Tree of Life: An impression of god, the universe and everything

Moving to a large city like Atlanta certainly has it’s perks, especially if you’re an art film enthusiast!  Having lived in mostly smaller cities most of my life, I’ve never had quick access to a theater which actively previews and shows new art film.  A good friend, and fellow film enthusiast, invited me to take advantage of our mutual new situations and take a visit to our new local theater showing “The Tree of Life”.  He warned me that there were a lot of complaints from film viewers so far, and that it reportedly lacked a traditional, linear narrative.  With this in mind, we decided to head off to the theater!  Before you read any further, please be aware there may be some spoilers –

Several people walked out during the first hour of the film, especially during a particularly long scene which I heard another movie goer refer to as making her feel as though she were in the natural history museum instead of a movie.  When the movie ended, I was surprised to hear so much grumbling.  One man said he has never prayed so hard for a movie to end in his life.  Another said that he found the film tedious.  Contrary to all of this, I must say that I found it to be an astoundingly beautiful film.

While research the film prior to heading to the theater, I read it described as an impressionistic film.  I think this is a perfect descriptor for “The Tree of Life”.  Rather than being told a story, instead we are witnessing the impression of a story.  We see the story more as experience rather than story.  We can relate to the story and the characters through images – both from the characters’ own lives as well as those of the universe, our galaxy, our earth, and inside the human body – used to depict questioning of identity, purpose, solitude and, more importantly, ‘Mitsein’ or the being-with-others of Heidegger.

We are presented, in the very beginning of the film, with the dichotomy of grace and nature.  According to the female voice over here – later discovered to be the mother, brilliantly acted by Jessica Chastain – we have a choice to make with our lives – to live a life of grace or a life of nature.  This in combination of the opening sequence quotation from the biblical story of Job really establishes the theme of the movie and the story we experience from there, as we witness a family struggle to connect their own misfortune with the path of grace, associated with God.  The voice overs of prayer which are uttered over images of the universe are astounding, giving a complex and rich nature to our own subjective realities.  That the characters, by their prayers, imagine God to be so intimately connected to the birth (or death) of a human child is juxtaposed against the rich and truly awesome images of galaxies and star formation, even against the images of jellyfish (about whom the first remark concerning the natural history museum emanated) and waves and volcanoes are flashed before us within the experience of the film.

What we, as the audience, are left with is a feeling of profound awe of the world, and really of our own selves.  We see the way we are – characters are reintroduced in Jack’s (Sean Penn) middle age precisely the way he would have remembered them, as young and vibrant, his own mother and father younger than himself; our prayers and meditation/reflection about our own place and function in the universe; the way our relationship with our own parents informs our intimacy and partnerships in our own adult lives.  But more than anything, we are reminded that the paths of grace and nature – said to be so clearly delineated and opposing – intersect every day.  A modest gesture of chance, such as a predator leaving his prey in tact and alone, can be viewed as miraculous or as some kind of divine intercession on behalf of the prey – though when this exchange occurs with dinosaurs, we must question the extent of divine providence; the extent of grace’s division with nature.

Another moment which struck me came from Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) as he reflected upon the death of his teenage son – the provincial event which causes the questioning of our main character as well as his family.  He comments that he had made his son feel shame by criticizing the way he had turned the pages of sheet music as Mr. O’Brien sat at the piano.  This brief moment stunned me; this small regret, seemingly nothing – probably a passing complaint to his son – became a defining moment for O’Brien’s relationship with his son.  Was the comment taken to be shameful or embarrassing for the son?  Did he recall this behavior in his last moments?  The way that these small nothings of a moment, so seemingly meaningless in the context of an entire life, stick with us throughout our lives and actually come to be an integral part of us and of our relationships with others around us struck me as especially truthful and huge.  Some of my own relationships with family and friends reflect this same dysfunctional wonderment at small moments and their incredible impacts on our lives as formative.  To imagine that those I love might have these small regrets about our interactions, these teeny tiny holes in our relationship actually brought me to tears.  It was a powerful and illustrative moment for me.

I know that many folks have discussed the tedius or pretentious or static or boring nature of the ‘nature’ shots of the film which interrupt the narrative.  Considering the theme of nature versus grace, these images are magical and telling.  We experience the universe, but not – as the story of Job tells us – through God’s eyes.  Instead, our own tiny speck of dirt is hyper real to us while the rest of the universe remains shrouded and mysterious.  The voice overs of prayerful and reflective meditation tell a powerful story about our own relationship to this universe, and our conceptions of grace and nature.

I recommend the movie highly, if you enjoy art film.  If you go into the theater expecting what the movie is – a beautiful, woven experience of a story about God, the Universe and Everything – then I think you will find the film to be illuminating and touching, and reflecting of our own delicate and dependent-upon-others human nature.


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