Monday, July 11, 2011


ART: a symbol that expresses very real spiritualities under the surface of life; a thing of glimpses
- G.K. Chesterton

In our own little world, we often tend to lose sight of the big picture. For example, while art is a fascinating and enjoyable historical subject, many of us forget that the art of film is really still just in its infancy. The first known commercial release of a film took place on April 14, 1894. The first actual motion picture company essentially began in 1896. The film, The Great Train Robbery wasn't released until 1903. In the Arts, while we have painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, and literature - every single one of these branches of the Arts are over thousands of years older than film. Every single art form takes time to develop. To date, film has only had just a little over one hundred years.

Let's now take literature for an example. We have evidence that our ancestors were writing over five thousand years ago. Laws and stories were written down upon clay tablets, stones, tree bark and papyrus in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The first books were written on parchment scrolls in early Bible times. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates to about 1900 B.C. The oldest books in the Bible, Job and Genesis , were probably written around 1500 B.C. Homer's Iliad dates to around 1190 B.C. We've learned that as literature developed over hundreds of years, different branches of literature emerged. All writing can be divided up between prose and poetry, and then prose can be divided between fiction/legend and nonfiction/history. In our generation, thanks to the likes of director Terrence Malick, we may be seeing the beginnings of this division in the art of film.

Of course, it seems like most of the first plays in the theater consisted of actors speaking entirely in poetry. C.S. Lewis, in his book, Reflections on the Psalms, wrote: "It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry. For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible." Thanks to the imagination, poetry allows us to express things that we otherwise could not express in mere prose. Malick has been attempting to do this with film since 1973. So over about the last four decades, Malick has given us only five films. It's hard to judge this early, but The Tree of Life may be his best film yet.


"Can any critic fully trust their initial reaction to such a thematically mammoth film like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life? I'm battling this question myself nearly two hours after the film premiered at Cannes. To do so almost seems like a disservice to the endless possibilities Malick's film affords the viewer, like competing in a mad rush to a finish line that doesn't exist. Unfortunately, the long gestating hype surrounding the film and the "Shoot first, ask questions never" dogma of Twitter has already taken their toll. Processing a piece of film art like this takes time, and a lot of it, especially when the core function of The Tree of Life is to linger and crystallize. Since my own relationship with all Malick's films remains fluid, I'll try to reveal certain impressions about his latest project at this one moment in time, at this particular crossroads of perception. It's most definitely a profound and shape-shifting work, a towering examination of the way light and sound both comfort and repel. In turn, my thoughts will most definitely follow suit, morphing over time with repeat viewings."
- Glenn Heath Jr., Slant Magazine

The idea that poetry can express and convey meaning incapable of other forms of speech and literature is not a new one. For example, poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney wrote The Defense of Poesy, where he argued exactly that:

"The lawyer saith what men have determined; the historian what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech; and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest persuade, thereon give artificial rules ... Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done ..."

Robert Frost said that "a poem begins with a lump in the throat" , hinting that poetry is an expression of deeper feelings not necessarily articulable in prose. Sidney laments anyone who has not developed an ear for "the planet-like music of poetry" because when a poet "comes to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music" , you are going to feel and understand things in a way that you otherwise would never be able to comprehend. English playwright Christopher Fry insisted that "Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement."

Now the idea of poetry as film is not completely new. This idea was discussed in the 1950s by Frederick Aicken who wrote that:

"... film should be capable of creating for the eye a sort of visual poetry, which would be a selection of the sight of ordinary men just as Wordsworth’s poetry was a selection of the speech of ordinary men ... As James Broughton has said, to ask for poetry in cinema does not mean that one is asking for verse plays embalmed in celluloid. The search is for the moment of truth, the sudden illumination of experience, the thrill of discovery of beauty in squalor, of the exciting in the ordinary. One looks for ‘a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented in an unusual aspect.’ One looks, too, for that flash upon the inward eye which completes the process of transference of emotion from the mind of the artist to the mind of the spectator. One looks, in fact, not for poetry in the film, but for poetry of the film."


"The film is an affirmation of Mr. Malick’s belief in the power of cinematic images to express the sublime (the cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki) and, perhaps, of his faith in the audience to meet him with equivalent seriousness. It also serves as a reminder of how few contemporary filmmakers engage questions of life and death, God and soul, and risk such questioning without the crutch of an obvious story. It isn’t that these life questions aren’t asked in our movies; they are, if sometimes obliquely. Rather it’s the directness of Mr. Malick’s engagement with them that feels so surprising at this moment, and that goes against the mainstream filmmaking grain."
- Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

There's a sense in which poetry takes you deeper than prose. And in film, other directors have flirted with this idea - Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, French director Robert Bresson, and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman all created films where the images captured on camera were often far more important to the film than the action and dialogue. Dreyer's filming of actress Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc makes much more sense when you find that he said that "nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring." Dreyer could easily have been referring to the closeups of Falconetti's face in the film when he rhapsodized how there was no "greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry."

