The Tree of Life, Part Two

Note: The Tree of Life, Part One is found on my film website at http://www.film-prof.com.

I’m doing the second part to a review of The Tree of Life because I want to address some issues separately, and I don’t want my thoughts and criticisms to be folded into a review that reflects my utmost admiration for the film. I’d like to pull off to the side of the road, so to speak, and address some things, question others, and groan a little.

First, God. Of course it’s impossible to visually represent God as One existing outside of space and time. Malick does a good job suggesting a deity, and coupled with the almost-whispered prayers of the film’s characters, the combination of image and sound suggests the immanent and intimate that most believers would associate with God.

Next, creation. The creation dogma of today is evolution, and the film goes along with that. As one who believes that evolution will become as much of a scientific embarrassment as bloodletting in medicine, and who believes that the underpinnings of it are cracking as I write, I have to note how completely Malick gives himself over the theory. He addresses deity and human life, but slides over how life could come from non-life. I don’t necessarily expect an Adam-and-Eve sequence from this film, but will have to pay closer attention next time to see if that Sauron-like deity is suggested to have had much of anything directly to do with the start of life.

The film, of course, opens with a quote from the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures, if you prefer. God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…when the morning stars sang together?” (Job 38:4, 7) It ultimately caused Job to disengage from judgment, and then ponder, and then come to wisdom. I can only assume we are to do the same thing. Job lost his children, and here, a child is lost. But the main character is not the parent, as Job was. Plot connections don’t seem to be meant, just a cosmic perspective leading us to view things more correctly. If Malick means for us to get off our high horses, shut up, and start meditating on the bigger issues, then he has my deepest respect.

As a filmmaker who has shown an extraordinary love and fascination with nature throughout his career, it’s intriguing that Malick sets nature against grace here, clearly suggesting we choose the latter over the former. As a Christian, I was looking to see how he would define grace, which I associate with the life and death of Christ. I may have missed it this time around, but he seems to equate it with love, kindness and forgiveness.

And while this is not at all the most egregious example, can’t anyone in Hollywood or the American film industry get religion right? Obviously, Malick is working to connect a mid-twentieth-century American expression of Christianity with larger cosmic issues. No problem there; in fact, kudos. But either Malick is deliberately trying to create a generic Christian religion here—which doesn’t work with the specific place, time, and family dynamic he’s created—or he just gets religious expression as wrong as those directors who can’t hold a candle to him artistically (i.e., just about everyone else). Most filmmakers working outside of an Irish or Italian story seem to try and create a nonspecific Protestant expression that’s not Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian—it’s just limp generic non-Catholic. Here, it must be Catholic, as Pitt’s character genuflects, does something of a crossing of himself, and then goes and lights a candle. But the priest preaches like nothing I’ve heard in a Catholic church (and this from a former altar boy), sounding much more the Anglicans of Jane Austen expression. The “grace” at home before the mail isn’t Catholic either. Confusing.

Leaving Malick alone for a moment, can’t anyone get this right? Every so often we get a Robert Duvall film that both reflects and respects reality in religion, and I and other believers breathe a huge sigh of relief and recognition (even if it’s not always complimentary). I know that the American film industry is, at the moment, generally antipathetic to genuine Christianity and confused about nearly every kind of religious expression. But where are the researchers here? If you work to get the costumes and sets right, and the dialogue of its time, can’t anyone nail down a real place of worship where people really do and say what they would actually do in such a place?

I’m being a little unfair to the film and to Malick, as the exactitude of the family’s religion doesn’t harm the film much. It’s just disconcerting to see even so small a lapse in such an astonishing film, especially one that uses religion as a springboard to such celestial issues as the film addresses.

Perhaps at some other point I’ll do a Part Three to this review, as there is so much more in this film on love and grace that could be discussed. I have to get past my awe of its artistry and the initial round of questions and irritations first.

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