Tree of Life
One needn’t read the Book of Job or Heidegger or St. Thomas Aquinas or Thomas à Kempis to “get” The Tree of Life—movies can and should be taken on their own terms, and this one is a singular, immersive, and fully gratifying aesthetic experience for anyone open to it. But there is no doubt that Malick’s movie engages, explicitly and directly, with philosophical and theological questions raised by these sources, and that the rich intellectual tradition on which he draws for this film merits some consideration.
The above is taken from Chris Wisniewski’s review at Reverse Shot. I think it’s a pretty necessary starting point to wrestle with Malick and Tree of Life. One need not be intimately knowledgeable of Heidegger, but some, indeed, “consideration” is unavoidable and advisable. For my part, it’s been many years since reading him and I cannot with a clear conscience claim nuanced or accurate recollection (assuming I understood a lick in the first place). What I do know is that Heidegger is interested in the, for him, central question of Being, about this larger thing that the history of Western thought forgot and yet we singularly can ask.
Even this very surface level of understanding is useful, I think, in pondering Tree of Life. What to make, after all, of the space imagery, of the dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs), of the deep sea and volcanoes, of the microbes? What might be the most frustrating aspect of this movie for the casual viewer is perhaps that which has the most profound force: the juxtaposition of so many every day things against this such greater and impersonal thing. Jack’s Mom will point to the sky and say “God lives there,” but is that any more a footnote than the sound a playing card makes in the spoke of a bike? And even though Tree of Life makes some nods to Tarkovsky (Jessica Chastain floating recalls Solaris, I believe), I’m unsure Malick desires faith.
But what does Malick want? Again, I believe it is to show us experiences against a monumental backdrop of space and time we cannot grasp (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”). And what is so beautiful is the relate-ability of these experiences. They appear very stray and random yet certainly have an arch—which ends in reconciliation (easily confused in this case with salvation). Herein for me lies Malick’s brilliance: the ability to show a collection of experiences, yet not lead us around by the nose in any traditional manner of storytelling. These scenes—these memories—insert themselves seemingly at will: a particularly violent and tense dinner dustup; the transgression of breaking windows in the neighborhood; that boy with the disfigurement; the mystery of your parents’ room.
This is a movie about boyhood. It’s a movie about our relationship to our fathers. It’s a movie about our fathers. It’s about them not getting what they wanted (in this case, a career as a successful musician), wanting us to get what we want, and us not getting it either (Jack as an adult is something of a one-note of emptiness despite what appears to be a successful career in architecture). And to be sure the grief in knowing that we may depart life early and not even get a chance. And yet still: what significance does it have in relation to Being, to the whole, to all of it? Any?
As one would expect, it’s stunning to see and hear Tree of Life. There are moments that can only be described as mesmerizing, aesthetic splendor. My only major qualm is over the dinosaur animation. I genuinely felt embarrassed during the scene. It looked horrible; I’m actually shocked it made it in. But all told, it’s an incredible film. From a narrative standpoint it’s less accessible than The New World, but even more pointed in its thematic explorations.