If you watch Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar or Bergman's Wild Strawberries, it will be the images in these films that stick with you the longest. They are images with so much to say. However, the master of the poetic use of visual imagery could easily be said to be Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), Stalker (1979), Voyage in Time (1982), Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986) are all films where many given camera shots could substitute for a beautiful painting. Taken all together, the beautifully crafted sequences and montages in Tarkovsky's films, do work as a sort of poetry. One can't help but suspect that Tarkovsky was an influence on Terrence Malick, particularly since his masterpiece, Mirror (1975), is probably the one film in existence that compares most closely to The Tree of Life.

Both Mirror and The Tree of Life are filmed collections of memories, many of which are occupied with mothers and family. Mirror is a difficult but rewarding film to watch and ponder because you are traveling through what at first seem to be apparently disconnected memories of a dying man - he's remembering his mother, how he has treated and harmed other people close to him, and his never-forgotten impressions formed during his childhood. There is a sense of both regret and redemption here. Beauty, self-sacrifice, anger, and sin all combine to make the thinker decide what in his life possessed true value. In The Tree of Life , the main character, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn and as a child by Hunter McCracken), is traveling through his own memories. Jack begins the film by questioning God, and then, producing a series of images that rival anything ever put on the screen by Stanley Kubrick or George Lucas, Malick essentially takes Jack, and therefore the film audience, through an attempt at filming the first chapter of Genesis.


"The film itself is essentially an illustration of the quote from Job 38 — asserting that the world is a beautiful and mysterious place, and that death and loss are to be accepted as part of this beauty and mystery. There are a handful of scenes in which the Catholicism of the central characters plays a rather understated part, but the film’s imagery is otherwise almost completely non-sectarian: This is an attempt at a universal vision of man’s fate, and a call for faith in the face of life’s cruelties. Of course, the notion that we should have hope and courage in the face of pain and grief because the universe is beautiful is a intellectually difficult one ... So the experience of beauty is not, taken in the abstract, an adequate response to Job’s — indeed, man’s — question. But what Malick has tried to create in this film is a concrete image of the universe that believers see, and ask audiences to join in contemplating it."
- Michael Potemra, National Review

The contemplation of God's Creation is a regular theme of Malick's films, and while Tarkovsky first did this before Malick most powerfully in Andrei Rublev in 1966. Malick's Badlands (1973) predates Mirror by two years. At least half of Badlands consists of the main characters' reflection upon and experience of the natural world around them. Seeing the vastness of space and time, and the formless prehistoric matter in the first half of The Tree of Life , the viewer can't help but be enchanted. The film is a visual poem. And by turning film into poetry, Malick is taking us to deeper and profounder questions than 99.99% of Hollywood fare have ever taken us.

Jack is asking when God first revealed Himself. Jack's parents are questioning why (in the early minutes of the film) Jack's younger brother had to die (presumably in a war). Job asks God a whole series of similar questions in Scripture, and God's response to Job essentially consists in giving him a tour through the wonders of Creation. As a parallel, Malick ambitiously shows us God's Creation in this film. We see the birth of light and stars and planets. We see the beginnings of cellular life (a interspersing of images of the astronomical universe and images of the ordered cellular structures of biological life demonstrates a striking similarity). We see a primordial earth full of raging waters and volcanoes, lava, rock, fire, plant life and eventually dinosaurs. And then we see Jack's birth and family living in a 1950s suburb in Texas that can't help but remind us of the Garden of Eden.


"Those scenes, like most of Tree of Life, play out with scarcely any spoken dialogue — just passages of whispered narration and much classical music (Bach, Holst, Goreckí, Mahler) laid over rapturously lyrical images that express more than words ever could. In particular, Malick recalls childhood, and a child’s way of seeing and feeling, with acute intensity: the first blush of pain, the mysterious lengthening of a shadow in the sun, the idealization of our parents as perfect people, the realization that all things must die. Like 2001, Tree of Life is a symphonic film that surges and swells, returns to favorite motifs, and—even by Malick’s esoteric standards—has more in common with music, painting, poetry, and certain strains of avant-garde filmmaking than it does with mainstream narrative cinema. 'When I talk about ‘poetic cinema,’ I don't mean that it has something to do with poetry,' the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami told me in a 2001 interview. 'I'm talking about the cinema being like poetry, possessing the complicated qualities of poetry, and also having the vast potential of poetry.' If Malick were inclined to give interviews, he might say something similar. Where his previous films all, to one extent or another, felt marooned between the prosaic and the poetic, he here gives himself fully over to the latter, and the result feels like the purest expression of himself—like the fulfillment of Robert Bresson’s mandate, written in his indelible Notes on the Cinematographer, to 'make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen' ... You don’t watch this movie so much as you surrender to it."
- Scott Foundas, Lincoln Center Film Society

