This movie makes you see the world anew. It’s rampant with beauty. For all the talk of non-linear narrative and theological mystery, The Tree of Life is a balm for the senses; it brings peace to you. As an enquiry into grace, it evokes the quality of grace perfectly. The smallest pleasures of human life are held in equal thrall with the grand progressions of the universe. You can’t help feeling staggered by its scope. But unlike the chill of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, this film doesn’t lose its human perspective by contemplating infinity; rather, like a wildlife film, it watches human beings with amazement. You can recognise the family at the centre of this film. The wonder is that for years, we walk around blindfolded.
A swirl of light ushers you into the movie. At first, all you experience are fragments of life. A mother is informed by letter that her son has died. A voiceover informs us her son was nineteen. The story then shifts to the present, and the dead man’s older brother. He recalls the house where he grew up, in Texas in the 1950s, and the formative influence of his parents. His father was a stern, unhappy man who often tyrannised his family; his mother was a gentle, loving woman, but her meekness confused and alienated her eldest son. In the present, this man feels bereft; he seeks solace from his memories. He longs to feel part of the world. In childhood, the world felt real to him. Now, he drifts like a ghost.
The Tree of Life sounds intimate from this description, and it is. But it’s also epic. Director Terrence Malick is not content this time to merely hint at man’s place in the grander scheme of things. He wants the grand scheme to be revealed. In two audacious sequences that bookend the main story we literally witness the beginning and the end of time, complete with stars being born, nebulae forming, the origins of life on earth, and even dinosaurs…evincing altruism. To say these sequences will divide audiences would be an understatement. Few movies take this kind of risk. The only recent film that compares, in terms of unabashed daring, is Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Like that film, The Tree of Life lets go of concerns about propriety and restraint. The aim here is to inject majesty. Malick wants to show that infinity is inextricable from the most ordinary lives.
This is such a wildly ambitious film; its intentions can seem pompous, even silly. But in order to talk about the meaning of life, you can’t stick with a boy on a street. You have to think philosophically, and that means nothing just is the way it is. No boy exists outside of time and space. We all live on a planet that orbits the sun, and we are part of an infinite universe. Our little lives are no less strange for lack of this perspective. And our little egos can either be diminished or elevated by this recognition. We are either part of something larger, or else we exist for self-gratification. These contrasting beliefs are embodied in the film by the selfish father and his selfless wife.
Early on in The Tree of Life, the mother tells her eldest son: “There [are] two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace.” Her philosophy is taken from a book called The Imitation of Christ, written by a medieval monk named Thomas à Kempis. Nature, in this context, has nothing to do with birds and trees, but rather, what we might call ego, as defined by want and self-absorption. Grace, in this context, is defined by altruism: having joy in others. The struggle between these two competing impulses is the stuff of life. But adherence to grace does not guarantee happiness. As a sermon from the Book of Job makes clear, “misfortune befalls the good as well.” Grace brings comfort; it doesn’t exempt you from strife.
In a recent interview with the head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, the archbishop stated that: “God’s act in creating the world is gratuitous, so everything comes to [us] as a gift. God simply wills that there shall be joy for something other than himself.” This is the grace which infuses Malick’s film. The abundance of beauty in The Tree of Life stems as much from the director’s theological convictions as it does his aesthetic judgement. For Malick, beauty shows us what’s eternal; beauty abides, beyond death. It’s what Virginia Woolf understood when she wrote of “a match burning in a crocus”. Our aesthetic drive is what grants us soul. That’s why beauty gives us peace. Here’s truth; here’s succour; here’s the grand scheme revealed.