Unconventional, visually breathtaking, solemn, and thought provoking are just a few of the words that describe director Terrence Malick’s minimalistic and yet grandiose film “The Tree of Life.” Rather than employing a traditional plot driven narrative, “The Tree of Life” follows a modest Texas family’s lives- the intimate and simple moments of three young boys, their overbearing but ultimately loving father (Brad Pitt in some of his best work), and their angelic and graceful mother (ethereal Jessica Chastain). Utilizing very little dialogue, we watch the children grow and learn about life, for that is what the film is truly about. It is about Life and all it encompasses- the origins of creation, our faith and spiritually and our connection to the earth. Ultimately, Malick presents the concept of Nature versus Grace and how we all must choose between the two. Or must we?
Shifting back and forth in vastly different time periods, the film begins in a somewhat disjointed fashion as we see our family later on in life grieving the loss of one son, and then we go back, way back, to the creation of the earth. For nearly 20 minutes we are visually stimulated with images of nebulas, land formations, organisms, and even dinosaurs. A slow moving film, this section of “The Tree of Life” is ambitious, but a bit lethargic. It is the glimpse into the moments of our family’s lives and their relationship and contemplations to God (done in voiceover by mother and eldest son) that is most affecting.
Throughout “The Tree of Life” the concept of Nature versus Grace is only seemingly in conflict. Instead of choosing between the two, Malick truly displays how Nature and Grace are interconnected. The sounds of nature seem intensified wherever out characters wander, the leaves of the trees are greener, and the sky is bluer. When one son is just a baby, our mother holds the boy in her arms, points up to the azure, cloud filled sky and tells him, “That’s where God lives.” Mother and sons revel in God’s creations in Nature, such as a butterfly that lands on the mother’s hand, lingers for a moment, and then flutters away. It is a quiet and lovely moment of serenity and amazement at the wonders of the earth.
While Malick employs very little dialogue, that which is present, particularly the voiceovers, are deliberately profound, and often come at the film’s few plot points that inhabit the story. After a young boy drowns in a local swimming hole, our eldest son asks, “Lord, where were you? Why? Who are we to you?” His loss of innocence makes him question Life and what his purpose is. If a boy could so tragically drown, if a family’s home could burn down and permanently burn another young boy, he wonders if what he does on earth truly matters and starts treading down a path of bad behavior. And yet, he still wonders, “Are you still watching me?” He soon prays for guidance- to help him to not tell lies, and to be thankful for what he has. Like many a child, he wants to know and understand more. His relationship with God is entwined with his mother and all that she has taught him and he ponders, “You spoke to me through her. You spoke to me through the sky. Where were you before I believed in you? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.” This honest depiction of childhood wonderings of the ways of the Lord is not only poignant and affecting, but also refreshing in that Malick presents a child’s questions but does not attempt to challenge those of faith. Quite profound for a modern Hollywood film.
The ending of “The Tree of Life” is certain to be one of the most thought provoking and debated of the year. Images of character’s old and young selves, surrounded by hundreds of others are seen as they slowly walk through majestic cliffs and across a pristine beach. Is this the path to the Heaven and the afterlife? It feels as such, but the eldest son returns down (through an elevator) to earth in the end, the sun brightly shining back down on him. Was this a glimpse of what’s to come, where the brother he lost is heading? Although, it’s open to interpretation, this is surely Malicks’s representation of Heaven. Viewers will no doubt shed tears at this ethereal scene and the mother’s final prayer that embodies what “The Tree of Life” is truly about: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Wonder. Do good. Hope. Keep us. Guide us, until the end of time.”