I saw Tree of Life yesterday, the latest film from Terrence Malick which has garnered numerous walkouts and lengthy, irate spiels from various critics. Maybe I don’t possess adequate critical chops, or am just plain simpleminded, but you guys, I was deeply moved.
It opens with with the idea that there are two ways through life, the way of grace or the way of nature, and proceeds to illustrate both paths as they were forged by a semi-fictional family in 1950’s middle America. While the plot is inarguably nebulous, if not quite non-existent, the emotional force of the film is undeniable.
As each character struggles to understand both life and senseless loss, the loving yet hurtful ways of human relationships, we see them superimposed on the lens of our collective beginning: the big bang (divine or evolutionary, take your pick) and our eternal, impossible remove from its source. We hear our own existential questions asked in whispered voiceovers as lowering sunlight plays through gnarled branches and underwater grasses sway in unseen currents. The abstraction of creation only magnifies how astonishing it truly is; that consciousness emerged from particles of dust, that life grew from light and heat, that cells divided, spheres fell into orbit around each other, and the entire universe expanded into infinite possibility.
And to my eyes, all this humbling cosmology makes the faltering, painful steps of human nature somehow more forgivable and innocent. We see a child struggling with what he perceives as his father’s cruelty (nature) and his mother’s loving acceptance (grace), and it is too easy to see them as battles of dark and light, evil and good, played out on the screen of the human psyche, but I don’t think the director means us to. We are instead meant to see how as parents, as creators, we will always be distant to the understanding of our children. They will only see us as they need to, as their own narrative circumscribes. They will ask us why, just as we ask God; and we won’t answer, not because we don’t have one, but because it is beyond our ability to contextualize the truth for them.