Terence Malick’s new movie, Tree of Life, is a strange film. Strange, but brilliant and magnificent. Indeed, I believe this is one of the greatest movies ever made. For sure, it is not a simple, linear movie. As I said, it is strange. Too strange for some – I would say at least half of the people in the theater with me walked out during the first hour (I saw it on a weekday afternoon, so this is a small and most likely an unrepresentative sample). And I admit, I found it trying at times. But if you slow down a little and let the experience flow over you, you will be well rewarded. For in its own way, Tree of Life is a deeply religious movie about God and creation.
The “story” is incredibly straightforward, almost stereotypical. Brad Pitt plays a stern father in 1950s Texas, a man of his generation. His wife is kind and gentle. They have three sons. The father strives for success, but never quite achieves it. His frustration and bitterness with his lot in life affects his relationship with sons, but he still loves them dearly (Pitt is masterful in capturing this complexity). The movie begins with news that one of the boys has been killed at 19 years old, probably in the Vietnam war. This news sets of an extended meditation, which is the movie. It is not much of a stretch to say the movie as a prayer.
The family seeks to get to grips with the boy’s death. Sean Penn plays the older brother, years later, still haunted by his loss. The movie begins with a quotation from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”. And when the eldest brother asks “where are you?”, addressing both God and his brother, Malick answers with the most audacious part of the movie – an extended symphony of creation, from the big bang through the creation of life on earth, from the dinosaurs to the birth of a child in Texas. This is a thoroughly spectacular scene, showing both the immense complexity of cosmos and creation. It is not much of a stretch to see it as showing the universe being created by an act of pure love, an outpouring of divine reason, from the dawn of time to the birth of a single child.
The message seems to be – everything is connected. Everything is part of the great cosmic whole. Everything has meaning, even if we do not understand it. The opening words of the movie contrast the way of grace with the way of nature. The way of nature strives for mastery and ends in disappointment (the father). The way of grace accepts the will of God, even if this is not understood (the mother). It is a way of awareness and connectedness – as Fr. Jim Martin notes, a theme common to both Ignatian spirituality and Buddhism. It is a way of peace.
And at the end of the movie, Malick presents a beautiful vision of the afterlife. Although it is set on a beach, it somehow manages to avoid sentimentality. In it, people of different ages in life all find each other and are all connected by love, to the sounds of Berlioz’s requiem. The final acceptance is signified by the mother saying “take my son”. She has let go. Of course, for Christians, this also has a deeper meaning, signaling the great “yes” of Mary to the will of God. I cannot recommend this movie strongly enough.