Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Tree of Life

If you’re looking for the thrills and tear jerks of normal movies, don’t go and see ‘The Tree of Life’. It is not a normal film. It is more like a picture poem, a shifting impressionistic painting, a symphony of music with video.

The visual beauty of the film is such that it needs to be seen on the big screen. And when you leave the cinema you will find that some of those images have remained in your mind, but not encased in a story.

And those pictures are theological, asking us about God, suffering, grace, and heaven.

The Director, camera shy

Assyrian Christian director Terrence Malick did not turn up to receive the Canne’s Palme D’Or award for his latest film ‘Tree of Life’, nor was he there for its premiere, and he gave no interviews to promote the movie. Nevertheless the sheer fact that this was a Malick film brought in the audiences, for he is recognised as being one of our generation’s finest film makes. But he is a bit odd. He is obsessed with his privacy, not wanting people to even see what book he is reading. Once he disappeared. This was after the success of his 1978 film, ‘Days of Heaven’. After a few days he phoned a producer and told him he was walking from Oklahoma to Texas, ‘looking at birds’. He then did not make another film for the next twenty years. There was silence. And with the silence a message that Malick did not make movies for the sake of it. In 1998 came the war film, ‘The Thin Red Line’, followed in 2005 by ‘The New World’, and now in 2011, after about three years of editing from its perfectionist director, ‘The Tree of Life’.

Don’t look for a story, you’ll get confused

You will get confused if you watch the film as a story, because there barely is one.
At the start of the film we see a depressed middle aged man in a cold boring office starting to remember his childhood, and then we go back to a small Texas town in the 1950’s where a family is shattered by the news a son has been killed, presumably in the war in Vietnam. The middle aged man is Jack, played by Sean Penn, and he is remembering his brother’s death. Then we are back with the young Jack, played brilliantly by Hunter McCraken. We see him messing around with his two brothers, his tense relationship with his strict authoritarian father, Mr O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt, and the warmth of his mother played by Jessica Chastain. In all of this, there is hardly any dialogue. So, not a word is spoken when we see the O’Briens romancing. All is music and imagery. At the end of the sequence they are a courting couple lying on the grass, looking up at the sky, through a tree; at the end she is pregnant. Likewise with the death of the son. There are no words. A letter comes through the door, Mrs O’Brien starts to read, and crumples up in grief.

Suffering and the Beginning Of Time

And then suddenly from this grieving family we go back to the beginning of time. Literally. For about twenty minutes we see swirling skies, huge bursts of light in the solar system, stars explode, volcanoes erupt, and dinosaurs start to roam the earth. What is this? It’s an answer to the grieving mother. The film begins with a quotation from Job 38: 4,7 God asks Job who has been complaining bitterly about the loss of his children, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together? Creation was God’s answer to Job’s suffering. Here Malick gives the same answer to Mrs O’Brien, using pictures instead of words.

To say Malick uses pictures hardly does justice to the imagery. As many commentators have said – each frame is a painting in its own right. That is absolutely true. As in Job, Malick deliberately overwhelms us with the awesome beauty and power of creation. The film is worth seeing just for its visual richness, for each image is truly stunning.

Nature versus Grace

In one poignant scene in this creation sequence a small frog like dinosaur trips and falls while running away from a much larger creature in a river. The larger dinosaur approaches and as the modern mind is soaked in Darwin’s simplistic ‘survival of the fittest’ cliché we are all getting ready to witness some horrific ‘natural’ cruelty. It doesn’t happen. Instead the large dinosaur puts its paw on the smaller one’s neck. There is almost a loving stroke. And so the smaller one runs away, free. This scene underlines something that Jack’s mother tells him early on in the film. There are two ways to follow: the way of selfish cruel nature, and the way of giving and loving – grace. The poison of Darwinism is that it implies the way of grace is disconnected from our origins. Malick’s response here is very powerful: the way of grace has always been a part of creation, indeed it is at the source of creation. When the story returns to suburban Texas, and Jack’s childhood, the nature versus grace tension remains. Again in disconnected images Malick presents the father of Jack as the man following the way of nature. So we have a scene where the father is teaching his sons to box, he wants them to learn how to fight. Later he tells Jack how you have to push on to get ahead. The results of Mr O’Brien’s approach are not impressive, neither financially or emotionally. Mr O’Brien wants to get ahead, but at the end of the film we see he has to sell up his house. Emotionally it is worse. There is a painful scene when Jack is leaving the sitting room to go to bed. The father is reading his newspaper. As Jack leaves, the father asks, ‘Haven’t you forgotten something’, and Jack comes over and dutifully kisses his dad’s cheek. When Jack gets to the door, a question follows him, ‘Son, do you love me’. And so come the painful reply, ‘Yes, sir.’ The way of nature can only produced forced love. But natural love flows from the way of grace, represented by the ever smiling mother. This is especially shown in a brilliant scene when Jack comes into the kitchen and his mother is washing up. Jack asks where his father is, and she replies that he has gone on a trip. A faint smile goes across Jack’s face, and he runs out of the room to play. Soon his mother and two brothers are with him as they roam about the garden, bounce on beds, and splash about in the bathroom. Grace brings freedom.