The portion of the film that takes the viewer through Jack's early childhood memories are all tinged with a luminescent glow. His memories of his mother dominate this portion of the film, and she is a person full of joy. We get to see the beginnings of romance between her and his father, the first images he remembers of their faces, the grass, planting a tree, the wind in the trees, his first steps, the birth of his little brother, laughter, dancing, sharing, fireworks, playing, roughhousing, running, wonder and beauty. After just being taken through the opening visuals of the origins of the universe, the beginnings of human life and family are seen like new - the result is that you feel like you are watching a miracle. Out of nothingness and chaos Malick shows us the formation of order. I can't say I've seen anything as ambitious as this before. How well everything works and what exactly could have been done better is currently being debated back and forth by all the critics - I'm just amazed that Malick decided to do all this in the first place.

If this is what a film as a poem looks like, then I want to see more. But it's time to caution you. If you have never seen anything like this before (like anything else of Malick or Tarkovsky's Mirror) then trying to sit down and watch this the entire way through is going to be a culture shock no matter who you are. This is heavy stuff. It takes some getting used to and learning to appreciate it for what it is takes a certain amount of effort. This is a film you can wrestle with. And it's a film that will leave a lasting impression on you that will be difficult to shake off days later. Modern day culture has trained you to be bored by this film. You are going to think the pace is too slow. You are going to wonder why there isn't more dialogue, or why half of the dialogue is in whispers. You are likely going to fidget in your seat during the ending, because chances are you aren't going to quite understand what is going on.

You can appreciate the beauty exhibited here by Malick and still have problems with the film. Criticizing it and wondering how it could have been done better is just fine. But that doesn't negate the experience you will have by dropping your expectations for what you're used to, taking a deep breath, relaxing, sitting back, and letting Malick's work wash over you for the next couple hours. When it's over, you are going to be confused about a few things. You'll have questions. You'll be wondering what this scene or that image was all about. You'll be wishing the director didn't make that choice or didn't venture into surrealism at that other scene. But you'll also have just experienced something new - and ideas and impressions that cannot be conveyed in a purely linear prose film will have been conveyed to you. It will take some time for them to sink in.


"Evocative. Captivating. Affirming. Powerful. Metaphorical. Stunning. Emotional. Cerebral. Epic. Challenging. Questioning. Unusual. Beautiful. Spiritual. Impressionistic. Affecting. Deep. Provocative. Majestic. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is all of these things. What it is not is a film that will be appreciated by everyone. Don’t misunderstand. I think it’s a wonderful film – probably one of the best coming out this year. It’s just that it is so out of the norm that it may just stump many viewers. It is not so much a film to be watched as it is an experience to be encountered and processed ... The film often lacks fluidity – even within a scene. This is part of the style of the film – not giving us a smooth story and storyline. Rather it often only gives us images, just as memory is often just a collection of such images ... Even in scenes where there is conversation, the words may be in the background while we focus on other things."
- Darrel Manson, HJ Live

There is a portion of The Tree of Life that is meant to convey the idea of Edenic Paradise to the viewer. Since we live in a fallen world, it is something always difficult for us to imagine - but we can still try to imagine it. This is what works of art are for - engaging and exercising the creative faculty of the imagination. And, unlike more standard fare, Malick is far far more interested in speaking to your imagination than he is in entertaining you. The Tree of Life is not really going to entertain you. It's going to perplex you and make you ask questions - even if you're first only asking why things in the movie aren't more normal. But Paradise was, one could say, God's original intent for our world. And traces and hints of Eden still exist. This is what Jack's mother, played glowingly by newcomer Jessica Chastain, tries to explain by using the word "grace."

