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The Tree of Life

July 19, 2011

At one point in The Tree of Life, a young boy asks his mother where his father is and she replies that he is away on business and will be gone for a while. As the boy processes this information, his countenance slowly progresses from melancholy to relief and, finally, to pure joy.

There are many ways to evaluate whether a movie is good or not. Good acting. Good direction. A good script. Beautiful cinematography or brilliant technical achievements. Maybe it just took me on a fun ride for an hour and a half. There are many movies that I consider good based on these reasons. Sometimes a movie does all of these things well and they’re not just good… they’re great. And then there are movies like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life; movies that take your breathe away. Movies that make your heart ache in one moment, and then bring you into such a euphoric state that you feel you’re going to explode. Movies that make you want to do something about your life – to be a better person.

Take the scene that I described in the opening. As I watched that scene unfold, it felt like a vice was clamped around my heart. It wasn’t that it was just well acted – it’s that it was real. It was my life, my fears, on the screen. Sure, I identified with the characters in the film, but it was more than that. If it had been that alone, this would have been a great movie. But it’s as if this movie needed my memories, my emotions, my desires in order to be complete. Not just for me, as if this is a movie that caught me at the right place and right time, but for the movie itself. In other words, it’s as if this movie relies on it’s viewer’s lives to make it what it is. It’s not so much about nostalgia, although that’s part of it, but rather, it’s about experiencing the moment as it’s happening on screen.

This is not a movie that relies on plot or has a typical narrative. That’s not the point. Sure, the main focus is on a husband and wife and their three sons, and it mostly takes place over a short period of time, but there’s something bigger in mind here. It’s not just for extravagance or experimentation that we see the creation of the universe, the beginning of life on earth, and even the birth and development of a baby. The director wants us to consider how these real events – these real emotions – fit into the big picture. Our life is a story, but it doesn’t begin and end with our life. Our individual lives are just mere chapters (paragraphs even) of one large story – a story that began at the beginning of time. Malick wants us to ponder our place in the story. He wants to show us that everything we do, even the things we can’t control (nature, birth, death, etc.), affect the greater story and affect the other lives (chapters) in that story.

The father, fantastically played by Brad Pitt, is not a caricature. Like all of us fathers in real life, he represents all the highs and lows, joys and pains, good decisions and poor decisions that come with being a father. But what makes us what we are? Malick, rightfully I think, would have us consider the everyday events that shape us. These events, though seemingly mundane, are a large part of who we are. What we see in Pitt’s father is a man driven by professional pride, jealousy, and regret. He never became the great (or even working) musician he had hoped to be. He watched other men achieve greater things that he felt he should have achieved. This affects how he raises his sons. He wants them to be driven; to not back down; to be “men.” I identify with that… I think most of us do. But he (and I) are not just that. He loves his children. He protects them. He teaches them. He takes them to church every Sunday and he prays for them. He makes mistakes… many mistakes. He’s too hard on them – hence, the scene at the beginning of this post. He realizes his faults and he tries to be better – not always successfully, but sometimes. He has regrets, many regrets. This is me also, and I daresay, all of us. Maybe not in the exact same way, but this is the point of this film’s style. In a typical plot form we would not get all of this.

I could go on and on. I could discuss how I also identified with the children and even the mother in some respects. I’m sure the next time I watch this film I will find numerous new ways in which I identify with the characters. But what I want to conclude with is how I believe we should react to these identifications. What do we do with these feelings? As I mentioned earlier, this film makes me want to be a better person. I want to be a better father, a better husband. I want my chapter, my paragraph, to positively affect the whole story. I want my wife’s story to be more beautiful because of me. I want to help make my children’s story like the grandest of fairy tales, and not like a Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life.” I want to remind them daily of the bigger story – the whole story – a story that’s already written and already has a happy ending.  A story where a father loved his family everyday, learned from his mistakes, matured throughout his life and made all the chapters of his story better.

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