The Tree of Life: Steve Recommends a Near Masterpiece

In The Tree of Life director Terrence Malick strives to create a masterpiece. He nearly succeeds. This is a strange and fascinating film. It is also one of the most deeply spiritual films of this, or any, year. A good portion of the dialog is not between the characters themselves, but between various characters and God. In other words, it is prayer. These prayers serve as narration throughout the movie. Most of the prayers are variations on the question, “Where are you, God?” The opening words of the movie come from God, or at least from God’s response to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job demanded that God give him some explanation for his suffering, especially in light of his innocence. I’ve never been quite satisfied with God’s response to Job. God essentially says, “I’m God and you’re not, so deal with it!” Job accepts God’s answer, but I’m not sure that I do. If God is the great creator, doesn’t he have something to answer for given the magnitude of suffering in the world, especially the suffering of the innocent. Pondering that question is one of the major themes of the movie. Malick, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to accept God’s answer to Job. In various ways, the movie indicates that all things come from God, both good and bad, and that bad things will indeed happen to good people. We need to simply accept that. It is possible that the movie also wants to claim that there is a plan behind all that happens, but that is never stated explicitly. In fact, few things in this movie are stated explicitly! This is a movie for pondering big questions, not necessarily giving any answers. I’m not comfortable with some of the answers that are hinted at, but I salute Malick for making a movie that dares to go places few other movies do.

There is no doubt Malick and his film will be saluted time and again during the award season. It will be interesting to see if that leads to an Oscar or two. Generally the critics love this movie, but there is also a vocal contingent among critics and general viewers who loathe this movie. Maybe that is true if all great art, you either love it or hate it, it doesn’t allow you to remain neutral. I’ve read many comments about how boring some folks find this movie to be. I can understand that reaction. In a sense, not much happens in terms of plot. Most of the movie focuses on the day to day life of a family in Waco, Texas in the ’50’s. But then again, you get the creation of the earth, complete with dinosaurs and a view of the afterlife (or at least, it seems to be the afterlife). That’s pretty big stuff! Of course, it does take some work to sort through the connections between the big stuff and the particularities of this family’s life. I urge you to see the movie, but do so knowing that it is a movie about images, rather than about narrative and plot. While watching the movie, my 14 year old son remarked, “This doesn’t make sense.” I responded, “Don’t worry about that. Just let the images work on you.” I think that is the right approach to watching this movie. And some of those images are incredible! I am tempted to continue on with what I feel that those images convey, but I think I’ll leave that for a later reflection piece. Instead, I’ll close this recommendation with a brief explanation why I refer to this as a “near” masterpiece and why I rank it at number 2 for the year (so far). As grand as the movie-making is here, the movie never truly drew me in. I was delighted by portions of it (especially the scenes dealing with the births and early years of the boys), but I was not moved by it. I shed nary a tear. For me, that is important. Strangely enough, in a movie that ponders grace, I did not feel grace. But, I’ll certainly be giving The Tree of Life another shot. There is so much to see here. Flawed though it may be, don’t miss it!

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