Grace is not necessarily something we see often or even deserve. But "grace" is still frequently granted to us, even in the corrupt condition we currently find ourselves in. Malick is intensely interested in demonstrating how grace is actually all around us if only we had the eyes to see. He tries to give us the eyes to see with his work, and he doesn't do a bad job of it. When an infant Jack's mother holds him and happily points up into the sky - "That's where God lives." - she's naturally expressing her belief in grace's origin. When Jack's father goes through a time of regret and self-repentance, one of his most immediate realizations is that he has been failing to stop and see the glory that is all around him. The reason for this is that this glory points towards something - something important that ought to have been affecting his attitude and behavior. Jack's father decides to if he had spent more time noticing the beauty that grace has put in his life, his actions would have changed - and now can change if he lets them.

In Malick's film, The New World, early on Captain John Smith is heading down a path full of nothing but his own self and ambitions. He's not going to get any help from the men he's around. His mentor and teacher seems to only be encouraging his ambition. His one chance to change is the beauty he sees around him in the new world, and the beauty Pocahontas naturally and innocently takes joy in sharing with him. In theology this is called general revelation. In The New World, this is what makes Smith begin to pray to the Creator of all that is new and wonderfully revealed to the explorer. Ultimately he has to decide whether to respond to it or not by changing his actions - and the question of how he will respond to it becomes one of the reasons for tension in the story.

The same theme is suggested by Jack's father's realization, and by Jack's own questioning of his own life and existence. Finding himself in a listless job where the modern city has risen up and surrounded him, effectively blocking him off from the Creation he knew and wondered at as a child, Jack is asking about the grace that he feels he has lost touch with.

"Though Malick’s films are quite philosophical and vocally metaphysical (voiceover questions about God, evil, death, love are ubiquitous), they should not be processed in the way one would read a term paper. This is not to say they shouldn’t be thought about, analyzed or deconstructed after the fact (because certainly his complicated films invite all manner of critical response and worthy engagement). It’s just to say that, in the midst of experiencing the films, it’s best to receive them with eyes and ears wide open rather than trying to figure them out in the moment. Heavily influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Malick studied philosophy at Harvard, Oxford and MIT before he made his first film), Malick wants his films to be experienced viscerally before they are understood cognitively. The J.D. Salinger-esque director doesn’t do interviews or comment on his films, but in a rare 2005 screening of The New World in his hometown of Bartlesville, Okla., Malick fielded a few questions and suggested to the audience that the best way to view his film was to “just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself.'"
- Brett McCracken, "How To Watch A Malick Film"

Another word of advice when you try watching this film: reserve all judgment until it is over. There are times, as things move slowly, where you might be tempted to criticize Malick for showing one thing and not another. Wait and see. Keep watching it and let Malick's poem express his ideas and give you a story in his own time and at his own pacing. Don't fault him for giving you what appears to be a picture perfect 1950s family. That is not what he's giving you. He's giving you the childhood memories of an older, wiser, troubled and questioning man. The story is there lurking in the background. There is a progression the director will still take you through if you are willing to have the patience to let him.

While you get hints of the first chapter of Genesis here, you also are being given themes and selections from the Book of Job. The Book of Job is a debate with lots of questions about the nature, character and even presence of God in the face of death, pain and suffering. Terrence Malick has decided to take a questioning Job and set him in the middle of a modern day film - whatever pain and suffering he's going through, he has lost or never quite attained his faith. Because he is looking for it, some of his memories he turns to seem hallowed. But that is just the beginning.


"As the barista took my ATM card, she noticed my notebook and asked, 'What are you writing?'

'A movie review.'

'Oh, really? What movie?' She scribbled my coffee order on a strip of paper and gave it to her coworker.

'The Tree of Life.'

'I haven’t heard of that. Who’s in it?'

'Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, and an actress named Jessica Chastain.'

'Sean Penn and Brad Pitt,' she said. 'Wow. It must be really good.'

I clenched my teeth, dreading the inevitable question ...

'Did you like it?'

As the barista asked me to sign a curling ATM slip, I cautiously answered: 'Well... it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.'

'What’s it about?'

'It’s about a man who is burdened by grief and confusion. He calls out to God. Like Job in the Bible.'

Her eyes widened in surprise.

But I wasn’t exaggerating ... 'God answers Jack,' I told the barista, 'with a vision of the creation of the universe. The birth of stars. The origins of life. The rise of the dinosaurs.'

I think she actually took a step back from the counter at this point.

'It carries us all the way to the daily life of the troubled man’s own family. It’s really beautiful.'

She glanced over my shoulder at another customer, a hint of apology in her expression.

'Did you see The New World? The film about Pocahontas?' I fumbled for magic words to persuade her. 'Or Days of Heaven? With Richard Gere?' As I stepped aside, I concluded, 'Just...go see it. Take some friends. Be sure you have time to talk about it afterwards.'

