Sometimes expectations make all the difference. If you go to a museum with the expectation of seeing representational art, pretty pictures of landscapes and beautiful people, and instead find abstract combinations of colors and shapes, disappointment ensues. If you hadn’t gone in expecting a Rubens, you might have really liked that Jackson Pollack.
All this is to say, do not watch Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” with an expectation of a summer blockbuster. Or even a straightforward narrative. The film is an impressionistic work that doesn’t just move in and out of the character of Jack O’Brien from the present to his birth and his childhood in the early ‘60’s in Waco, Texas; we also see the creation of the universe and quite possibly the characters in the afterlife.
The film jumps from domestic scenes of family tension to static shots of great natural beauty to flights of fantasy. So if you just go into a film wanting to see “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy marries girl” or “man robs bank, cop chases robber, big shoot out”… Disappointment ensues. In fact, some theaters screening this film in some parts of the country have posted a sign saying, “This film does not follow a conventional narrative structure” to cut down on demands for refunds.
These tendencies are not new to Malick. His first films, “Badlands” (1973) about a less glamorous version of Bonnie and Clyde and “Days of Heaven” (1978) about farmers at the beginning of the 20th Century, featured leisurely meditations on natural beauty -- but within a traditional narrative structure.
Writer/director Malick took a couple decades off before returning with “The Thin Red Line” (1998) about the Pacific during the Second World War, a film that began Malick’s downplaying of narrative. “A New World” (2005) about Pocahontas and John Smith had even less narrative drive, and with “The Tree of Life”, Malick seems to work without traditional cinematic storytelling altogether.
But if one goes in without expectations of a traditional narrative, there are treasures in this film. It beautifully captures what it was like growing up in a certain time and place. Even more, it captures remembering growing up. There are wonderful, natural performances by the children, especially by Hunter McCracken as young Jack. Jessica Chastain is luminous as Jack’s mother and Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances as a father giving his all but perhaps not giving where he should.
What I appreciated most about the film was the consideration of Biblical and theological issues. The film opens with verses from the book of Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? …while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Chapter 38, verses 4 & 7.) We then see the characters dealing with loss as Job did, but we are given the context of the Big Bang through the dinosaurs. It is important to remember that God knows our grief, but He views it in a much larger context.
We also see Jack choosing between the path of Nature (what Paul refers to as the Natural Man) as represented by his father and Grace as represented through his mother and brother. Jack even paraphrased the Apostle Paul from Romans 7:15 that he does what he does not want to do. We do see Jack’s progress to finding salvation through grace.
If you are open to a different movie experience, you may want to see the impressionistic work of Terrence Malick. Or this summer you have lots of opportunities to see superheroes and stuff blow up real good. Just know what to expect.