THE TREE OF LIFE AS . . .
. . . A PRAYER:
Check out Father Robert Barron’s analysis of The Tree of Life (it’s similar to mine):
In my initial review of the film I discussed, as Father Barron did, how the film mimics the Book of Job—the famous Biblical story about a righteous man who endures the greatest pain and suffering. It seems as if Terrence Malick is re-telling in his own fashion, this ancient poetic drama. To me, the film is a deeply spiritual movie, its goal to put the mind of God on film. References to the Divine abound in the movie, but even without those obvious insertions, the picture seems overwhelmingly religious. The characters pray to God of course, but so, in there own inanimate ways, do the brave and bold cosmos and the peaceful streams of water and the violent explosions of lava all give glory to their maker.
The movie’s thesis is that there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. Nature seeks its own good, it finds reasons to be unhappy, it is violent and vengeful, it is judgmental and exclusive, and it is powerful and mighty, it delivers justice. Grace is unselfish, it is perpetually joyful, it is all love and loves everyone, it keeps no record of wrongs, it does not pass moral judgment, and it offers instead forgiveness. Father Barron made an excellent point that nature and grace are not good and evil. No, instead they are both personalities of the Divine Being and exist in the eternal now in perfect tandem. On earth and throughout creation they are divided and often appear in conflict, yet when brought together they produce something beautiful. As Father Barron said, the parents played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain represent the two paths. Brad Pitt is the strong, disciplinarian, brutish way of nature. Jessica Chastain is the passive, gentle, distant, almost angelic way of grace. Each lacks the other quality. To their children their style of parenting often seems unbelievably cruel, yet it is affective.
The couple fights at times. Sometimes they simply coexist. They go to church and hear a sermon about Job. They play music, they have picnics, they plant vegetables. It’s an ordinary life from our eyes. From the characters’ eyes it must be much more exciting. The most extraordinary thing that happens to them is the death of one of their sons, which triggers Jessica Chastain’s prayer, which in turn triggers the great cosmic montage where nature and grace play themselves out on a much grander scale. The couple’s son Jack, played by Sean Penn, prays also, though not nearly as faithfully as his mother does. His prayers are whispers to what he perceives as a distant God. Near the end of the film, Jack is transported either physically or in a vision to an extensive white beach inhabited by the people he knew on Earth, now in what must be the afterlife. He reunites with his family and friends: everyone who ever knew him, while he whispers, “Guide us to the end of time.” Growing on this beach is a small, green tree, perhaps signifying that when life is over on Earth, it starts again in heaven. The final metaphor of the film is a bridge over a river. At first it baffled me, but perhaps it signifies crossing over from life to afterlife. It is hopeful for us to remember that death is not in fact the end.
. . . A SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION
Back in the old days, religion and science walked hand in hand – not as one, mind you, but side by side. They still can if those pesky fundamentalists would pull their heads out of ignorance. Malick’s film attempts to unite the two once again. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life brilliantly composes an epic based in religion and realized in science. 2001 did it poorly; The Tree of Life does it well. So often in modern culture, science and religion are seen as enemies, yet Terrence Malick seems to have a different opinion. In Malick’s vision, the concept of life is seen as the beautiful melding of spiritual animation, and materialistic construction. The Divine and the Natural are perfectly in sync. As I said in my first review of the film, the picture is an Opera for the Organism. It celebrates living things and holds them up for reverence without any cynicism — just pure appreciation for the miracle. It explores the complex scientific mechanisms that allow life to exist (amino acids, enzymes, mitosis, etc.), and it explores the spiritual element to life that yields character and personality. The movie sees science and religion as the pursuit of the same thing: truth. Science itself must assume (through purely philosophical means) that matter and nature, its subjects, can be known and that ultimate truth exists about them. Religion, through the same philosophy pursues ultimate truth about the supernatural. Eventually, the two converge and we gain understanding of reality.
The universe is a big place. According to modern scientific theory, it is getting bigger every moment. Everything is moving away from everything else because of an event known as the Big Bang. One wonders how many of Malick’s many pictures of stars and nebulas and galaxies are real and how many are computer animated. Regardless, it seems as if Malick has captured the entire universe in this sequence of long, vast shots of space. Space is the way of grace because its quiet and peaceful. When we drop down into the ocean of the earth and see violent eruptions of volcanoes, that is the way of nature. Spellbinding.
Of course, the brilliance of The Tree of Life is that it means whatever you project onto it to mean. What I’ve said here is what I perceived based on my experiences and my philosophy. It’s a purely relativistic movie because whatever you project it to mean, it can mean. I’m sure there are a billion different ways to interpret this film. What a rarety.