of God's creation combined with a spirit-touching musical score. The film takes place in the 1950s, but all through the movie, the imagery kept reminding me of my own childhood many years later in small-town Ohio.
Malick is also known for the slow (time-stopping, molasses slow), deliberate pacing of his films, which have included Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, and again, The Tree of Life is no different.
It is more a meditation than a film. There is less of an action-driven plot than a contemplation on those eternal questions of: Who are we to God? Is He even there? Some reviewers are apparently dissatisfied, complaining that Malick is not sufficiently definitive for them ("Malick's agnosticism appears to win out," says the reviewer for Catholic News Service). But that appears to miss the point entirely. Rather than provide answers, the film prompts you to ponder and wonder.
Still, notwithstanding the beauty and Malick's penchance for subtlety, this film is perhaps a little too subtle at times, rivaling Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in some parts. If you go see it, and I recommend that you do (although, again, as with Of Gods and Men, $11 a ticket is way too much to pay for a movie), a bit of explanation will be helpful to understand what the heck is going on, rather than be a "spoiler."
In case it wasn't clear from the opening quote from God from the Book of Job, those early scenes are the Creation. And Sean Penn plays the older brother, not the younger one, as I had mistakenly thought until the very end. And by "the end," I don't mean merely the end of the film, I don't mean merely the end of the older brother's life, I mean The End. With those clarifications in mind, go see The Tree of Life. Have a couple glasses of wine before though, and be prepared for a contemplative evening.
Bottom line: Is it a good movie? I don't know, I'll leave that up to you, but I've been thinking about it a lot.
(watch the trailer in HD)
Synopsis of film from IMDb
The Tree of Life is a period film centered around three boys in the 1950s. The eldest son of two characters (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) witnesses the loss of innocence.
We trace the evolution of Jack, an eleven-year-old boy in the Midwest, who is one of three brothers. At first, the world seems marvelous to the child. He sees everything as his mother does, with the eyes of his soul. She represents the way of love and mercy, while the father tries to teach his son the world's way, of putting oneself first. Each parent tries to influence Jack, who must reconcile their claims with each other. The picture darkens as he has his first glimpses of sickness, suffering and death. The world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth.
Framing this story is the life of adult Jack (Sean Penn); a lost soul in a modern world, seeking to discover amid the changing scenes of time that which does not change: the eternal scheme of which we are a part. When he sees all that has gone into our world's preparation, each thing appears a miracle precious and incomparable. Jack, with his new understanding, is able to forgive his father and take his first steps on the path of life. From this story is that of adult Jack, a lost soul in a modern world,
The story ends in hope, acknowledging the beauty and joy in all things, in the everyday and above all in the family -- our first school -- the only place that most of us learn the truth about the world and ourselves, or discover life's single most important lesson, of unselfish love.
Tale of grace vs. nature asks important questions
Movie Review by Steven D. Greydanus
National Catholic Register
Is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life a pretentious mess or a profound masterpiece?See also, Review at Christianity Today
A deeply religious meditation on grace, nature and the mystery of suffering, or a philosophically confused, contradictory muddle of themes and images?
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? . . .
Occasionally, with certain films, I find it helpful to step back and look through a sociological lens rather than a critical one. For instance, what does the phenomenal success of a film like Titanic tell us about the society that embraces it? With The Tree of Life, I find myself stepping further back, contemplating it through an anthropological lens, as much as an artifact as a work of art. The riddle of existence is not a riddle the universe poses to us, but one we pose to ourselves, as Malick does in The Tree of Life. We are the riddle, and the very fact that we ask the questions we do is one of the best clues we have to the answers we seek.
The questions in The Tree of Life are posed in Malick’s trademark inner monologue voice-overs, with characters carrying on a running cross-examination of God: “Where were you?” “Who are we to you?” “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” Early on, a telegram arrives bringing word that one of the O’Brien boys, now 19 and perhaps in the military, has been killed. In a flashback we see the O’Brien brothers as children dealing with the accidental death of a playmate. What sort of God presides over such a world?
The first question, though, comes from God himself. An opening epigraph asks, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (Job 38:4,7).
This withering cross-examination, taken from the beginning of God’s response to Job’s complaint, anticipates the film’s most remarkable movement: a lengthy sequence, accompanied by soaring choral work (including Zbigniew Preisner’s Lacrimosa or Requiem), contemplating the formation of galaxies, stars and planets, as well as the origins of life on earth, from microbes to jellyfish to dinosaurs. . . .
Yet The Tree of Life strains toward something beyond Darwinian ruthlessness. “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life,” Jack’s mother notes in the film’s first minutes, “the way of nature and the way of grace.” Nature “is willful; it only wants to please itself, to have its own way. … It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” Grace, by contrast, “doesn’t try to please itself; it accepts being slighted, accepts insults and injuries. … No one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
For Jack O’Brien (played as a boy by terrific newcomer Hunter McCracken and fleetingly seen as an adult played by Sean Penn), his mother represents the way of grace, while his father is the way of nature. Jack’s early life is seen through a scrim of Edenic glory, an aura of bliss and play in which his mother’s joyful personality dominates. Eventually, though, his father’s sternness dominates his life. . . . (read more here)