What is it about Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” that makes it such a difficult film for some viewers? Why was it booed at Cannes? Why do I keep hearing of people who have paid their $10 and then walk out halfway through?
There are certain obvious qualities that make “The Tree of Life” a challenge for some people to watch.
It does not follow a clear linear narrative sequence. There is no obvious story line that can be easily followed from beginning to end. The narrative does not carry the audience along from one event that relates clearly to the next.
The film is predominantly non-verbal. There is very little dialogue and some of the words the actors utter are almost incomprehensible. For most movie-going tastes, there are disturbingly long periods of silence. Much of the energy of the film is carried by music and imagery.
Upon initial viewing the film can be confusing. Images flash on the screen that have no obvious relationship to what has preceded them or what follows. Connections are tenuous at times and the links between characters are not always clear. Many viewers are unsure which of the three boys has died and how the Sean Penn character relates to the film.
We are accustomed to our entertainment being delivered in simple straightforward easily consumable bites. Terrence Malick does not cater to such tastes. He requires patience, openness, and a willingness to allow the film to unfold over time.
But, I have become convinced that these are not the major obstacles to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” There is something deeper going on in peoples’ resistance to this film.
I believe that the difficulty many people are having with “The Tree of Life” has nothing to do with the quality of the film. People are not objecting to the film because the script is bad; it is in fact beautifully and poetically written. It is not that the acting is poor; almost everyone agrees the acting is uniformly superb. Certainly, almost no one argues that the movie is poorly filmed; the cinematography is stunning. It is hard to complain about the music which is stirring and powerful.
None of these things is the real issue people have with “The Tree of Life.” The problem with this film for many people is that our culture struggles with gentleness and vulnerability. And “The Tree of Life” is full of gentleness and vulnerability.
It begins from the opening sequence when Mrs. O’Brien receives the news of her son’s death and crumples to the floor. It carries on with Mr. O’Brien’s silent despair at the death of his son, the awkward spaces between husband and wife as they flounder in their inability to offer one another even the tinniest shreds of comfort.
These are fragile, broken people. They are trapped in their own little isolated confusing worlds. They do not know how to reach out to one another effectively. They don’t know where to look to find hope and healing.
When Jack hurts his younger brother, he is paralyzed with remorse. All he can think to do, is to give his brother the opportunity to retaliate by offering him a piece of wood with which to hit him. When his brother refuses to seize the chance for revenge, Jack is driven to kiss his brother’s arm and finally to say simply, “I’m sorry; you’re my brother,” in a scene that is painfully tender.
When Jack faces his mother after his sexual awakening, he can no longer look her in the face. He pleads with her, “Don’t look at me.” His shame makes him want to hide. He knows that she can see the dark underside of his life and he is frightened to be seen.
RL is shamed by his father. Mrs. O’Brien is trapped by her husband. Jack is paralyzed by his fear and filled with remorse at his own choices. Jack bares his heart in prayer and longs to be able to be a different person than he knows he often is. Mr. O’Brien is filled with a sense of failure and disappointment. He carries a devastating burden that he is an inadequate parent.
Terrence Malick has put our deepest fears, anxieties, and secrets on the screen. He shows us our vulnerability. He displays with excruciating honesty the conflicts we encounter in life. And we are not comfortable with Malick’s exposure of our human condition.
So, we find ways to run and hide from the impact of this film. We analyze, rationalize, and criticize in an attempt to avoid looking into the deep mirror Malick has offered us within which to explore the nature of the human condition.
In “The Tree of Life” we are given the opportunity to face our doubts and our uncertainties about life. We are faced with our anger, bitterness, and resentment towards life. We see our disappointments and our fears. And it is all too hard for us to watch. We want to be relieved of the burden of seeing ourselves as we are. We prefer entertainment that help us escape, that gives us comfort in the midst of our pain.
Malick’s glaring light is not a welcome guest in our lives. But, it is the only hope we have for finding freedom. Jesus once said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Malick shows us the truth. When we embrace the truth he portrays, we will encounter the truth that lies deep at the heart of this film. If we allow this film to do its work on us, we will find a dazzling vision of the freedom and beauty for which we were created.