I sounded ridiculous, I know."

- Jeffrey Overstreet, Image

For those of you just being introduced to Terrence Malick, you are about to make a great discovery. He rigorously protects the privacy of his personal life, does not work to promote his own films and rarely ever gives an interview. Thus, Malick the man is very much a mystery to curious film critics. While some speculate that he is pantheistic, and others have provided a small collection of convincing bits of evidence that he is probably Catholic, the most that we can learn from him is simply from the content of his films. In 1973, Malick released his first film Badlands , telling the tale of a young couple (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) running from the law. While you'd think it would be a violent Bonnie & Clyde sort of story, it's not. Instead, it's rather dreamy, the guy and girl are both very naive and they seem to be constantly looking at the world around them in surprise.

In 1978, Malick brought us Days of Heaven which enchants you with photographic vignettes of Americana the moment the opening credits begin. Starring Richard Gere, Sam Shepherd, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz, the film takes a while until you realize a whole number of stories and themes have been lifted from the early books of the Old Testament and placed into the early 1900s American West. The tales of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Samson are all found in Days of Heaven. Jessica Chastain's joyful mother is a bit reminiscent of Brooke Adams' joyful character, Abby. Much of the film is spent simply taking in the wonders of nature, the exuberance and tenacity of man, and the way light filters down to us from the sky.

Then, Malick disappears from the scene for two whole decades until finally coming back and releasing The Thin Red Line in 1998. The reputation that he had made for himself with only two films in the '70s was immediately demonstrated by the actors who enthusiastically signed up for roles in the film - Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Cusack, Nick Stahl, Miranda Otto, John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke. There are a whole number of provocative themes running through this film, but the most prevalent one is the ongoing conversation between Private Witt (Caviezel) and First Sergeant Welsh (Penn). Witt believes in God. Welsh believes in nothing. Their actions and attitudes during the Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Mount Austen are both reflective of their wrestling with each other's ideas. Welsh cannot understand how Witt can see anything good in the world when confronted with the evil of man in war. Witt can't seem to figure out how to explain this to Welsh. Ultimately, Witt uses his actions instead of words to do this.

In 2005, Malick demonstrated that his work only keeps improving with time. His most recent masterpiece before The Tree of Life was The New World . As in all his films, one of the main characters is simply Creation itself. The beauty of nature interacts with the human characters as much as they interact with each other. In spite of all their griefs, joys, failings, troubles and triumphs, General Revelation is continually revealing itself to them. It is up to them to respond and each of them does respond in different ways. The casting is perfect. Colin Farrel plays a troubled John Smith. Q'orianka Kilcher plays a radiant Pocahontas. Christian Bale is strong as John Rolfe and Christopher Plummer is a wise Captain Newport. Classical works like Wagner's Vorspiel to Das Rheingold and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 enchantingly fill the background when you're not just listening to the sounds of wind or water. As the story progresses, you are constantly left with the impression that Paradise is just beyond the grasps of the characters - it's meant to be there but isn't - and the fault seems to lie with us. Man's nature is corrupt and the selfishness of man is destroying what ought not to be destroyed. Farrel's Smith understands this, and is wrestling within himself between what he knows ought to be and what he wants. Kilcher's Pocahontas is hurt by this. Bale's Rolfe wants to try and restore it. All three find themselves in constant awe of the world around them.

The Tree of Life takes these themes from all four of Malick's previous films, and then ups the ante.

"With his cosmic realism, Malick vividly remembers youth's intimate yet huge idea of God, and Tree of Life's Genesis overture recalls the viewer to a child's awed first conception of the vastness beyond his proscribed world. Thus prepared, you have fresh eyes to see suburbia as, yes, a miracle ...

In his evocation of lost-Eden childhood, Malick shows the wisdom of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism: “If we are to use the words ‘childish’ and ‘infantile’ as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood, which we become better and happier by outgrowing,” Lewis wrote. “Who in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity, and to admire?” It is because the 67-year-old director can get so much of that on-screen, and much more besides, that he's one of the few American filmmakers operating on the multiplex scale who makes movies feel like undiscovered country."

- Nick Pinkerton, LA Weekly

It is not a coincidence that the main character of The Tree of Life turns to his childhood when trying to remember the beginnings of grace in his life.

Matthew 18:1-5
"At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me."

