The Tree of Life – a film by Terrence Malick

This week, I was finally able to view the film “The Tree of Life,” directed by Terrence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. As expected, I was deeply moved by the powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual experience of this masterful rendering of the experience of life. There is much of value to be gleaned from viewing this intensely provocative and enormously absorbing film which takes on the whole universe from its spectacular beginnings to the minute by minute unraveling of life in the modern world. We are led through a kaleidoscopic journey of a Texas family in 1950’s Texas, which unravels through tragedy, leaving many unanswered questions and a haunted Sean Penn as the grownup version of the young boy who lost his brother as a young man and who lost his way as a grown man.

Even though I hadn’t slept the whole night, I stayed up for another two hours and twenty minutes to take advantage of the opportunity to view the film and I was not disappointed. I spent much of the next day exhausted from both lack of sleep and from the emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride created by Malick’s masterwork. The film is not an easy experience to endure. Malick challenges the viewer to delve deeply and focus intently on some disturbingly emotional vignettes that punctuate a surreal mental landscape of memories from a childhood which began in the 1950’s. The film evokes the period vividly for anyone who remembers those years, and as a child of the 1950’s myself, much of the film resonated uncannily at times with my own experiences.

This is a photo of my siblings and me out in front of our home in 1956.

Malick has composed a patchwork symphony of pivotal intimate moments of childhood experiences, and woven his richly-textured cloth into a complex and, at times, disparate pattern that frequently struck at the very core of my being. I found myself oddly vacillating between exceptionally emotional highs and lows as I moved through my own emotional and psychological panorama, which was provoked by the extraordinary force of Malick’s vision. Viewing the film put me in a state of discomfort so often that by the end of the film I felt shell-shocked–unprepared as I was for the barrage of unrestrained emotional upheaval.

One of the most profound aspects of the film for me resulted from the inclusion of a phenomenally vivid and lavish reconstruction of the creation of the universe and the ensuing development of stars, galaxies, and our familiar solar system, culminating in the evolution of life on earth and the dawn of consciousness itself through the evolution of humanity.

Malick seems to suggest to us that our subjective experience of the world is not simply a consequence of our cosmic and human evolution, and that supporting it all is an underlying non-physical substrate–that beyond the physical universe there exists a transcendent reality of which we are subjectively aware, but sadly lacking in understanding fully how these other layers of existence gave form and substance to the physical universe in the first place.

While each of the characters in the film are compelling in their own way, none is more compelling for me than the mother of the story played by Jessica Chastain. Throughout the film, I am constantly drawn in by her extraordinarily keen sensitivity and powerful connection to her children. In the opening scene, her portrayal of the mother struck by the news contained in a telegram of the loss of her child grabbed a hold of me so intently, that I could not take my eyes off her whenever she appeared.

It was “Mrs. Obrien,” who gave voice to the main theme of the story, which was that we must choose either the way of nature or the way of grace, and she articulates the difference in the two approaches by characterizing the way of grace as one which “doesn’t try to please itself,” and the way of nature as one which “only wants to please itself…to have its own way.” Throughout the film, Malick places these two opposites up against each other in numerous ways, and the tension it creates presents the viewer with some of the film’s most potent and emotional moments.

It seems very likely that there will be more discussion of this film finding its way into some of my future posts.