The Tree of Life
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” – Mrs O’Brien
On what does our happiness depend? Health, success, faith, good fortune, love? Do we allow ourselves to be overcome by circumstances or do we try to be happy in spite of it? Terrence Malick’s new film takes these questions and instead of trying to answer them for us, encourages us to answer them for ourselves.
The film’s title comes from the symbol for the relationship between all living things and the relationship between life and death, origin and understanding. For the ancient Egyptians the tree of life was a “Holy Sycamore” which “stood on the threshold of life and death, connecting the two worlds”. For every human being what connects us to life and death is our relationship to those around us. The family tree we’re born into and the circumstances in which we live together, some rough, some a bit smoother, which form a shared experience of good and bad times.
The O’Brien family are united by their very personal experience of tragedy and the story follows their attempt to understand and to live with it. In trying to come to terms with the pain and the death he experiences in his childhood the young Jack O’Brien prays to God saying, “Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good, when you aren’t?” A fair question.
This is something which marks every human experience, our longing for the eternal and the mystery of suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? If God loves the world so much, why do we experience pain and loss? These are the questions which the O’Briens are left to wonder throughout the course of the film, as the older Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on his childhood on the anniversary of his brother’s death.
Learning to rely on the grace of God rather than oneself is perhaps one of the hardest and most valuable lessons faith can teach but, as the O’Briens discover, it comes at a price. “God waits to see the choices we make and then adds to the work that we are doing”.
I read an article in a local newspaper recently by Mickey Harte, a well known sports personality in Ireland, whose daughter Michaela was murdered on her Honeymoon in January of this year. I found myself wondering how you get over something like that. How do you go back to work? How do you laugh again? How do you have any positive thoughts about the future? He said that his faith had helped him to “make sense of things that may otherwise seem impossible to make sense of”. When the O’Brien’s lose one of their sons their world comes crashing down around them. But the world doesn’t stop turning, life goes on as it did before. It is within the context of faith that Malick frames the family’s loss and this helps to give the plot a more supernatural dimension.
Talk about epic epicness! The Tree of Life exists in a bit of vacuum really, with only the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jurassic Park to keep it company. Did I mention it’s also a moving family drama as well as a profound and confusing sci-fi opus — “and now, for my next genre!” — with a bit of the BBC’s Natural World stock footage thrown in for good measure.
In fact I know it was epic because as soon as it ended the guy a few seats down said to his mate “It was a bit epic, like, wasn’t it?” Which is obviously the most appropriate way of describing what it’s like to watch Terrence Malick’s new film. It’s an experience. It’s a rite of passage. It is also a nightmare to review.
How do you critique a film that will mean something different to everyone who sees it? This much I knew for sure when, after about ten minutes, at least two people got up and walked out. Sure, they might have had a little too much complimentary coffee in the foyer before the film, or maybe they’d left the iron on, or walked into the wrong theatre. Though I seriously doubt it.
I’m sure I heard a few people exhale impatiently when we were beamed millions of years back through the history of the planet, watching a dinosaur sniff the humid air of his pre-historic jungle paradise. Or was it the bit which showed us the evolution of life from single-celled organisms which frustrated viewers? Or the gorgeous images of the imagined origins of the cosmos?
I half expected David Attenborough to start narrating at one point. Some of the people around me began to sound as if they were stuck in traffic where all you can do is wait for something to happen. The Tree of life is definitely a “slow burner”. Is that why it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year?
I guess that’s the price I pay for growing up with the MTV generation. Most people my age have the attention span of a toothbrush and when it comes to meaningfulness they’d sooner eat a Big Mac or check their Twitter feed. This isn’t a film that’s going to be “liked” on Facebook in a hurry.
But The Tree of Life is not a film which is meant to be judged or criticised. You either appreciate it for what it is, or you don’t. The most positive thing I can say about the film is that it challenged my faith and encouraged me to examine my conscience.
But it’s still entertaining, I promise. It’s just that you may have to tweak your definition of entertainment. This was never going to be an exercise in dramatic escapism. For Malick at least, The Tree of Life was always going to be about life, the universe and everything. So naturally, it put a few people off.
For me, The Tree of Life is about the mystery of suffering and the mystery of love. The film shows, by sharing with us the O’Brien’s experience of a family tragedy, that to live with love means living with the possibility that we may have to live without those we love the most. Love means vulnerability and suffering.
The film is an exhortation to the audience to “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” Ok, so Mrs O’Brien’s sentiments might sound a bit lovey-dovey, a bit “let’s hold hand and sing all together ‘round the campfire”. But it’s worth a thought. It’s not a consideration that gets much attention on the big screen. So it’s a thumbs up from me to Malick for having the minerals to think about it… with his camera, obviously.
Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.