'The Tree of Life' asks 'Who are we to You?'

by Rich Heffern

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Terrence Malick’s new film, “The Tree of Life,” is at once a wide-ranging meditation, an elegaic cinematic rendering of what it’s like to be a child, and a litany of sounds and images of humankind, nature and, incredibly, the Earth’s beginnings. It opens with the ultimate rank-pulling quote from the end of the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

In lyrical, fragmentary detail, it portrays the life of the Catholic O’Brien family in the 1950s: a mother (Jessica Chastain), father (Brad Pitt) and three young sons, one of whom they lose as a teenager.

The loose story line follows Jack, the oldest, as he grows up, tangles with his strict father, becomes an adult (Sean Penn), then shows him, disillusioned by the world’s mendacity and greed, finding reconciliation in a scene that looks like a gathering of old hippies and liturgical dancers in the Utah wilderness, but is actually the crux of the film.

The mother is a loving presence, photographed with trees and butterflies; the father is a businessman shown at work amid steel gantries and walkways, who is prone to anger, plays the organ in church, and who tells his sons, “If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good.” Good in the goody-two-shoes sense.
Early on and typical of Malick’s films, we begin to hear the characters’ thoughts.

The mother sets up a debate: “The nuns told us there were two ways in life, nature and grace. You have to choose…” The one is in-the-moment, in-your-face; the other meaning-seeking and contemplative. She and her husband incarnate those approaches. Jack thinks aloud: “Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

Mother says nothing really bad can happen to the one who follows grace then she receives a military telegram notifying her of the death of one son. We hear her inner lamentations and cries to heaven: “Why? Where were you, God?”

Time is fluid throughout this film, which is more poetic than realistic. After establishing this unusual mode of storytelling, the film takes a breathtaking leap.

As Jack recalls his brother’s death and his mother asks God “Who are we to You?” we jump suddenly back billions of years in time to the beginning of the universe and a long section, complete with soaring choral music, that stands as a mind-blowing hymn of praise to creation. It’s the ultimate Book of Job-like putting things in context, an answer to the late Fr. Thomas Berry urging us to heed the cosmic story science has been telling us.

We see stunning images of distant galaxies, swirling gasses, cloudy planets, asteroids slamming into a young Earth, life beginning in the seas then slouching onto land, morphing from bacteria to undulating jellyfish to dinosaurs. One amazing sequence seems to show a dinosaur showing what looks like compassion to another. Another shows a fulsome half-orb of the Earth fading out while a pregnant woman’s belly fades in. It will remind viewers of Stanley Kubrick’s final images in his 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Somehow it all works together, carefully navigating though the shoals of 1950s nostalgia and eco-spiritual pretentiousness. It avoids being a hodge podge.

What you’ll remember also are the filmic details of childhood: A spelling test in grade school. A strange scene of Jack stealing a lacy nightgown from a neighbor’s house and dropping it into the nearby river. The father teaching each son to box. The kids on the block playing kick- the-can, running through meadows with BB guns, strapping a live frog to an upward thrusting skyrocket on the Fourth of July. A priest preaching during a drowsy summer Sunday morning Mass.

Malick often films the actors as silent movie directors once did, relying little on any dialogue. As in Kubrick’s film, the soundtrack uses classical music – Berlioz’s “Requiem,” Górecki’s “Sorrowful Symphony,” Smetana’s “The Moldau,” John Tavener’s “Resurrection in Hades,” and much more. The film’s images match the sweeping, uplifting scope of the music.

The spirituality is deeply ingrained in the film, with bits of magical realism – at one point the mother floats into the air as if she were in a Chagall painting.

I think Malick’s aim with all this is to ask what kind of relationship can be found between our personal stories and the epic of the universe, between the kick-the-can games, the floating-bobbing dragonfly in a Texas summer meadow, the close embrace within the warm, freckled arms of your mother, and the infinite, enigmatic spaces of the night sky. How does the tender love you felt for your parents as a child and the wrenching need to leave it behind square with the three-billion-year-old slog from flagella, tentacle and paw to space shuttle?

In regaining innocence that often seems lost forever, in opening your eyes to wonder, you can step through a door into sturdy reconciliation, durable understanding and wider love.

Malick also echoes physicist Brian Swimme’s assertion that the only satisfactory explanation for evil and loss is the whole 14-billion-year-old saga of the universe.

Majestic in scope, rich in texture, this one especially needs to be seen in theaters with the full width of screen and the bombastic sound speakers. Where else can you see jaw-dropping evocations of distant galaxy clusters, primordial seas, evolving protozoa and an excellent performance by Brad Pitt in one film?

Malick’s most famous film “Days of Heaven” (1978) is memorable for its luscious images of hardscrabble farm workers in the Depression below towering stormy thunderclouds and for the jarring quirky, dispassionate voice-over narration of a streetwise but unschooled little girl who speaks with a clipped New Jersey accent.

His 2005 “The New World” begins with a depiction of the clash of cultures at the time of Pocahontas – the English ship, with sails slack, coasting along the James River, the scruffy, scurvy crew jumping from cannon port to port to goggle for the first time at the curious indigenous on the shore who also dart around rubbernecking in deerskins.

In short, Terrence Malick’s films always reward with cinema that is unlike anything else ever brought to the screen. This film is alive and electric with a hybrid spirit that’s part D. W. Griffith, part Juliana of Norwich, part Thomas Berry.

It’s about all of us humans, and our deep kinship with the Mystery that got us here.

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