I went to the films with my 13 year old son. Both of us felt we had played the super hero/blockbuster card too many times so far this spring and summer. We saw Thor, X –Men First Class and Super 8. None of these are painful. The best of that bunch is clearly the nostalgic Super 8 but none are films that are going to stick to your ribs. We felt that any viewing of The Green Lantern was fraught with peril. And that, along with Tree of Life, were the only films we hadn’t seen.
Tree of Life is an entirely different matter from any blockbuster ever spawned. It is also another matter for Malick films. From the film’s first moments, especially sitting next to a 13 year old, my pretentious-o-meter was set to high. But there is nothing pretentious about this film. It is a rumination on life, death, theology, pain, suffering and, ultimately on humanity. It is a film about being human and it is a film where any attempt at plot summary, at trying to give potential viewers a narrative to pique there interest, is superfluous. There is a plot about a young man with two brothers, his sometimes difficult father and his idealized mother. But is what you are seeing his view? Or is it the metaphysical truth? That is open to interpretation and Malick is likely the only one who knows for sure. I wonder if he will give me an interview? There is no plot, no conflict other than those we all face—life, death, trying to be happy, trying to understand.
And that is as good an answer as many will give. I asked him about the woman sitting next to us who said “It is all symbolic and can mean whatever you want.” He thought that was nonsense. Now, this isn’t just to tell you how smart my son is. It is to let you know that despite a non-narrative structure that includes long interludes of fiery formation of planets and the first walking creatures crawling toward land, where cells form and voiceovers ponder meaning as lights flash on screen and planets move past and volcanoes erupt, a 13 year old stayed engaged and paid attention to the entire film.
It meant something to him. This movie made a 13 year old who is really looking forward to Transformers 3 (me too) and still watches the odd cartoon here and there pay attention and think about relationships, life and, although he might not know the term, theology. There were no car chases, no robots, no vampires, no super heroes and he watched it and thought about it. I will not swear to you all kids will but the fact any did is a comment on the universal brilliance of Tree of Life.
It meant something to me as well. I come back to a line from the mother that says “Love everyone, every leaf, every ray of light” which is promptly followed by some very dubious behavior. It means something and the juxtaposition does too. There is a generality to what happens here. No one is totally bad and while certainly, the mother is portrayed as totally good, she is the exception. We are all human, we all face the question, repeated throughout our lives; why? And Malick’s film goes a long way in, if not giving us an answer, at least helping us frame the question for ourselves. It should bring tears to your eyes at some point.
It is also visually stunning. In addition to being a masterwork of writing, Tree of Life, is a masterpiece of direction, acting and cinematography. Films like this rarely find their way into wide distribution. Go see it in the theater. Don't try to watch it on your iPhone.