The Tree of Life

Question: What do you get when you cross the book of Job with Brad Pitt and put it in 1950s Texas?

Answer: The Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life is a movie produced by Terrence Malick and is about to hit our cinema screens in coming weeks. I was fortunate enough to be invited to an advance screening of the film, so I thought I’d jot down some quick thoughts about it.

Now don’t worry, I’ll try not to give the game away with too many spoilers. But the fact is it’s almost impossible to do that. You see, the movie doesn’t really have a plot per se. It does have a storyline, but the movie is actually not about the story. It’s one of the things that makes this film so unusual. The storyline is almost completely incidental. But let me give you a sense of the story that’s there, anyway.

Jack (Hunter McCracken) is a young boy growing up in Texas in the 1950s. He has very contrasting relationships with his father (Brad Pitt), who is very harsh and rigid, and his mother (Jessica Chastain), who is very warm and loving. The two parents symbolise two ways that you can live life: the way of nature is harsh and says that if you want to succeed in life, you can’t be too good; the way of grace says that to be truly happy you have to love, but this also will bring you pain. Jack grows up torn between these two ways of living, and they affect the way he relates with his family (including two brothers). The struggle continues to haunt him into his adulthood as he tries to make sense of life (the adult Jack is played by Sean Penn). The family as a whole also struggles to come to grips with the death of one of Jack’s brothers, and it is this which frames the entire storyline.

However, the film is not really about how Jack relates to his family. It’s much more than that. Jack and his circumstances are merely a microcosm of the wild, wonderful, and woe-ridden world. The Tree of Life is an exploration of the meaning of life and death within the grand scheme of a vast and enormous universe, and the supposedly good God who controls it. Most films move forward through a series of scenes, but The Tree of Life moves forward by rolling through a collage of symbolic images, stunning ‘cosmic’ visuals (Stanley Kubrick would be proud of these), and suggestive sequences. These are intermittently punctuated by the odd scene. So this is not your typical film. It’s very ‘art house’ in this respect. And right throughout the film, the characters whisper deep philosophical statements and ask poignant questions directed at God and how he deals with meagre human beings within the unchartered vastness that is the universe. The death of Jack’s brother provokes these big questions that the film wants to ask. “What are we to you [God]?” It also makes the accusation, “You [God] let a boy die. You let anything happen!”

But the film doesn’t feel like it’s throwing muck at God. In fact, despite the many woes and pains of life, the film never suggests that God may not be good. Rather, it puts forward these significant questions and statements in a sincerely inquisitive manner, trying to make sense of the seeming paradoxes in life as they occur under the watchful eye of a good, stunningly creative, and infinitely powerful God. As such, the film very much feels like a modern-day expression of the book of Job, mixed with a good amount of Ecclesiastes, and sprinkled with a bit of Romans 7. Indeed, the film opens quoting God’s words to Job from Job 38.4, 7:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…
When all the sons of God shouted for joy? 

Biblical themes run right throughout the film. It explores the goodness of a creative God who gives, but the enigma of a powerful God who also takes away. It considers the sheer beauty of life within a wondrous universe, but also acknowledges how humans are tainted by greed, selfishness, ambition, and death. There is a truly evocative picture at one point in the movie where the toddler Jack meets his baby brother whose crib, though draped under beautiful and innocent white sheer curtains, bears a stark resemblance to a coffin. We see life and death competing over a human soul, and wait to see how this soul forms, develops, makes choices, and ultimately faces the challenges of existing in this world.

This is a film where the visuals and the whispered questions convey most of the content. In fact, most of the 138 minutes of the film are spent splicing from one visual image to the next. At times, these are hard to understand, and they had me scratching my head many a time. But that, I think, is a deliberate ploy on the part of the director. The point is that life is hard to figure out, and so Malick has directed a film that is also hard to figure out. The Tree of Life is like a puzzle that forces you to think, and often leaves you thinking that what you’ve just seen is meaningless and random. But that’s the point: life often is meaningless and random (at this point you should read Ecclesiastes), but one can still view within it a beauty that leads to awe. The experience of watching this film is as much a part of the message of the film as are the lines spoken by the characters.

If you want a quiet evening’s entertainment, a bit of action, or a twisting thriller, then this is not the film for you. This film is very arty, very philosophical, and very theological. If you go to watch it, be prepared to ponder and puzzle. You’ll probably find yourself screwing up your face at regular intervals wondering, “What was that?”