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The Tree of Life

June 4, 2011
The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick has been getting significant buzz for months for The Tree of Life, even before it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. I was anticipating it enough to make an extra trip this weekend to Bethesda for the sole purpose of seeing it as soon as possible. I’m happy to say that it deserves every commendation it has received, but like all the greatest movies it is very much its own thing, and will probably divide audiences in half.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks I’m sure many people will have is that it’s unapologetically religious in its outlook; it’s absolutely appropriate when people refer to it as prayerful, reverential, or even sublime. That said, it’s not the simplistic, evangelical religion of, say, Soul Surfer. Rather, this is a religion that encompasses the grand sweep of nature and finds there evidence of God’s subtle design. But it’s decidedly religious and not merely spiritual — I don’t even think it would work to approach it by treating references to God as anthropomorphizing the natural world.

The movie is seemingly presented in a sort of “flashback” from the point of view of Jack (Sean Penn) as he reflects on his life as a child (Hunter McCracken) in mid-20th-century Waco, Texas, though the specific time and place doesn’t completely matter. His mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt) both love him — along with his two younger brothers (Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan) — but they relate to him and to the world in very different ways. A voiceover by Chastain — its hard to ascribe it precisely to her character — speaks of the “way of nature” and the “way of grace”.

Jack’s father exemplifies the way of nature, turned inward onto himself and bitter over his self-perceived failings. “To succeed in this world,” he counsels his sons, “you have to be hard; you can’t be too good.” And indeed he raises them hard. It would be easy to find fault with him, but we must grant that he’s doing what he honestly believes is best for them: preparing them for a harsh world he feels he wasn’t prepared for himself.

Jack’s mother, on the other hand, stands for the way of grace, turned outward and giving endlessly to her sons. She wants to protect and nurture them, forgive them for every fault, and raise them to love and care for everyone. Malick isn’t exactly equivocal in his support for this latter approach. If you’re looking for a careful balancing of benefits and flaws, this is not the film for it; the biggest problem he admits to with following the way of grace is how incredibly difficult it is.

In is way, the message isn’t exactly new, nor is it inherently religious. It’s pretty much the now-standard response to the existentialist question. David Foster Wallace made the same urgent plea for care and attention most clearly in This Is Water, and Kurt Vonnegut put the words into Eliot Rosewater’s mouth: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

What Malick brings to the table is a literally universal scope, which dovetails with his religious perspective. All the trials and tribulations, all the pains and pleasures of Jack’s life are only part of an unimaginable whole whose overwhelming and transcendent beauty subsumes even what looks, close up, horrifically ugly. From this vantage, the only sensible response is to let all these concerns slip away.

And yet it’s not in our nature to maintain this perspective; it takes a grace that doesn’t come easily to almost anyone. But — snide comments aside — what is religion for but to point us towards what is best in ourselves? Turning away from this message because you don’t like the message would be cutting off your nose to spite your face, but it may just be natural.

Worth It: yes, and in a theater if at all possible.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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