Nature, Grace, and The Tree of Life

It’s not often that I’m fortunate to watch a movie that renders me speechless. I don’t just mean that I’m silent during the movie. I try to be quiet during all the movies I watch for the first time. What I mean is speechless for an extended time after the movie is finished. My benchmark for this was Dances With Wolves in 1991. When my roommate Tim and I went to that movie in Fremont, Nebraska, thirty minutes from our apartment, we sat through the credits, silently walked to the car, and didn’t speak until we were five minutes from home. That’s what I mean by speechless. Schindler’s List had the same effect.

I’ve set a new benchmark. I watched a piece of art Saturday night that not only rendered me mute for the rest of the night, but over twenty-four hours later I still don’t know how to describe it or what to say about it except that visually and audibly it is perhaps the most stunning film I’ve watched.

I’d first heard of The Tree of Life about a year ago, and then again in the early part of 2011. I knew that it starred Brad Pitt and Sean Penn (neither of whom a huge draws for me to see a movie) and that it had won some awards in Europe and at Cannes. I’d also heard that it was a BIG movie. Big in its ambition. Big in its scope. BIG. And then I began to hear about people walking out of the theaters when it was played, or even booing. Not everyone was appreciating the vision of its creator Terrence Malick apparently. Undeterred I waited for it to come to Lincoln, which it finally did except it was during a weekend at the university at a time I was unavailable to attend. So I had to wait until last week when it was finally released on Blu-Ray / DVD.

This is a big film. I still don’t know what to say about it except that when I am asked to list my favorite movies or top ten list of films from here on out I will have to include this one. It is absolutely fantastic. It is a film made for viewing on a large screen with a big sound system. I have a large flatscreen combined with a surround sound system that I wired into my basement when I remodeled it a few years ago, so I had a bit of an advantage I suppose. When I pressed play one of the first messages to appear on the screen after the obligatory FBI piracy warnings was a message telling the viewer to turn the sound system up loud.

I loved that. Never had that message so explicitly stated before.

I know why many people walked out. This is a movie that you will either love or you’ll hate. Ok, perhaps hate is too strong a word. But I’m going to use it because so much of what I see passing for discourse or conversation in society today is a hatred for things not understood. And I think a lot of people just do not understand this movie. I don’t completely understand it, which is why I plan to watch it again and again and again.

There is little dialogue spoken on screen. What spoken words you do hear are mostly whispered thoughts or prayers by each actor. It is their own internal dialogue with God, much the same that many of us have or have had during our lifetimes. Here are four, for instance:

  • Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door.
  • Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.
  • Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?
  • I didn’t know how to name You then. But I see it was You. Always You were calling me.

Indeed, the first image on screen at the start of the film is a passage from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Job 38:4,7

There is so much symbolism in this film that it is frankly overwhelming at times because you find yourself over thinking it a bit. Malick introduces you to the main characters he will use to steer you through the big questions he is posing, the O’Briens (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three young boys. And questions are ultimately what are raised here. Malick does not try to answer them, but instead does what all of us do internally when we actually slow down and think about life and its events instead of filling every possible moment with something.

And that is, I believe, why so many people “hate” the film. It asks questions. It wants you to think. Don’t get me wrong or think me a snob for saying this. I love a good action film, too. Sometimes you do go to the movies to escape. But not every single blessed time. Not me anyhow. I want more.

I could go on and on, but I’m still not quite sure how to describe what it is I saw. I plan to watch it again this week. The acting is perfect from top to bottom. One who elevates herself above the rest though is Jessica Chastain, playing Mrs. O’Brien. In one of her first voiceovers, she says:

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

That is what her character represents in the film: grace. Grace as a counter-balance to her husband’s representation of nature. She continues:

Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

In my opinion Chastain gives one of the most compelling onscreen performances since Mia Morgenstern’s portrayal of Mary, the Mother of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Morgenstern said very little in that film, but portrayed everything with her eyes. Chastain does the same here. had the following brief description of the film posted and perhaps I should have just cut and paste it instead of using my own fumbled words:

The impressionistic story of a Texas family in the 1950s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith.

Or better yet, watch this three minute synopsis on YouTube.

All I know is this is a movie that is big. It’s big because it asks the big questions and let’s you come to your own conclusions. It’s not preachy. It simply is. Just as the universe is.

I believe that every man or woman should have a library of books in their home, whether a five-foot shelf or several bookshelves. But no matter the size of their library they should have at least one book of classic philosophy or theology that asks the big questions. I believe the same is true of our video library. Might I be so bold as to recommend you add this one to your own. This will ensure that, while it won’t be the most widely watched of your library, it will be there for you to dust off now and again when you are needing something more. You may sit through it the first time and shrug your shoulders and cuss at me for a perceived waste of time. But if you give it a second chance or more, have your handkerchiefs ready. Because when you get it, it gets you.

I was still meditating on this film while I was sitting outside this morning with my coffee and, as is my routine on weekends, praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Right away was a reading from the first psalm that in essence states “there are two ways a man may take.” And later, in an excerpt from Saint Augustine, we read: The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. No eye has seen it; it has no color. No ear has heard it; it has no sound. It has not entered man’s heart; man’s heart must enter into it.

I think Terrence Malick is on to something.

One last thing. The music, slandered as pretentious by those who do not enjoy being asked the big questions, is brilliant. The original soundtrack you find at or in stores is not representative of the pieces included in this movie. I’m going to have to go through iTunes to purchase them individually and compile them I suppose in order to have the soundtrack. Few things are worth the trouble, but this is an instance where it would be merited. If you’re interested in doing the same a reviewer at Amazon has compiled the list here.


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