My wife and I were in line for tickets at the Plano Angelika when I saw it. Printed on plain white paper, it was a sign just like one that had appeared in other theaters across the country, warning moviegoers about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. But the warning wasn’t about the movie’s content as much as it was about the movie itself.
“We would like to take the opportunity,” it said, “to remind patrons that The Tree of Life is a uniquely visionary and philosophical film from an auteur director. It does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling.”
The sign went on to encourage moviegoers to do their homework before buying a ticket, and to “please go in with an open mind.”
Having seen The Tree of Life twice, the first time as a member of the press and the second as just another paying customer, I can understand the controversy. While “uniquely visionary and philosophical” is a description I would agree with, there are plenty who would just as easily consider it just plain old unintelligible.
I can understand this position, to a point. It’s true that Malick’s movie is meandering and even feels a little bit messy, with images that don’t always have a clear connection to what came before and a thematic focus that seems a bit wobbly.
But I’m not sure it’s fair to dismiss The Tree of Life just because it doesn’t have the tightest of plots. We’ve come to expect movies that move at a break-neck pace, with not a single moment or frame to spare on useless beauty or an artfully composed shot that comments on theme.
The same is true even of many art house films, which are supposedly more experimental but are still playing to a carefully studied market, just like your garden variety blockbuster.
But in The Tree of Life, we have a chance for something different. Malick’s camera creates a past and a present that is unmoored from time, bringing eternity into the present and giving us a view of human experience that feels almost godlike. One second, we are with the O’Brien’s, Malick’s main characters, experiencing their joy and their grief, and then the next we’re in the void that has yet to become space, watching gaseous swirls of color coalesce into stars, suns, and planets.
Malick even takes us into a vision, metaphorical though it may be, of life beyond this world, where past and future selves coexist alongside loved ones who have long since passed on. And in between, there is the great struggle of living. A little boy named Jack (Hunter McCracken) struggles to understand his stern father (Brad Pitt), who can be so tender and loving one minute, so cruel and cutting the next.
If there’s little in the way of plot in The Tree of Life, it’s because Malick has something else in mind. He wants to take small, fleeting events in the life of his main characters and transform them into a picture of our relationship with God, who can seem as mysterious to us as that father is to little Jack.
This requires an eye and a creative mind attuned to something other than delivering thrills or forcing us to feel a particular emotion. Malick doesn’t want to force us in a single direction, he wants to create a meditative atmosphere, one powered by our own memories, our own questions, our own doubts, and our own faith.
In an industry dominated by so many voices dedicated to selling mindless entertainment, his is a refreshing voice in the wilderness, calling us to pay attention to the world around us, and even to look closer at who we are. But more importantly, he challenges us to be humble before a God who can feel so very near to us and yet so very mysterious at the same time.
Andrew has has written reviews for RELEVANT Magazine and Books & Culture, and he's currently at work on an MA in critical-cultural studies at the University of North Texas in Denton.