Meditations on Malick’s “The Tree of Life”

I’ve been hearing about this film for awhile.  “You’ll either love it, or hate it,” people told me.  A few people who know me pretty well figured it would be my kind of movie.   Anjie travels, and I’d been contemplating watching it without her, but I kept thinking, “No.  I’ll wait for her.”  So Sunday night, we finally sat and watched it, and my first thought was, “What a mistake not to have seen this in a big theatre.”   We live on a busy street, buses going by, windows rattling.  We kept saying, “What did he just say?”  and rewinding.   Pitiful.  There were a couple of other interruptions as well, but we finally made it through.

Why, O, why didn’t I see this in the big theatre?

Frankly, even on my television, with buses roaring by bent on spoiling the most intimate film I’ve seen in a long time, I loved it.  I’ll love it a lot more the second time I see it.   To say that I loved it doesn’t mean I was completely satisfied by everything.  (The people wandering on the beach didn’t quite take me where I think Terrence Malick was trying to get me to go.)  But overall, brilliant work.

Maybe I loved it because I’m in the middle of looking very hard at the two roads suggested by the film.  The way of the Father and the way of the Mother.  The way of Nature, and the way of Grace.   The layering of the metaphors is subtle and dense, and the non-linear approach to the narrative serves the meditative feel of the film well.   I’m sure its very frustrating for folks who want answers to certain questions (how did that one character die? What happened?) that Malick has no real interest in answering, but for me, the quiet, the images, the sweep of trying to grapple with the full mystery of things left me thankful for a filmmaker willing to take those kinds of chances in story-telling.  Of course, I was also wondering how it ever got made.

I know we say that God is above gender, but there’s just no question that our language plays into the masculine side of the equation.  God is a man to most of us.   If that’s not true for you in your bones, good for you.  But my suspicion is that most of us see, uh…Him, as a masculine presence.  I’m not particularly fond of gender-inclusive language translations, but I can sure see why some people are passionate about them.  I do not pray to Him as “Mother.”  Neither did Jesus, for that matter.  What that means in the great reality that is beyond my consciousness to perceive about the reality of God, I don’t know, but on the street where most of us do our living, somehow it matters.   In The Tree of Life,  the father is tough, harsh, realistic, and ultimately deals pretty honorably with his failures, both of career and son-raising.   The mother is strong as well, but dances in the air, plays, protects, and extends ongoing opportunity for grace and change and life.

The two roads live together in all of us, as they do in the character of the grown son who talks (so quietly) about the way his mother and father grapple inside him.    And though we all walk both roads to some degree, my suspicion is that most of lean one way or the other.   I lean toward the mother’s road, unquestionably.   Is it right?  Is it the best?  Is it more complete, more God-like, more Christ-like than the harsh, demanding, warring, scrapping father?   The world is what it is, and we must make our way through it.   Truth is, Malick gives us some great images of the ups and downs of both roads.   Brad Pitt’s strong portrayal of the Father gives us glimpses of the work of grace, and Jessica Chastain’s vision of the mother has backbone and power and her own ways of demand.

To say God is not male is, I think, the right thing to say, the true thing to say.   To live as if He’s not, struggling to unearth the practical differences our thinking makes along these lines is a far different challenge.

And then there’s Malick’s framing.   We get intimations on the beginning and ending of time, and the fact that we are here in the particular now, and small, and forever kinds of people.

Gorgeous, stunning, troubling, and oddly, welcome.     As all good meditations should be.

Let me watch it again.   Maybe I’ll have more to say…

 

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  1. I saw the movie in the theater, and I was….interesting. I left not really knowing if I liked it or did not. I still feel that way. Some scenes were brilliant, heart wrenching, and beautiful, some things I did not understand why they were there. Maybe I am not deep enough to comprehend some of it. I think the filmmaker had a message, but I don’t quite understand what it was, but then again, maybe his message was to pose an unanswerable question.

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