The Tree of Life

Although, here, we read and admire the best work by Mormon writers, there are certain writers who we often cite as models for the work we hope to accomplish as a culture: Shakespeare and Milton. Chaim Potok. C. S. Lewis. Flannery O’Connor. I propose we add one more: the filmmaker Terrence Malick and his latest film, The Tree of Life.

Malick: famously reclusive, famously unprolific. Just five films since Badlands in ’73. A philosophy professor when not making films. A Texan.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has become a bit of a family joke.  I’ve forced the oldest three kids to watch it with me; warned by siblings, my youngest daughter has proved elusive.  They say it’s the dullest film ever made.  It’s the benchmark for boring: “How was Sacrament meeting?” “Boring, but not 2001 boring.”  I say it’s a genuinely great film, if a trifle slow-paced.  The Tree of Life is a trifle slow-paced.  I’ve seen it three times this week, once with my wife and once with my youngest daughter–both were mesmerized. We wanted to keep it another week, but my daughter wouldn’t let me, she said we needed to send it back, keep it in circulation.

It’s got to be one of the least commercial films every made.  It cost 32 million dollars–it’s a Hollywood film: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn.  Recouping that investment seems impossible.  It absolutely needed to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and at least a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  One down, one to go.

No, this is all wrong, I’m doing this badly.  It’s a film of luminescent beauty, transcendent wonder.  It has almost no dialogue, and very little of what might be called plot.  It’s a mosaic, a tapestry of life and grace and wonder.  It is, in fact, quite specifically about life and grace–it says so in one of the many voice-overs that ground it thematically.  It includes a sermon, a lovely one, about the book of Job.  In a voice-over, at one point, Brad Pitt paraphrases Job; another paraphrases Romans 7:19.

It’s a film about a middle-class family growing up in Texas in the late 50′s/early 60′s.  Dad, Mom, three rambunctious boys.  We see them running, everywhere running.  We see them dance in the streets in clouds of DDT.  We see them push and shove and wrestle.  We see them watch a kid, a stranger, drown, and try to make sense of it.  We see a boy steal into a woman’s house and steal lingerie, and then, horrified, toss it in a river and watch it whirl downstream.

Most of the film is about Texas, ca. 1960:  that time and place.  It begins, however, maybe ten years afterwards, when the parents receive a telegram informing them that their middle child has been killed in combat.  We then see Sean Penn, playing the oldest son, Jack, now grown and working as an architect, apparently unhappily married, calling his father, trying to reconnect.  We will later see Jack’s death (I think), symbolically presented.

Brad Pitt plays the Dad, a hard-nosed disciplinarian Dad, a tough, cynical, strict kind of Dad, the kind of Dad who insists his kids call him ‘sir,’ a Dad who rejects grace as sentimental, but also a church-going, praying Dad.  Jack (through most of the film played by a superb child actor named Hunter McCracken) hates his Dad, at one point wishes his Dad were dead.  But Dad isn’t abusive; just tough. We get other glimpses of him–he wanted to be a musician, plays Brahms at dinner, plays Bach on the organ, plays piano/guitar duets with his middle son, R.L. (Laramie Eppler).

Mom is Jessica Chastain, who I’d never heard of before and who is now in everything: The Help, The Debt, Find Shelter.  She’s not just lovely; she’s grace and light and life and the Madonna.  She’s transcendence, she’s ethereal.  We would not be surprised if it turned out she could fly.  Later, she flies, dances, hovering, mid-air, in front of the front yard tree.

Oh, yes, and the film has dinosaurs.  It shows the creation of the earth, all lava flows and water falls and primordial soups.  In one brief but crucial scene, we see two dinosaurs, one badly wounded.  Shortly thereafter, we see something lovely, a heavenly rock floating through space.  And then a collision, and we realize we’ve seen the extinction of dinosaurs too.

Music underscores everything, and it’s glorious: Mahler, Holst, Couperin, Berlioz.  Most of it I didn’t know, but it’s all incredibly beautiful. A lot of vocal music, choral, some orchestral.  And then we hear the voice-over narration: “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive. ”

There’s a scene which I cannot explain in any other way than to say it’s the pre-existence.  There’s a later scene which I cannot explain except to say it’s the after-life.  One recurring image is, I believe, the double-helix.  Life.  And trees and water and . . . skyscrapers?

I saw it three times this week, and wept each time.  Other friends to whom I have recommended it have loathed it with an all-encompassing passion.  It won the Palme d’Or.  It was also booed off the stage at Cannes.  Parts of it reminds me of the temple film (which Malick cannot have seen).  It’s on Netflix.  It’s glorious.  It’s a trifle slow-paced.  See it.

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12 Responses to The Tree of Life

  1. Julie Nichols says:

    Loved reading this, Eric! Thanks for the multi-dimensional tribute! We just gave ourselves a ridiculously huge TV for Christmas & I think I’ll make my husband show me how to access “The Tree of Life” on Netflix and watch it all by myself while he’s off doing his winter-outdoorsman thing. Again, thank you!

