Thursday, August 4, 2011
The Tree of Life
As a number of critics have pointed out, The Tree of Life is in fact, in the best possible sense, a religious work of art. Despite the decidedly Judeo-Christian references throughout the film, it is not heavy-handed or preachy. It is instead something like an extended hymn, a meditation, a poem or symphony, in celebration of life, and in fact of all creation. If approached with the right frame of mind, it is indeed as profoundly moving and wondrously beautiful a movie as one is likely to see, raising the motion picture medium to the level of high art to a degree that films rarely do.
If The Tree of Life is a hymn, it is one that is both glorious and somber, celebratory and elegiac. It is this interplay between the sadness and the joy of life that gives the movie its subtle but intense emotional power.
The movie begins with a quotation from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? ...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" We are then introduced to the O'Brien family at a tragic moment: the mother receives news of the death of her 19-year-old son. Distraught, she calls the father at work, who listens to the terrible news in silent shock.
Switching to the modern day, we follow the morose middle-aged narrator, Jack (he is not exactly a narrator, but that is as good a term as any), on the anniversary of his brother's death. He spends the day in a pensive state, and most of the film from this point seems to be an extended meditation of philosophical questioning, spiritual wrestling, and bittersweet memory that takes place in Jack's mind.
The first part of this meditation consists of utterly majestic scenes of cosmic creation. Through the magic of the largely old-school (non-CGI) special effects of Douglas Trumbull (the man responsible for the far-out effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey), combined with the equally powerful magic of classical music, we are witness to the birth of the universe, then of the planet earth, and finally of life itself. These scenes are magnificent and sublime, and in a strange way, deeply moving.
When we finally arrive in the 20th century, it is through the birth of Jack, the eldest of three sons in the O'Brien family of Waco, Texas in the 1950s (this part of the movie is obviously autobiographical on Malick's part). The majority of the movie follows the course of Jack's early life through the eyes of his childhood memory, from infancy and toddlerhood up to early adolescence. This part of the film is just as magnificent and sublime in its own way as the creation of the universe sequences, as it shows us the wondrous array of sensory experiences and emotional highs and lows of life through a child's eyes, in all the vivid detail and luminous intensity which that viewpoint implies.
Rather than telling a conventional story, Malick chooses to show us a series of memories, which we move through by way of association and intuition rather than via a neatly constructed plot--in other words, closer to the way we actually remember our lives. This realism of memory makes the story of Jack's life much fuller and richer, both visually and emotionally, than it would have been if the story had been told more prosaically and linearly. If The Tree of Life is nothing else, it is a work of poetry. In addition to scenes that dramatize the O'Briens' complex family life, from the tenderness of parental love to the ugliness of family conflict, we are shown many seemingly random memories, for instance of a young child observing the patterns on a plate, a group of children looking at cows up close in a field, etc. The movie seems to be telling us that each of these memories has meaning and significance, because each one is a unique experience of the miracle that is the world, a communication of something marvelous and divine.
If one were to pin down the meaning of this movie to a central theme, this may very well be it... that the world, and especially life, is a miracle. Even after the gradual loss of innocence or the sudden loss of loved ones, this film seems to be telling us, it is possible to regain the joyous wonderment and awe at the world that we possessed naturally as children, if only we remember to open our eyes and see it once again for what it is.
If you want a conventional summer movie full of action or dialogue or a tidy plot, by all means do not go out and spend your money and time on The Tree of Life. However, if you are open to sitting back for a couple of hours and experiencing a work of stunning visual and emotional beauty and grandeur, or witnessing a majestic yet intimately human story that can't be summed up neatly, yet remains powerful and profound; or if you seek to be told a magnificent story through images and music as much as through words, in the language of memory and love rather than strict logic.... a story that may leave you both shaken and haunted in the most tender way, perhaps even touched by joy and hope, wonder and beauty, that glow with a strange otherworldly grace and ache like sadness... then The Tree of Life may be just the movie you've been waiting for.
Here is one of the beautiful music pieces from the film, Couperin's Les Barricades Mysterieuses.