As Fall approaches every year, I begin to compile my “best of” music and film lists.  This year it appears my choice for film of the year will be an easy one:  The Tree of Life.  And judging by the critical responses and festival awards, it might top plenty of other lists as well.

The Tree of Life is the creation of Terrence Malick, whose other films include The Thin Red Line (director) and Amazing Grace (producer).  You know a filmmaker has accomplished something special when people begin to compare him to some of the great poets and novelists.  In this case, reviewers have put Malick in the company of literary figures such as Wordsworth, Melville, and Whitman.  This is because of the singular artistry of The Tree of Life, which is innovative in just about every way a film can be.  The story line concerns a family’s fumbling efforts to deal with tragic loss, and Malick drives the narrative with mosaic-like cinematography.

But what might be most remarkable about The Tree of Life is its strong Christian message.  The film opens with a quote from the book of Job:  “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 7).  All that follows powerfully reinforces that rhetorical question, as God’s meticulous design in nature is visually illustrated in everything from astronomical events to microscopic biological functions.  So as viewers experience the characters’ grief, they do so in light of God’s sovereign care.

Malick takes stylistic and thematic risks in The Tree of Life.  Some have been critical of the film’s storytelling technique, and I believe that is just because it departs from the usual Hollywood narrative approach.  But if ever such a departure was appropriate, it is in The Tree of Life—a film that counters standard thinking about suffering with a biblical perspective.  Such a bold endorsement of Christian themes in an artwork requires radical artistic innovation, both to get our attention and to match form to content.  Malick’s innovation pays off, and the result is a cinema masterpiece.

3 Responses to “The Tree of Life”

  1. Kat Forbes


    I finally saw it!! I’ve wanted to see it for months now. It’s easily my favorite film of the year and might join the short list of my favorite films of all time. For me, this film was just the cathartic experience and two hour prayer that I needed!

  2. NewYearResolutions


    The Tree of Life isn’t the cold irony of 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor the dark, senseless, nor the randomly unending pain of Enter the Void, but it evokes both, and plays off them, in some instances self-consciously, perhaps to make a point.

    Things happen for reasons. We probably don’t know what they are, but we can’t stop trying to figure it out. We are puzzled, stumped, stymied.

    Our conscious minds are behind the curve.

    We are a dualism: nature and grace. Each operates on its own, independent logic, mostly inaccessible to each other, within us, and in the world. Ultimately, they are same thing.

    Most of us can’t experience the world this way.

    Environments, circumstances, and events evoke opportunities for what we imagine to be either, but how much control or choice do we have?

    Whereas Kubrick relentlessly makes fun of what we think is going on in human society, telling jokes on us, Malick enters in, exploring emotion, the parts that slip away from us, the things we don’t understand when they are happening, but only (and then in part) while looking back in mental distance.

    It’s a bit creepy.

    Malick evokes 2001 visually, too, recalling the famous opening scene of Kubrick’s masterpiece: sun rising over Earth, Thus Spake Zarathustra rising triumphantly.

    But in Malick’s vision, the accompanying music falls flat, failing to deliver any triumph whatever.

    Instead, Malick gives us more of a sarcastic eye roll.

    We’re not getting off this dirt.

    No mind warp into deep space. No transformation. No resolution of human history. No next step.

    Instead of waltzing spaceships and choreographed planetary orbits synchronized to The Blue Danube, we get lonely (almost dead) people in cold, super-sleek architecture.

    There are no proto-humans, either. But there are dinosaurs, and a dinosaur bone as well, which a future Sean Penn tosses, before a jump cut–not into space, but, you guessed it, into a large, steel building.

    Malick seems to say, Look what we are missing: the world we inherited.

    Like Enter the Void’s attempt to create a first person intimacy and hallucinogenic experience, cinematography of The Tree of Life is psychologically immediate, light, and archetypal–an array of iconic memories, life’s mental events on screen, rolling, flashing, intruding, releasing.

    Unlike Enter the Void, where nature is entirely random, and senselessly violent, leaving us to wander in the dark, The Tree of Life suggests that we can grab some grace, at least for the moment–because that is what our species does.

    How meaningful is that moment of grace? Who knows.

    It’s a strange, troubling, yet wonderful film. Kind of like life.


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