Last week was my anniversary. My husband and I celebrated by going to see the Terrence Malick film, “The Tree of Life”. The movie made a big impression on me and I’d like to attempt to explain my feelings about it, but I have to warn you this was a difficult film on every level.
The Tree of Life stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, but it’s a far cry from being anything close to a star driven drama. I’ve never seen anything like it. It not the least bit linear, the story and visuals wander chaotically the first 20 minutes, jumping back and forth in time between a high speed elevator ride in a modern glass tower to a suburban neighborhood in 1950’s Texas and even expanding outward into the cosmos. Quaint homilies are spouted such as “There are two ways through the world. The way of nature, (which is portrayed as selfish and ruthless) and the way of grace…”
My first thought was Oh dear this is going to be bad. I glanced sideways at my husband and almost apologized for dragging him to this “art house” movie. In the corner of my eye I saw others walking out of the theater. I was worried I had ruined our anniversary.
And then it happened scenes spilled onto the screen accompanied by gorgeous operatic music that were so beautiful they can only be described as sublime. Tears started rolling down my face. I realized I’d been set up and lured into a bored but receptive state of mind—the same state of mind Sean Penn’s character is occupying and “we” Sean Penn and the viewer, are having a soul-healing epiphany about life during the elevator ride. During the rest of the movie all aspects of love and forgiveness are explored. The proverb “So as above, so as below” is wrestled head on with the conflict between a disillusioned father beautifully played by Brad Pitt and his son. Malick spends the rest of the film proving the way of nature and the way of grace are one and the same. One follows closely behind the other as inseparable companions in scene after stunning scene.
Watching this movie was like a long meditative trip to an art gallery. Every scene is beautifully shot and loaded with symbolism. For instance when the mother in the movie (played with subtle strength by Jessica Chastain) is pregnant or giving birth to her three sons the orchid tree outside their home is in full bloom with brilliant pink flowers. Later we see her wearing a pale blue dress the same color as the robes of Isis or the Virgin Mary. She is standing enraptured beneath the tree and suddenly levitates into the air like an ecstatic saint and wildly flips and floats around the tree. Of course she never actually did such a thing but it’s symbolic of how Sean Penn remembers her self-sacrifice and goodness in his youth.
Later mother becomes the protector as Brad Pitt’s character suffers the loss of his job, a musical career and hope. He becomes increasingly harsh with his sons. It’s not terrible abuse. It’s subtle real life stuff like being cranky, angry and unloving and it’s so painful to watch because the viewer knows from the very beginning, one of the son’s will die in his late teens. It’s painful too because we clearly see what a good man the father is. He works like a dog, struggles to make time for his music and we get a glimpse of his intricate sketchbook filled with “78” patients he is trying desperately to sell. He has so much potential and so much to be grateful for but he does make the great mistake of letting his frustrations poison the family. We also see he lives to regret it.
There are parts of this movie that reminded me of the visual abstractions of “Altered States” and certainly the strongest comparison is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 a Space Odyssey”. The suites of rich visuals and beautiful music are mesmerizing. There is ample time during these unrushed scenes to either get bored or deeply reflect on your own life and feelings about family, love and forgiveness.
For some reason a gorgeous montage of Hubble telescope images caused my mind to flash on my father’s childhood. He and his father were prisoners of war in Asia during WWII, and suffered greatly. I found out later that day that my father was in a different city, sitting in different movie theater watching The Tree of Life—reflecting on his father… We might have been watching the movie at the same moment. My father said he saw a few people walk out of the theater in boredom, anger or utter confusion. He also said, “I was bored but strongly compelled to watch at the same time.” (Doesn’t that sum up so much of life? lol)
This movie is as close as we might come to watching someone else’s life flash before their eyes and experience their moment of enlightenment. If that sounds interesting to you, approach “Tree of Life” in a quiet state of mind and see where it takes you.