'Tree of Life' leaves viewers reeling but hopeful
'Tree of Life' leaves viewers reeling but hopeful
Now playing: Belcourt Theatre
By Jason Shawhan
The Total Perspective Vortex was a creation of SciFi genius Douglas Adams. A device capable of letting any organism know exactly how small and insignificant they are in the face of the vast expanses of the universe as we know it, it more often than not annihilated the soul of whomever was exposed to it. While The Tree of Life traffics in that kind of cosmic expanse, it uses that very perspective more like an overstuffed blanket on a cold evening. The place of any organism in the universe is insignificant, but there's no need to lose heart, because things are underway... The film is a prayer in the least specific sense. It is a voice, speaking unto the unknown, never certain if it is truly heard. And the Divine, who does not speak, but moves in light, and wind, and shadow.
God is very much a part of this story, but not in the "special effects showcase in the final reel" sense, or the "let's dramatize something from a sacred text" approach that have been staples of cinema since its beginning. God is as much a part of this film as any of its human characters, but without billing. The Tree of Life is one of those experiences that leaves you reeling, wanting to ask family questions and find a place of spiritual certainty in which to recover. Fortunately, my mother, learned and practical, is a Methodist minister, so I was able to tackle both issues with a leisurely discussion of the film over a hearty lunch.
This is a primal work of art; it is constructed out of basic elements and deals with the big issues that confront us early on in childhood - happiness, responsibility, authority, fear, hurt and safety. It's a weird and epic film, completely committed to its own vision and unwilling to compromise on its elliptical, hyper-dramatic presentation.
"Why do bad things happen to good people?" is one of the questions that has been eating away at human thought for as long as humans have been thinking, but writer/director Terrence Malick decides to dig deep and lay it all out there, sparing no emotional fragment or glimpse of fauna flitting by. Though it opens with a quote from the book of Job, this film explores the helplessness of the parent in all its forms, the frustration of the child that transcends its ability to express itself. It echoes in the frustration of Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), who resents the growing chasm within his family. It encompasses the raw agony of Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) when she is confronted with the death of one of her children, a moment of such wrenching power that it unsticks the film in time and space. It ping-pongs around in the head of young Jack, driven by contempt for his father's rules and petty tyrannies. It is the history of the O'Briens, from beginning to end, and it is also the history of God.
"As the film uses the Texas-set material of the O'Brien family's history as a nostalgic touchstone for its human viewers," I say to the Reverend, a dainty basket of bread just placed nearby on the table, "could the film's more cosmic sequences be viewed as a nostalgic touchstone for God?" No bread is buttered, but the idea sinks in. "It would be gutsy; some might say blasphemous."
One of Malick's favored recursive elements in the film is collision, whether on a cellular level, or ideologically, or planetary. A violent exchange is required for new growth to occur. Something chaotic, tragic, and with that, the potential for something new. "Is it weird," I asked the Reverend, serenely sipping an iced tea, "that the first time I was overwhelmend was for the dinosaurs?" Countless A-list critics the world over have hooted with derision at the film's dinosaurs, but there was something there, something sadly wiped out by a meteor, some 65 million years back. "Compassion," she says. It's the difference between countless strands of religious thought. And it drives much of the film's story, to be sure. "And grief."
God's grief dwarfs man's, but it is the same... Creation as an act of loneliness.
A minister's sermon, about how a parent's love is at odds with the fact that they cannot always help their children, lays it out in a more blunt way than the elegant meteor we see hurtling toward Earth to wipe out its cold-blooded denizens, but the end result is the same. Sometimes children die.
There is no specific story within, just the accumulated moments of lives lived trying to make sense of the distance between the human and the divine. Malick's unspoken conceit of letting each parent embody a different testament of the Christian Bible makes perfect sense, and he has the cinematic chops to get at the heart of religious conflict without copping out. Brad Pitt as the father incarnates strength, design, jealousy and force. Jessica Chastain as the mother personifies forgiveness, consistency, patience and delicacy (her performance is enigmatic in that she isn't playing a specific woman so much as she is playing all women; therefore she has a large palette to work with). And between these two influences, we watch a family grow, deep in Texas, sometime in the 50s. "Do you think the mother is meant to represent the concept of Sophia?" I ask the Reverend Mother, deep in spiritual contemplation over gumbo. But Sophia, even as a concept, is representative of an ideology, and this Tree aims to keep its roots from growing in a troublesome fashion into various theological conflicts.
As with most spiritual texts, one can find countless, often contradictory points within this film, but it seems to skew more toward possibilities rather than specific interpretations. In that way, it is very much akin to modern religion. Whether a detail from the life of a child up to the annihilation of an entire world or stellar cluster, always in this film we are focused on loss and powerlessness. For children, it may be the inability to have a peaceful meal without having Father interject some paranoid macho unease. For parents, it may be the realization that it isn't going to get any easier to communicate with the rest of your family. And for the Divine, it's the realization that free will means the occasional triumph (mercy as an evolutionary response, which is good) or tragedy (a planet-killing asteroid, which is bad). Wherever we go in time, regardless of who's in the driver's seat at that time, the precarious balance before us can only end one way. But know that Malick makes entropy ravishingly gorgeous.
We'll bounce back periodically to different points since the cataclysmic beginnings of the universe, providing a moment of perspective that spans millions of years, and we'll allow ourselves to be swept away by the O'Briens and their story, because on a certain level, it's the story of all humanity. The film is a fractal. You can always pull back or dig deeper, and you'll always find the same themes and troubles at work.
Malick's cosmology isn't just one where science and religion can play nice together, they are bound to one another. And if you hold on, you'll find a unique vision of the human spiritual experience. All people of faith should make a point of experiencing this film, and those who delight in the majesty of light will be blown away by some of the remarkable imagery that Malick and his creative team have wrought.
Graciousness is the key to being a decent human being. Mother offers water to an arrested man. The child asks if it can be anyone. The mother's actions confirm it. Judgment never enters into mother's feelings (except when dealing with the father, which is rather interesting). "Do you feel that the mother is meant as the film's Christ figure?" my own mother, wise, asks. But it would be reductive to simply call Chastain's character a Christ figure - she represents Christian ideology. She is an ideal.
The middle brother, the one who wants quiet and stasis, is the engine of the film. Freed from oldest brother Jack's need to define himself against his father's persona and not bound to the same macho foolishness he sees unmake his father and his brother, he wants to define himself in terms of peace and quiet. He aims for the serenity of grace, but unlike his mother, he does not embody a characteristic. Rather, he makes the conscious choice to try and live a peaceful life. His end, the moment that unsticks the film in space and time, is a cruel irony.
The film's final sequence: where possibly the next life begins, or where one can literally reconcile all, past and present. I'm not even completely sure that it is meant as a literal representation of the next life, or that it represents a spiritual connection. Maybe it's just meant as a signifier for human understanding, a physical representation for the strand of DNA responsible for the feeling we get for finding peace. As an abstraction, it works masterfully, giving the opportunity to find serenity outside of time.
If the old adage is true that every day is Judgment Day, this is the warmest, most hopeful illustration of it. I feel different, now that the film is over.