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.