Neither is it a coincidence that when we think of wonder, we use the term "childlike wonder." In his book, Heretics , G.K. Chesterton argued -

"The child is, indeed, in these, and many other matters, the best guide. And in nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things. The false type of naturalness harps always on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. The higher kind of naturalness ignores that distinction. To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales. In the middle of the wildest fields the most rustic child is, ten to one, playing at steam-engines. And the only spiritual or philosophical objection to steam-engines is not that men pay for them or work at them, or make them very ugly, or even that men are killed by them; but merely that men do not play at them."

Children at play could be seen as one of the main themes of Malick's new film. You watch Jack, his brothers, his playmates and often his mother simply playing together. Running, jumping, swimming, dancing, wrestling, creating games at whim, and taking pleasure in the mere fact of physical exertion itself. There is something about childlike wonder at the beauty of the world and resulting joyful physical exertion that go hand-in-hand together.


"For Jack O’Brien (played as a boy by terrific newcomer Hunter McCracken and fleetingly seen as an adult played by Sean Penn), his mother represents the way of grace, while his father is the way of nature. Jack’s early life is seen through a scrim of Edenic glory, an aura of bliss and play in which his mother’s joyful personality dominates. Eventually, though, his father’s sternness dominates his life. Mr. O’Brien is the lawgiver: Here is the line between our property and the neighbors’; don’t cross it. You slammed the door; now close it gently 50 times ...

Young Jack likes his mother better than his father, but as time goes by, he finds more and more in himself what he hates in his father. An inhumane act involving a frog; bullying games with his unprotesting younger brother, whose gentleness mirrors their mother as Jack’s cruelty mirrors their father — these moments sting like guilty childhood memories, all the more in connection with the younger brother, destined to die at 19."

- Steven Greydanus, National Catholic Register

Most reviewers seem to regard Jack’s father as the antagonist of the film. To many, Brad Pitt’s character represents the way of nature in opposition to the way of grace. Jack’s father is often hard on his sons. He speaks harshly to them. He often seems arbitrary. He has outbursts of violence and unreasonableness. He’s inconsistent and apparently uncaring. He virtually forces his sons into learning how to fight. I cannot commend Pitt’s acting ability enough here. Over the last few years, he’s been stretching himself - and he pulls off another completely different personality as Jack’s square-jawed father.

And yet, I think this view of the father is ignoring the subtlety with which Malick develops the character. Jack’s father has clearly given up his dreams of becoming a concert pianist/organist in order to provide for his family. He’s sacrificed a part of himself in order to do what he hates for others. While he’s rough and domineering, he also has moments of tenderness for his sons. And Pitt lets this creep through the surface every once in a while. For instance, in one scene while he’s playing the piano and his middle son joins him on the guitar, you get just a hint of a smile as he backs off softly playing accompaniment in order to give his son the lead.

Simply reducing the themes of the film to the way of nature versus the way of grace is a little too simplistic for The Tree of Life . There are two different natures in the film. There is nature itself - the created world - and it may seen rough and harsh at times, but it also reveals beauty. Then there is human nature - and it is human nature that is corrupt. The fact that Jack’s father goes through a time of repentance - regretting that he hasn’t taken to the time to notice the glory - even to the point of apologizing to his eldest son for being too hard on him - this makes even his character reveal a certain amount of grace to Jack in his own masculine way. If his bitterness of giving up some of his dreams has motivated him to treat his family harshly, he recognizes and laments this fact. In doing so, the opportunity presents itself for him to change.


"Much has been made of the film’s presentation of 'two ways through life': the way of nature and the way of grace (the father’s and mother’s ways, respectively). Nearly every interpretation of the film I’ve encountered relies on this paradigm, and it’s easy to understand why. Early in the film, the mother explains in a voice-over that these are the two ways through life taught to her by nuns in school. It is clear that she has adopted this understanding. The problem is that, while this is indeed the perspective of one of the film’s characters, the film itself (and by implication, Terrence Malick) is telling us something quite different.

The film shows us that the nature-grace scheme is a false dichotomy. Nature is shot through with grace, such that it is impossible to separate one from the other. Grace is not some alien force that occasionally intrudes into a closed system ('nature'). As G. M. Hopkins declared, 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God.' It is grace all the way down.

... The montage of images of the universe is meant to instill wonder and awe; by also depicting images of human blood cells and other biological structures at the microscopic level, human life is elevated and ennobled as a wonder to behold. The creation of one human life is as glorious as the creation of the universe."

