Terence Malick’s films are often about images and ideas, and sometimes this makes them hard to discuss.
Malick, who wrote and directed this work, has made only five feature films in the last 40 years: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and now The Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life is gorgeous to look at and deals with important emotional themes, but because it covers the period from the big bang to contemporary America, it’s hard for viewers to navigate so much time and space to explore one man’s personal emotional issues, which are revealed by focusing mainly on his childhood.
The film is both huge and very, very particular, and it’s the particulars that I find most important because there is an authenticity to these moments and vignettes from his youth that reveal so much about who this man is, things I’m sure he could not explain even if he tried. The two sequences with the Noah’s Ark toy serve as an illustration.
One central idea explored here is that his father represents nature (all about himself and exercising his will) while his mother represents grace (subsumed into the will of others), which is compelling but abstract and absolute in ways that real people are not.
How does our main character resolve what these two dominant figures teach him? As we see in snippets from his adult life, he does not integrate the ways of being very well. But, the thing we know, of course, is that there are other ways of being separate from the universe of this film.
Aren’t most of us somewhere between the poles revealed here as nature and grace? What makes the idea so compelling on screen (and it is beautifully rendered) is the purity of the idea, the absoluteness of it, but this is only one model for explaining our identities and how we become who we are.
This is not a film for a wide, mainstream audience. Don’t go to the theater expecting a story in the conventional way we think about narrative. This is much more poetic than that, which is a pleasant but challenging break from commercial Hollywood film.
I admire and respect The Tree of Life as a very ambitious work, and the film gives me a lot to think about, though it does not touch me as deeply as some of Malick’s earlier films on first viewing.