If you are planning to see Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” you might find it helpful in advance to read “A Primer on Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life,’ which originally appeared at http://communities.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/blogs/spirituallyspeaking/default.aspx
It is sad that people risk missing the powerful experience of this film simply because of its unconventional style.
Among so many other things, “The Tree of Life” is a deeply touching portrayal of the human suffering that is an inevitable part of life.
As a grown man, Jack has obviously achieved substantial success in the world. And yet, like all of us, there are parts of his life he struggles to integrate.
Many years after his nineteen year old brother’s death, Jack remains wracked with pain. The death is never explained. Many commentators assume Jack’s brother died in the Vietnam war. The movie gives no hint as to the cause of death. Niles Schwartz is convinced we are supposed to believe Jack’s brother committed suicide. Terrence Malick apparently had a brother who played guitar and took his own life out of frustration at his lack of talent.
The thing about death for Jack, as for all of us of course, is that it lurks always at the edges of our consciousness. At one point in the film, Jack remembers a scene from his childhood when a boy drowned at the public swimming pool.
Even the water that in Malick’s film symbolizes the vital force and energy of life, is connected with death.
We cannot escape the inevitability of mortality, nor the questions that mortality inevitably raises. The voiceovers that form such a major part of Malick’s script are filled with questions.
Some of the difficulty people are having with Malick’s film may lie in the fact that he refuses to give simple answers to the questions he raises. He is content to portray with great power the reality of human suffering and to allow the fact of the fragile human condition to confront us with all its stark reality.
It is amusing to me that so many reviews of Malick’s film include the warning “Spoiler Alert.” This usually means that something about the film is going to be revealed in the review, that may spoil the viewer’s appreciation of the film. There is nothing we can know in advance about the “plot” of “The Tree of Life” that could possibly spoil the experience of a film that is so filled with mystery.
This is surely one of the main points of this film. The reality of death daily causes us to confront the fact that we are hemmed in on every side by mystery. Our lives are caught up in forces that are vastly beyond our ability to control.
We must make a choice.
Life is filled with death and suffering. Life is also filled with life and beauty. We must decide which is the dominant reality. Is life ultimately defined by the brokenness and sorrow that cut like a wretched scar through so much of life? Or is there a reality that transcends all of the harsh realities with which we are so familiar?
It seems that, when the adult Jack, in a surrealistic sequence at the end of “The Tree of Life” chooses to walk through the door that confronted him at the beginning of the film, he has chosen to cast his lot with life. He has decided that the pain of life can be held. He has come to a place within himself where he recognizes that suffering does not have the final word in human existence. He is able to affirm that which is “deathless” at the core of all life.
“The Tree of Life” is a movie about hope. It is not a hope that life will always be sunshine and roses, but that, even when life is impossibly difficult, there is “glory.” The transcendent power of Life pulsates through all of existence. The Force that brought all of creation into being is never absent.
Our vision may be clouded at times. It may be difficult for us to perceive the unfailing Presence that permeates existence. But our inability to “see” does not change the faithful reality of that Life that can never die.