Tree of Life resurrects the era when Hollywood still aspired to greatness. Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey (or less successfully, The Fountain) has a filmmaker attempted to capture both the origins of life and our ultimate destination. Director Terrence Malick came of age when movies still mattered. And with Tree of Life, only his fifth feature in forty years, Malick has drawn upon ancient biblical wisdom to prod and comfort adventuresome filmgoers. Some will find it tedious and overreaching. But those who surrender to the resplendent images may find the experience unexpectedly healing.
Countless stories have started with the problem of pain. We wonder why the innocent suffer. Why do bad things happen to good people? Tree of Life opens with quotations from the book of Job. In the biblical narrative, Job loses his wife, his children, his health and his home. Friends offer bad advice, blaming him for his ordeal, suggesting he repent from whatever sins caused God to send so much suffering.
Without that framework, Tree of Life may seem random and intractable. It is a poetic meditation on loss. It unfolds as a visual symphony with five or six movements centered around a core aspect of life: death, birth, the age of awareness. The sections are separated by musical cues rather than plot twists. The soundtrack includes classical compositions by Bach, Brahms, and Holst and contemporary requiems by Henryk Goreki, John Tavener and Mother Thekla. The threadbare plot flows from tragedy to creation, and from innocence to experience. A family is invited to move from grief to surrender. And viewers are taken from Genesis to Revelation.
This film has been years in the making. Anticipation among cinephiles has been huge. It just won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Best Picture. Tree of Life is worth the wait. But will most people miss this movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen? Will the Christian community that often wonders why Hollywood doesn’t make anything for them pass on The Tree of Life for retreads like The Hangover Part II and Transformers 3? I am all for popcorn movies, but in this case, I’ll opt for something that truly feeds the soul. Check out my full review of Tree of Life here.