  2. Sharlee Glenn says:

    Beautiful, Eric. I agree with everything you said about this film. It is magnificent, transcendent, and, yes, a trifle slow-paced. It is a masterpiece. It’s a film about the way of nature and the way of grace. It is also about grief and joy and meaning.

    I smiled when I read, “part of it reminds me of the temple film.” Yes! That’s what I’ve been telling people: “It’s like the temple film, but with way better music.” :-)

    I think everyone should see this film. Just don’t expect any kind of a normal viewing experience. Go into it willing to suspend not only your disbelief but just about everything else as well. You will be richly rewarded.

  3. Marianne Hales Harding says:

    That sounds very intriguing, but, Eric, I must admit that I am ever so slightly nervous when you admit that something is “a trifle slow paced.” I will never forget the agony of watching a show whose title currently escapes me about a man who drives cross country on his riding lawn mower. That was an Eric Samuelsen recommendation and I have never lived it down with my family. We joked that the movie was shot in real time because it was, indeed, as slow paced as driving cross country on your riding lawn mower!!!! That said, though, if I get a chance to watch this one, I will. :)

  4. Eric R Samuelsen says:

    That movie was The Straight Story, and yes, it’s a trifle slow-paced. I genuinely love it as a movie, but I get it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. We saw it the first time with my brother-in-law and my father-in-law–my wife’s Dad and brother. Shawn said ‘it was like watching paint dry!’ And Dad said ‘I loved that movie like nothing I’ve ever seen.’ So you never know.

  5. Definitely one of my top 10 movies.

  6. Th. says:


    Almost thou maketh me regret cancelling Netflix.

  7. David Z says:

    I’ve seen it twice…I’m curious as to what segment you think is a reference to the pre-mortal existence. I didn’t catch that in my viewing…

  8. Clark Draney says:

    My wife and I watched The Tree of Life with two other couples from our neighborhood. One couple walked out on Arsenic and Old Lace last year, so you can imagine how they like Malick’s film. They’re more interested in Tactical Force VII.

    Couple #2 kind of agreed with couple #1 in the moment, but seemed to be really thinking about it.

    I was blown away. As Eric says, the music, the imagery, the family story, grace. Wow!

    A few days later, the wife from couple #2 said to me, “I think we need to watch The Tree of Life again.”

    Sometimes a film grows on ya’.

    BTW, The Straight Story is Inferno with a lawn mower. Have you noticed?

  9. Jason Covell says:

    Ahh, have been putting off The Tree of Life for no reason other than there’s no one in my family who would want to see it with me. I do love Malick’s other films, so I will definitely make time.

    I laughed at the 2001 reference. I haven’t subjected my kids yet, but now I fully intend to replicate your success, Eric! I adore that film, and cannot watch it without my brain assigning parts of the plan of salvation (including the temple film). The opening scene with the apes is the pre-mortal life; the monolith is the Saviour, and those who follow it receive the prospect of eternal progeny (the others are cast out into oblivion). The discovery of the buried monolith on the moon is the eating of the fruit in Eden. And then, in an uncanny twist, the astronauts are floating in a lone and dreary little world, the spacecraft on its way to Jupiter – and the forlorn Adagio from Khachaturian’s Gayane Ballet Suite sets the tone for this perfectly. And who controls every aspect of this little world? Why, it’s very own god-like presence, HAL. This little twisted deity tries to destroy human free will as an unwelcome, messy fly in the ointment in the fulfilment of the mission; and only after HAL is banished can further knowledge and instruction be imparted to the survivor, Dave Bowman, who is given directions that lead him to the super-sized monolith. By literally “entering into” the presence of the monolith, he is transported through a mind-bending passage into an all-white room. Ultimately, he is once again in the presence of the monolith, and in the final scene he fulfils his eternal destiny as a deity in embryo.

    And then you realise that this had been the cosmic Plan all along – the monolith had come down for precisely this purpose, and it was a deliberate purpose from a deliberate, conscious, powerful entity. The definite implication for the viewer is that the entity has itself achieved this god-like status through its own process of growth and overcoming, and that this is now being imparted to other conscious beings.

    It’s my favourite tool for explaining the Plan of Salvation to non-members (including quite a few atheists), who would otherwise be impervious to these ideas.

    • Wm Morris says:


      That’s awesome. I love it. And let me add how much I enjoy it when you pop up in the AML environs.

      ::waxes nostalgic about the old days of the AML-List::

  10. Talkgirl says:

    I am very, very late in the game with this movie, but for some reason it keeps popping up in my field of vision and so I googled to see what it was about…surprise…sounds like LDS doctrine! My favorite! (doctrines of salvation slashed across the lines of pop culture) and here is your wonderful review! Guess it’s time to go find this movie.
    Too bad, I am afraid my husband will fall asleep through it, but I can’t wait to see it for myself.

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