Movies Catholics Should Watch: The Tree of Life

September 10, 2011

There are two types of people who watch Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life:  Those who love it and those who hate it.  It’s at once surreal, philosophical, deeply feeling, and confusing — very confusing.  In fact, when I watched it last night, more than a few people left the theater before the halfway point, and after the credits had started rolling, there emerged from the audience a big collective, “What?”

The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick

At its heart The Tree of Life is an existentialist film.  It follows the emotionally and spiritually arduous journey of a religious Texan family, one of whose young children has died.  Throughout the movie, a plethora of questions abound regarding the meaning of life:  What’s the point of life?  Why does God allow people to suffer?  Is life worth living if you are a failure and a sinner?  Why do we allow ourselves to get attached when we lose everything eventually?  How can God exist if life is so painful?

Indeed, one of my friends last night wondered if the movie was suggesting that God does not exist.  But I don’t think that was the movie’s message.  I think that The Tree of Life is a celebration of all that is life–with all its ups and downs–which only God could have given us.

While the film throughout is indeed a struggle of faith and an intense questioning of life, by the film’s end, we are called to accept life as life and be thankful for it.  Two scenes come to mind illustrating this point:  1) When Jack learns that his family is moving from his old home, he feels sad:  His childhood there may have been rough and confusing, but he knows that his time has been a worthwhile and meaningful growing experience; life, with all its sad and happy moments, is something for which to be thankful.  And 2) Jessica Chastain’s character, at the very end of the film, thanks God for the life of the son she has lost.  Life has its high points, and it’ll have its lowest points too.  But whatever happens, it’s life.  And we have only God to thank for it.

Acting was solid.  I thought Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain excellently portrayed deeply human characters–and by human, I mean imperfect.  Pitt in particularly turned in a noteworthy performance as a troubled father who can be overly strict and demanding yet is profoundly affectionate and loyal to his family. 

In terms of narrative style, potential viewers be warned:  This is a very trippy film.  There are several symbolic scenes of a lone character walking through deserts or riding up an elevator.  Wailing opera music abounds.  There is a 30 minute segment of nature scenes (in my opinion, this segment is another celebration of all that is life, as I mentioned above).  And even the more normal narrative scenes can be choppy, jarring, and disturbing.  To be sure, all the images are loosely woven into a powerful message, but during the film one can’t help but wonder what’s going on.

To some extent, one can joke that The Tree of Life was made by a guy who lost someone close in his life and got high to get over it.  To another extent, one can surmise that all the confusion in the film effectively portrays the confusion we actually feel in life.  In the end though, the message is clear and powerful especially in our own modern:  Life is about questioning, but in the words of Christopher Hollis in Death of a Gentleman

if we are to save ourselves, we need to close our minds, to take honour’s worth for granted, and to escape back into certainty from the atmosphere of eternal questioning.

Content:  An initially confusing yet an ultimately powerful narrative on how a family copes with life and all its joy and suffering.  It’s a compelling premise because it’s so human and so common.
  Very artsy and at times postmodern.  Nonlinear and confusing with several cuts to documentary-like nature scenes.  The message is coherent and powerful, though.

Catholic?:  Very.  Catholicism deals precisely with the meaning of life.  The Church acknowledges the struggles and questioning of life, but at the same time She also calls us towards certainty and peace in Christ.

Overall:  4 out of 4 stars

P.S. Huzzah for catholicmatters’ first movie review!