All Things Great and Small, by Josh Long

11 Jun

One of the things that make art so vital to society is its potential to penetrate and explore the mystery of the human experience. Man has always been puzzled by his own existence, and art can elevate us by sharing and expressing that bewilderment. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is a work of art that unabashedly grapples with the enormity of life’s questions while managing to stay defined and intimate. In this way, the film reflects a God who can create titanic waterfalls and volcanoes, but can also find joy in children playing hide-and-seek.

To describe the story of the film is to do it some kind of injustice. It falls far from traditional storylines, and to suggest that the plot drives the film would be misleading. The narrative core of the movie is a family with three boys growing up in 1950s Texas. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain portray the boys’ parents, and Sean Penn, in flash-forward, portrays the adult version of the eldest boy, Jack. The film moves in a very loose sequence, but we learn early on that Jack’s younger brother is killed at 19. Although most of the film shows the family before this tragedy, it is important that we understand the way that it will rock their world.

Unfortunately, many will be – and have been – thrown by the atypical style. Terrence Malick’s filmmaking does not allow for a familiar “scene” structure. It moves fluidly from moment to moment, but the flow is not tied to passage of time or revelation of plot points. Instead, the film dictates its own flow, to achieve an atmospheric or expressionist effect of its own merit. Whereas a traditional film’s editing is dictated by the storyline, Malick’s films allow the editing to validate itself. This is important because it allows an experience that is unique to the medium of film. We can instantly move from any time, to any place, to any imagination, to any perspective, and neither the viewer nor the film has a responsibility to cobble together a narrative.

The film’s central theme is the human dichotomy and disconnect between body and soul. From a Christian perspective, it is the conflict between man’s fallen nature and his God-given ability for goodness, here expressed as “nature and grace.” We see the parents in the family as metaphors of the two sides: the forceful, unforgiving father representing nature, and the saintly mother representing grace. In one of the voice-overs, we hear Jack describe the way “they” (his mother and father) wrestle within him; the eternal struggle is also his inner struggle. Because the family’s history is told in flashback, the parents stand in as remembrances, essences that remain mostly one-dimensional in order to express something more complex. The image of Jack’s mother sometimes moves into the surreally fantastic, reinforcing that she represents something wonderful from outside the purview of scientific realism.

While the movie may not be explicitly Christian, we are clearly meant to see it through the prism of religion. It opens with Job 38:4, 7 in which God asks Job –

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand. […]
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? (NIV)

This suggests from the beginning that we are meant to see these characters and events not only as Jack remembers them, but also as God sees them. Possibly unwittingly, the film explores how memory, like God, is unbound by time and space.

All throughout there are moments of voice-over meant to heard as prayers. All in hushed whispers, they pour out longing and pain that the flesh-and-blood people may never be able to voice. Among these prayers are desperate pleas from Jack wondering, “how can I be good?” A slave to his nature, he recognizes his need for righteousness but is unable to attain it. In this, Jack acts as a metaphor for mankind, seeking absolution from within, but eternally falling short (Rom. 3:23).

A section of the film follows young Jack as he “loses his innocence,” but not in the way we’re accustomed to seeing. Jack does not simply move from childhood bliss to hardened but wiser adulthood. He is tempted, purposefully gives in to selfish desires, then suffers a severe self hatred. On the surface he seems a “bad kid,” but we hear from his secret prayers that he feels lost and hopeless. He feels like he has strayed from the path of goodness, hates himself for being there, and doesn’t know how to get back. It’s such a beautiful tragedy of life – we all have felt that our mistakes have damned us beyond hope. Jack, like all of us, wants some way to be good enough, to atone for his mistakes, and is tortured by the knowledge that there’s nothing he can do. He even seems to unknowingly arrive word for word at the apostle Paul’s conclusion from Romans 7:15 – “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (NIV).

There is one sequence of the film that will be difficult for some (especially for casual) viewers of the film. Early on, almost in reply to the mother’s lament for her lost son, we cut to stoic images of galactic nebulae, volcanic activity and cellular mitosis, all to a powerful Wagnerian score (orchestrated by Oscar-nominee Alexandre Desplat). Taken most obviously this sequence explores the creation process, from space to earth’s formation, to water, to life. This serves to show us the mysterious majesty of the universe, and ultimately of God. It may feel like a far left turn from handheld shots of rural Texas, but the point is that this splendor is in both places, and that God is the God of both things. Viewed humbly, it offers staggering perspective. A God who marshals the stars and brings life from not-life cannot be beholden to man. Yet can it be that He loves us enough to heed our whispered fears?

Something fantastic about Tree of Life is its clarity in equating man’s inner struggle with the earth’s struggle. The earth is shown in all its glory, from the beginning of time, yet it still is a place where death can tear through a family. Both the universe and human life are simultaneously places of great beauty and great tragedy. Paul had similarly observed this connection in Romans:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23, NIV)

Some people will certainly have a difficult time with this film. People have complained that it isn’t entertaining, but that is holding the movie to an irrelevant standard. Film is not a medium created solely for popular entertainment. People have complained about the length. This is a short-sighted complaint. In a film whose artistic focus is on atmosphere and experience, time is of no issue. If the film was ten hours long, it could have been just as artistically viable, if not commercially feasible. It is, after all, a piece of art, and its purpose is not simply to give audiences what they want. It presents something with which the viewer may engage. The viewer may choose not to do so, but he sacrifices the potential for something deeply rewarding.

It is a rare thing that a film is able to dissect the truth of the human tragedy with such subtle acuity. It is as rare to find one that skillfully focuses that lens on religion. I am unaware of whether Terrence Malick is a professing Christian. But whether intentional or not, the cosmic supernaturality presented as the life force behind the world seems purposefully reminiscent of the God of the Bible. Tree of Life is a film about God and man and the connection between the two; maybe the cryptic closing shots of the film are a celebration that there even exists a bridge between us at all.

4 Responses to “All Things Great and Small, by Josh Long”

  1. Travis June 13, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    You summed up many of my feelings about the film in a much more eloquent way than I ever could. I also really dig the point you bring up about how both the God and the film are not limited to time and space the way we are, and that really brings the flow of the cosmic and creation oriented sequence into a better perspective for me.

  2. David June 17, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    An amazing thing about this film is that it seems open to as many interpretation as there will be viewing. Your’s is very close to mine. Which is interesting because I’m not that Christian is the sense that I think you profess here. The notion of the narration being actual instances of the characters actual prayers is one that I may allow to color my experience the next time I view this film.

  3. barbara masoner June 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Insightful, beautifully written, helpful review! Thank you, Josh! Must see it again!

  4. Ben August 18, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    Yes, yes, yes.

    This is the best film of the year. I was so surprised at how spiritual it is. The scene where we hear Jack talking, and then in voiceover we hear his real thoughts is so powerful.

    Thanks for the review.

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