The older Jack’s memories are stirred by remembering his dead brother. All the images of his childhood are framed by his absence. God’s answer to Job’s suffering was creation. The answer of the God of the Bible to where the dead go and whether there is a final reunion is that there is most certainly an afterlife. And that too is Malick’s answer, given in the very title, ‘The Tree of Life’ which signifies, according to the Genesis account, that man has been created for eternity, not death. And though it is not spelt out, all the emphasis on creation at the beginning of time brings its own logic to the question of death: if like Job we don’t know anything about the beginning of time and our origin, but yet revel in the beauty of life on this earth, surely it is logical to assume that the same God who has brought us here, will safely escort us to the next world. Malick shows this through incredibly stunning images of deserts and beaches of people walking alone and together. Again this is a part of the film, like the creation sequence, where the frames are so stunning you want to ask the projector man to push the pause button so you can linger on their beauty a little longer. There has been hardly a story, a minimum of dialogue, but the overall message could not be more powerful: God is good and all will be well.

Dream like, but very real

The film is not easy to watch because there is seemingly no structure. It is like a dream, with images merging in and out of each other. But dreams have their own reality. They are different, but they are still a part of our experience. And that’s true for ‘The Tree of Life’. Most of us who are adults have found ourselves in a setting totally alien to the one we were brought up in and something has happened that has triggered a sequence of childhood memories. It could a date, a smell, the sound of someone’s voice. That stream of memory is just as real as what our so called ‘normal’ life is. And behind those memories are deeper affairs of the heart. A mother and a father can very often represent two different ways to leading our lives; an untimely death can certainly make us ask God ‘Why’; and while we don’t talk about this in our ‘normal’ life, this question is very alive in our subconscious, as is the question of what happens when we die. Often we sense the answer to these questions is connected to creation. Not even atheists are ready to ignore the poetry of a sunset or the moon over the sea, or the rush of a waterfall. There is a call to creation in our sub-conscious the Christian tradition has long recognised, well stated by the Psalmist:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

(Psalm 19:1-4)

Most movies usually rely on moments of catharsis in a story to bring what is in our subconscious to the surface, so in ‘Schindler’s List’ we are overwhelmed by the significance of saving life when the film turns to colour and the survivors come and lay a stone on his grave at the end; or the pain of death when in Lion King the young Simba keeps on putting his paw on the corpse of his father Mufasa; or the joy of love when in Slumdog Millionaire Jamal Malik finally embraces his childhood sweetheart, Latika. In ‘The Tree of Life’ the director dispenses with that method, instead of using a plot, dialogue, and characters, he relies mainly on images and music.

The Critics

Not everyone thinks he is successful. As there is division in Iran over the way some directors like Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf blur reality and fiction in their films, so too there is division over Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’. When it was first showed at Cannes some of the audience booed. The film’s opponents slate it for being too long, boring, and philosophically, far too ambitious. In fact they think it’s pretentious. They especially dislike the final scenes when the older Jack is walking towards heaven on a beach. But others love the film, for the very ambition the critics dislike. They admire a director who is ready to push another way of doing cinema, as Stanley Krubick was, and as well as the film’s visual beauty, they appreciate the metaphysical and philosophical side of the movie.

Christians – take your friends to see it.

Christians most certainly should welcome the ‘Tree of Life’ and encourage their friends to see the film. For much of the year Hollywood pumps out predictable thrillers and romantic comedies, usually amoral, and sometimes plainly anti Christian. Here is a film of a completely different order. From the opening quote from Job we know this is essentially going to be a spiritual film. And as we Christians begin to emerge ourselves, so we find our faith strengthened. Like Job we are all unnerved by the existence of random suffering, and like Job it is important to be reminded of where we have come from, to see the sheer majesty of creation, and so to trust the creator both for what has happened to us in this life, and for what will happen in the next. There is also a powerful warning in the film. Mr O’Brien was a church goer, indeed he played the organ there. He was a Christian in name. But in his own instinctive outlook on life he followed the law of nature, the me first mentality. Unlike his wife, he never understood that at the heart of the Christian faith, indeed at the heart of the universe is a gracious Triune God, three persons in an eternal relationship of love and grace. He is a warning to all of us who claim to be Christians.

There is then much to strengthen our faith. However the film is not entirely Christian as there is no treatment of the cross, of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. Or perhaps it is there, and I will have to go and see the film again. Or perhaps the Assyrian Christian director was ready to bring the beginning of time to the screen – but felt dealing with the mystery of the cross really was too ambitious. 

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