The Tree of Life: Eternity Set in the Human Heart

Allow me to introduce you to the films of Terrence Malick – Badlands (1973), the saga of a teenage serial killer and his girlfriend (a la Bonnie and Clyde), Days of Heaven (1978), a Biblical-esque love triangle set on a Depression Era wheat farm in the Texas Panhandle, The Thin Red Line (1998), a WWII epic film/poem centered on the Battle of Guadalcanal, and The New World (2006), the story of John Smith’s discovery of a new world among Native Americans offset by Pocahontas’ discovery of a new world among the English. Malick’s films are considered by some to be among the best ever made.

Malick’s films are defined by a visual aesthetic marked by contemplation and a storytelling method focused more on emotional impression rather than on action and consequence. Some would call his films slow. I call them patient.

Though deliberate, Malick’s films are not boring. His narratives are terribly urgent and the stakes are always high. The kids in Badlands are on the run from the law. The lovers in Days of Heaven are walking a fine line of deceit. The soldiers in The Thin Red Line are moment-by-moment narrowly escaping death.

Malick’s films linger because his stories and characters are contemplating life’s biggest questions sometimes very explicitly. Consider this quote from a dead Japanese soldier in The Thin Red Line:

“Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”

And this questioning extends to the visual as well. In The New World, Pocahontas gawks at the streets of London mirroring John Smith’s awestruck wonder at the Powhatan village earlier in the film inviting the audience to consider the similarities among all peoples’ life experiences regardless of origin.

In Malick’s films, every moment is a new world, a surprising discovery, a fresh understanding. To live is to continually die and be reborn. Darkness and light, poverty and plenty, hatred and love constantly war with us and within us and without us. We are their incarnation, their possession. Ours is the holy breath that gives life to virtue and to vice, and ours are the hands that close around their windpipes.

Malick captures his characters with the consideration of a nature documentarian. He respects his subjects and loves them, but he also stays distant from them, not spatially, but personally. Women and men are like curious animals in Malick’s worlds, curious both because of their proclivity to brutality and to love.

If you decide to explore Malick’s films, I suggest working chronologically, though The Thin Red Line is my favorite.

Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, won the grand prize at Cannes this year and is in theaters now. I highly recommend it.

The Tree of Life is about everything in light of one thing. The story revolves around the memories of a Houstonian architect (Sean Penn) reminiscing about his boyhood in Waco, Texas, and the death of his younger brother. His personal history is couched within the history of all of Time. The architect is considering questions of grace, love, aggression, vice, forgiveness, the nature and presence of God, and the destiny of all things. The Tree of Life chronicles his contemplation.

If my own wrestling with grief and blame and shame and forgiveness could be filmed, that film would look very much like The Tree of Life, but not exactly, because I am not Terrence Malick. Were I to film my own questioning of the nature of existence, it would look somewhat different, though the scope would be similar. In my own processes of grief and regret, I too wander between the intimate and the cosmic.

I marvel most profoundly at humankind’s ability to ponder grand questions of life and death and eternity. When I, like Malick, question the existence and intention of God, I remember that in each individual I encounter resides an inexhaustible well of feeling and thought and experience. The workings of the universe might possibly be explainable. The complexities of an individual person almost certainly are not.

As a window into Malick’s inexhaustible well of emotion, The Tree of Life points me to God. Though strange to me, the eternity in Malick captured on film resonates with the eternity in me. The Tree of Life is confusing, myopic, Narcissistic, and grandiose. So am I. The film is also wise, beautiful, gracious, and optimistic. I hope I am too.