- Stewart Clem, Transpositions

Human nature is what disrupts the hints of Eden in this film. And Jack's memories of this begin early - from a little temper tantrum he throws against his mother as a toddler to emerging jealousy of the attention his parents give to his infant brother, the fact that there is something wrong is evident early on. The main disruption of the life and joy of this family is not the law-giving father, it's is Jack's internal struggle. Yes, the father gets some things wrong. His authority is often oppressive to the boys. But Jack's father doesn't make Jack do things to hurt others. When Jack decides to destroy, to steal, to kill a helpless animal, or to tease and hurt his younger brother, he does all these things knowing they are wrong.

Malick even has Jack's thoughts paraphrase the Apostle Paul in Romans 7 -

"For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate ... For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing."

There is more than one scene where you can see Jack's fallen nature in his eyes. He is tempted. He gives into temptation (without necessarily any rhyme or reason). And he hangs his head with the knowledge of the wrong that is inside him. While he loves his mother and his brother, he considers himself more like his oppressive father. Those things that he hates in his father he starts recognizing in himself. His father has regrets, and Jack shares these same regrets in his own way.

Love and grace are surrounding him, and he wrecks what is good around him by his actions. This is a theme that most reviewers of the film are completely ignoring, but I can't say I've seen another film that portrays how corrupt human nature is absolutely unrelated to the outside world & surrounding environment. Jack should be joyful, but he isn't. Jack should be free to pursue what is good (every time he does something wrong, his father is away), but he doesn't. There are times, after falling, that Jack can't even look his mother in the eyes. It is clear towards the beginning, that Jack has a powerful sense of having lost something important. This loss grows progressively clearer as the film continues and he runs through more and more memories of his own wrongdoing.


"When I prayed about the film the next day, I remembered last year's 'Of Gods and Men,' about the martyred monks of Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Algeria. How similar, and how different, they are. The real-life French Trappists in North Africa in the 1990s struggled with some slightly different Big Questions: 'What does God want us to do?' 'Is martyrdom my future?' At the same time, they pondered some of the same questions that the fictional boys in 1950s Waco were asking that same God: 'Do you care about us?'

Likewise, both 'Of Gods and Men' and 'Tree of Life' turn our gaze to small things of great and overlooked beauty: in one film, the waving grass, a reaching tree, a squalling baby; in the other, a monk tending a sick child; another monk pouring wine for his brothers; the communal singing of the psalms. Swaths of classical music are used to great effect by both directors. In the case of 'Gods' the director Xavier Beauvois offers 'Swan Lake' as an accompaniment to a sort of monastic Last Supper. In the case of 'Tree,' almost every scene is scored with a piece from Brahms, Mahler, Berlioz, or my favorite selection (which Malick used in his 'New World') Smetana’s haunting 'Moldau.' Both movies asked us to see. And hear."

- James Martin, The National Catholic Weekly

But Jack also remembers some very important things about his brother. At the end of another scene, Jack asks "what was it that you showed me that day?" That particular day, Jack's brother showed him forgiveness. His brother loved and trusted him, even the point of making himself vulnerable towards Jack. Jack's response was to take advantage of his brother's vulnerability. And he hurts his brother as a result. It's not that Jack just has some of his father's character traits, there are times when Jack acts completely and utterly wicked. It isn't until this really hurts his little brother that he completely realizes what he has done (and, as a result, what he is becoming).

His brother has every right to be hurt, more emotionally than physically, because Jack betrays his trust. And yet, with nothing much more than a smile, his brother forgives him - completely and utterly. Jack is offered love and forgiveness by his brother. (And remember, Jack is only remembering this with the hindsight knowledge that his brother was doomed to die young - probably sacrificing his life willingly by fighting in a war.) The memory of his brother offering him what he did not deserve is hinting at something - and it's probably the only something that can save Jack out of the place into which he's fallen.

There's something mysterious about this. Jack has more questions than answers about it. But even then, at a young age, he doesn't think his brother's forgiveness is just. When he realizes what his brother is doing for him, his first response is to think of a punishment for himself. When he offers his brother an opportunity to punish him ... his brother only laughs and playfully mocks this suggestion.

As many other things as I want to think about, I need to watch the film again for this scene alone. The first response to a brother's forgiveness is puzzlement. But his brother is offering him grace. When his mother mentions the "way of grace" at the beginning of the film, it is not at all clear whether she, let alone whether Jack, completely understands what this means. But by remembering, Jack and the film viewer, are presented with a real life practical example of what this can mean. And this meaning is found in the actions of his little brother's forgiveness.

I suspect that I lack the ability to explain this concept well, but it is at least yet one more argument for why watching and then thinking about The Tree of Life can be exhilarating.


