2011 Movie Of The Year: The Tree of Life

In 2011, a year of many good movies (my own motley list includes: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Bridesmaids, Weekend, The Muppet Movie, Buck and Rise of the Planet of the Apes), one stands out in every possible way: Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Naturally, we in Iowa City never got to eat of The Tree of Life, at least not on the big screen. Luckily, this masterpiece can still transport you back to Eden on DVD, though I myself made a point of traveling to a more complete civilization—Chicago—to see it in all its glory.

At Tree’s core is a riveting story of a late-1950s family, but there are a few other significant sequences: a now-infamous twenty-minutes about the history of the entire universe, an architect wandering aimlessly among his cold glass-and-steel creations and a final mystical realization on a beach. The usually perceptive Michael Wood has argued that everything but the family’s story is “truly terrible.” It’s certainly the case that the family’s story is most like what we demand of the movies and that Malick’s other sequences don’t fit into the standard aesthetics of entertainment. But the movie is so strangely fascinating, wildly ambitious and ultimately profound that as a critic I feel like I have to rearrange my own aesthetics to meet it rather than demand that it conform to my expectations.

First of all, the family’s story—loosely based on Malick’s own childhood—would be enough to redeem any film. I’m calling it a “story,” though it’s really a series of memory-fragments that flash and disappear to the accompaniment of whispered thoughts and glorious music. Packed into every minute of this sequence are dozens of brief glimpses that even great filmmakers never achieve in a lifetime: Emmanuel Lubezki’s tears-inducing cinematography of glittering sparklers on a summer night, a boy’s outstretched hand registering the flapping air out a car’s rolled-down window, the play of reflected sunlight on a nursery wall. Watching these flashes, I had a completely new experience at the movies: I actually felt like I was having the memories. We’re used to seeing memories on screen in the form of flashbacks. But Malick and Lubezki have found a way of so entering into the interiority of experience that they have blazed what I hope will be a new path for the art of cinema.

Insofar as the movie suggests a narrative, a young man dies (we’re not sure why), and his brother (Sean Penn as an adult, the Oscar-deserving Hunter McCracken as a boy) reacts to the loss by thinking back to their childhood and wondering about what it all means. He hears his mother’s voice saying, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace,” and meditates on how his father (Brad Pitt, in the best performance of his career) and mother (the ethereal Jessica Chastain) incarnate the complementary forces that course through the entirety of life, as well as how his father and mother—and by extension the elementary forces of the universe—war within him.

A father (Brad Pitt) teaches his sons one of two ways through this world.

In Malick’s vision, nature represents struggle and strength; and grace stands for acceptance and suppleness. But as soon as he divides the family and the cosmos into these oppositions, he complicates them by showing how in every entity and action they battle and blend. There are literally hundreds of such images, but I think especially of a scene of hot lava and cold seawater striking against each other and sending up steam, or of a dinosaur digging its foot into the throat of a weaker dinosaur and then, as if empathetically, releasing the pressure.

The Tree of Life begins with an epigraph from the Book of 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?” (Imagine a review of Job by the ancient version of Michael Wood: “Great opening story about God and Satan betting with Job’s life, great closing speech by God; but a lot of truly terrible speeches in the middle.”) There’s a medieval Christian way of reading the Old Testament as prefiguring the central mystery of Christ. Likewise, Malick treats the Bible as a figuration of his own life. Almost every scene from his boyhood seems linked at a subatomic level to the tales of Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and so on. But the Book of Job is, as the epigraph alerts us, the movie’s master text, particularly God’s final speech, which answers humanity’s fundamental question—Why do I suffer?—not with any kind of human logic but by raising the question to another power, by linking the inscrutability of suffering with the glorious, terrifying inscrutability of everything, from the singing stars to the mundane moments of any given day.

The title of the movie refers to Eden’s Tree of Life, which Adam and Eve, having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, are permanently barred from enjoying. Through the glass darkly, this myth seems to suggest that by trying to grasp the universe we’re unable to participate in it fully. The way of our nature blocks the way of our grace. But Malick’s movie, via the Book of Job, suggests another reading. It’s only through our attempt to understand suffering, and our inevitable failure to do so, that we can finally access the way of grace, meet ourselves and inherit the glory.

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