I finally went to see The Tree of Life tonight, and I loved it. However when I said that I was going, a number of people responded that they didn’t like it, and I can see why. I thought I would jot down some of the things I thought of as I watched it, in the hopes that it might make people revisit the film and appreciate it more.
My very first thought about it is was that this a religious film. Take the title of the film. There are two trees in the garden of Eden, one of which is the Tree of Life. (The other is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). After the title, the film starts with a passage from the Book of Job. So the film starts out religiously and continues on for the entire film.
Watching the film, I thought about the Tree of Life and how if you eat from it you will live forever (i.e. not die). This and the notion of the Garden of Eden is significant to the story of the film. (As for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that is the one with the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve eat, causing God to expel them from the Garden of Eden. After they are cast out, God specifically bars them from the eating from The Tree of Life lest they become like God).
I think the film has much in common with a poem, hymn or religious music. Certainly the beginning felt that way to me. While there is a strong narrative at times, in the early part of the film it is impressionistic (as some have said), and the film is close to a visual poem or hymn. If you watch Mallick like you would a traditional filmmaker, you might expect a stronger narrative overall. If you do, you may be frustrated or disappointed. Mallick doesn’t totally disregard narrative, but it is only part of what he uses to structure his film. Think about a poem or a musical composition. If you hear either of those two, you don’t think: what’s the story here? There may be one, but you realize that there are other ways to approach to work. The same is true of Mallick’s work. The narrative is just part, and not necessarily the most important part, of the film. If anything, you need to see the film, not follow the film. Mallick thinks hard about what he wants you to see. You have to see it. It’s not a simply a visual depiction of a story.
That doesn’t mean he just throws a bunch of gorgeous images on the screen. He is trying to communicate things visually: it just may not be fastened to a traditional narrative. Think of a great representational painting: you may see a story at first being told, but eventually you start looking at the painting itself and how it works as a painting. It helps to do that with Mallick’s films.
I think one of the key things to consider is that God is also a character in the film. This character has a story to tell and he interacts with the other characters. That it is the God of Job is also significant. In the Book of Job, a number of things are addressed. One of them is that God is overwhelming great and that as humans our lives are specks in the eye of this God. When God is called to account by Job’s comforters, he blasts back that no person can call him to account, given what he can do. In this film, woven in amongst the story of Sean Penn’s character (Jack) is God’s own story. This God creates the universe, the Earth, and all that live on it. The same God destroys Earth at the end of the film. In between these times, he creates this planet that we live on, a planet teeming with life. This planet he creates is tens of millions of years old, so old that many species come and go, including dinosaurs. (A little bit of a dig at fundamentalists there). The characters in the film live their lives for the short time that they are on Earth, but their time and their lives are just an incredibly small thing in terms of God. When I watched the film and thought of God as one of the characters with his (her?) own story to tell, then scenes that otherwise seemed bewildering or out of place made more sense.
I think it is also significant that this God is the God of Job. While the the book of Job shows how we as humans are nothing in comparison with God, it also addresses the suffering of human beings. Like Job, the characters in this film suffer a great loss, and they struggle to live with this and deal with this. Like the Book of Job, the film does not downplay our suffering, but rather tries to put it in context, and by doing so, hopes to lessen our suffering even as it does not try to explain it away. To live is to suffer, but to live as if suffering is paramount is to miss out what life is all about. Our lives are great, Life is great, and all of this is great because God is great. This, to me, is what the film strives to communicate. It is not that our suffering does not matter: it is that our suffering is only a small part of the much greater picture.
God is everywhere in this film. In scenes with people, Mallick often shoots from un-human perspectives, at angles well above or well below them. It’s as if God might see things, not another person. Yet God is not the main character. Jack is the main character, and many of the shots are filmed from his perspective. But alot of shots in this film seemed like God’s perspective to me. To drive this home, I especially thought this when Jack’s mother points to the sky and said that God is watching. It as if Mallick wanted to emphasize this additional character in the film.
Like any great filmmaker, Mallick can zoom in or zoom out. For the scenes with God, obviously he zooms out. For the scenes of family, he zooms in. The result of that is these wonderfully detailed stories of Jack and his brothers living their lives with their friends and their parents. I think this zooming in and out bothers people. Zoomed in, the lives of the family is comprehensible, at least the everyday parts. But the suffering that people experience is only comprehensible by zooming out. I think this is what Mallick is trying to do with these zoomed out scenes that seem to make no sense in comparison to the zoomed in scenes of the family. But all together it makes a great deal of sense.
There is a degree of symbolism to the film, though with any symbolism, it is easy to over interpret it. I think it is interesting that the past for Jack is full of nature and grasses and trees and garden. The past is the Garden of Eden. Indeed, the Garden and the grass is his father’s, just like the Garden of Eden is God’s. (God the Father, in Christian terms.) In contrast, in his future life, Jack is cast out from that, and everything around him – the buildings, the beach, the desert like places – are devoid of greenery.
Regarding other potential symbols, I thought at times that his parents represented two sides of God. His mom is the loving side of God, while the father is the just and harsh God. Yet this is too simple, for Jack’s father is as much of a man as anything. He is full of pride and ambition, and he pays a price for it. Still, a Christian might say that his father represents the God of the Old Testament, while his mother represents the God of the new Testament.
I thought this especially when it came to the end of the film. In the end, Jack seems to transcend to Heaven, and he meets his family there on the beach. His mother’s last words are that she gave up her son, much as God says in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, Abraham offers up his son to God to show his love and devotion. In the New Testament, God returns the offering by giving his own son to show his love and devotion. And so the loss of a child, while terrible, becomes transformed into an act that is ultimately beneficial and that allows us to transcend suffering. I think Mallick wants to show us that this great love is necessary and is what we want to strive for, and ultimately is the only way to overcome our suffering.
To sum this up, I think The Tree of Life is a deeply religious film, and watching it this way made it very accessible and understandable and enjoyable for me. I don’t pretend to know everything about the film. I believe I am only skimming the surface of what Terrance Mallick hoped to achieve, and even then, I may be getting things wrong. But that’s what I thought during and after the film. And it is why I loved it.
As an aside, I think it is incredible that two great religious films were made this year. The other great film is Of Gods and Men, which I wrote about here: Some random thoughts on the wonderful Des Hommes et Des Dieux (Of Gods and Men) | Smart People I Know. Also highly recommended.
If you want to know more about The Tree of Life, you can start at Wikipedia.
Thanks for reading this.