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.