"... So yes, the film is about the whole world. But it's easy to be wowed by cosmic grandeur. What Malick accomplishes is more significant: The Tree of Life is not just about the creation of man; it's about the creation of a man, about what our beginning has to do with our ends. A boy is born to beautiful parents; he lives in a lovely home, discovers the world with delight, rejoices in the love of his lovely mother, spends his early childhood in the sun-kissed eternal summer that most of us remember so well.

Then one day, he encounters temptation. And he falls. And his guilt turns him into a sullen, unhappy bully. His innocence is gone, and we know it won't return, even when he seeks and receives reconciliation with his father - a man whose fallenness haunts him as well - and his little brother, who he wantonly injures and who grants him forgiveness without guile.

In Adam's fall, we sinned all.

The vistas and beauty of Malick's creation story fill us with awe, make many of us believe in film as an art form again - and will likely spark not a few young minds to become astronomers and biologists. All worthy work.

But it is when he takes that grand story of creation and fall and stuffs it inside the life of a little boy that we start to understand. Each life re-enacts the first story. Each is created in beauty and falls in disgrace. We're each a microcosm of the whole story. And redemption is there, if we know how to lament what is lost."

- Alissa Wilkinson, QIdeas

So yes, after only seeing it once, I'm already convinced that The Tree of Life is a masterpiece. There is absolutely no way I understand it - or even understand most of it. And there is no way I'm going to pretend that I understand much of that ending. But it is an experience I will remember for a long time, and it is an experience I want to try again. Running at two hours, and eighteen minutes, the film's slow pace actually makes it feel longer than it really is. But in a little over two hours, Terrence Malick offers much to the adventurous viewer who is willing to try something different. With with own distinctive style, Malick gives us a work of cinematic poetry.

He takes us through senseless death, loss and grief ... to meaningless monotonous existence ... to the creation of the universe ... to destruction ... to the creation of Paradise ... to a hallowed Edenic existence ... to slow and sure corruption of that existence ... to a struggle with how human nature goes against what we and Jack know to be good ... to temptation and sin ... to forgiveness ... to repentance ... and ultimately to a strong sense of redemption and completeness.

All this is given to us in The Tree of Life with very little dialogue or exposition. Instead, the enchantment of the film lies with it's images, and, just like Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a story of brokenness and redemption is still communicated through a work of poetry. The most bullying character in the film, stops, hesitates, admits that he has not been taking the time to see the glory around him, and later apologizes to his son for being too hard on him. The most self-occupied character on the show is suddenly given peace by working through his memories and what the beauty of Creation itself must mean about the Creator ... and ultimately the things in life worth living for.

How rare of a film this is. You don't have to stop enjoying lighter fare to appreciate Malick's work here. The experiences of lighter and heavier films can be appreciated by the same people. Appreciating Malick's work is going to still be a struggle. But, trust me, it's a struggle worth taking up. The experience of committing yourself to sit through and reflect upon this film will be worth all the effort it takes. It will last with you longer than other movie theater experiences, even if you aren't convinced you really like it at first.

We may just be witnessing something very special here in film history. If this is true, then it is an encouraging development that can be used to strengthen our souls.


"America has found its prophet, or at least a director of astonishing rank. 'More than any other active filmmaker Mr. Malick belongs in the visionary company of homegrown romantics like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and James Agee,' A. O. Scott recently wrote of the director of The Tree of Life. And indeed, what Terrence Malick has created with his newest film is a masterpiece on par with some of the greatest works of literature. The comparison to Melville is especially apt because what Malick has given the world is not merely an American classic but a spiritual tour de force.

In the tradition of Augustine's Confessions, The Tree of Life is the story of a single life drawn upward to God. Jack O'Brien, the main character, asks, 'When did you first touch my heart?' and the rest of the film formulates an answer. Jack's journey begins with his own memory: a reconstruction of the great and small tugs that finally brought him into true, inward reconciliation. When did God begin to draw Jack to himself? When was Jack aware of God's presence? And when did he at last open himself to it fully? For Jack, the answers are as personal as the swirls on a fingertip: a mother's kindness, a brother's forgiveness, the beauty of the Texas sky. 'Mother, brother, it was they that led me to your door,' Jack concludes as he retraces his epiphany. The Tree of Life is ultimately the story of two contrary motions: a soul being drawn into the mystery of God's grace in the midst of the downward pull of human nature ...

Malick's preoccupation with creation is not a side-plot but an essential product of his visual sermonizing on love. The glowing coal of creation is the vision that flows out of a life transformed by love, and Malick makes this difficult to deny by lifting the following passage from The Brothers Karamazov nearly word for word:

'Love all of God's creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.'"

- Kristen Scharold, Books and Culture

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