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Musings on Malick’s The Tree of Life

2011 August 5
by pwilloquet

I admit to having felt befuddled after seeing Terrence Malick’s latest poetic epic, sensing however that the film would haunt me in the following days. As it did. I had to see it again. Which I did.  The Tree of Life is a stunningly beautiful and mesmerizing essay on the web of life that connects us all, to one another, but also to the natural world, to the cosmos, to times immemorial.  It confronts us with the barriers, physical and emotional, we erect to protect ourselves from pain and suffering and which, as a result, also shield us from love and connection. These barriers appear on screen as windows, arches, doorways, glass and steel high rises, and all manner of framing that mediate our experiences of one another and make us long for connection.

To me, the film was also a reminder not to take our pains and loses as some form of personal affront, as if the universe, god, fate, karma (whatever you want to call this great mystery that propels existence) was “out to get us,” had single us out to dispense its furry.

Malick’s film is thought provoking, to say the least. It is also a feast for the eyes. Those I have spoken to about it either embraced the journey Malick created and enjoyed the beauty and the pain wherein, or found the film pedantic, pretentious, and tedious. I land somewhere in between. I enjoyed the two narrative lines—the parade of beautiful microscopic and macroscopic images of nature on the one hand, and the family’s personal narrative on the other. I am partial to experimentation in film and to avant-garde cinema, so I really expected to love this film for its daring to  integrate different cinematic styles, and for making us think. I did no love the film as much as I wanted to, perhaps because I approached it cerebrally. Perhaps the poit was NOT to think, but to feel. My friends who just “went with the felling” seemed to come out of the theatre with a sense of having had a powerful and meaningful personal experience.

What has continued to puzzle me, particular from my particular brand of ecocriticism, is what seems to be the film’s premise, or thesis, spoken by one of the characters; that is, that we have two choices in approaching existence, and perhaps pain: the way of grace or the way of nature, and that the way of grace is preferable. Must there be a dichotomy between the two? Am I missing something? Might not we see nature, human and non-human as an expression of grace? Might not we see the web of life as a web and flow of creation, destruction, creation . . . as suggested by the Hindu God Shiva? The images of nature in the film often evoked for me the awesome (in the true sense) power of nature, a power we have tended to want to label as nurturing or destructive, comforting or fear producing, needing to be mastered lest it master us. Based on this and his other films, I don’t think Malick necessarily sees nature as red in tooth and claw, so why does he invite this opposition between grace and nature. Or does he? After all, the lines are spoken by one of the characters. So perhaps Malick intends for us to questions our dichotomies that only serve to fragment, divide, and alienate, rather than connect and unify. After all, the film is called The Tree of Life. And the tree, of which there are plenty in the film, while sitting firmly on the earth, connects that which is above to that which is below.

Any thoughts anyone?

2 Responses leave one →
  1. August 5, 2011

    (Something funny in the previous comment… Here it is again, corrected. Editor, please delete previous, if you wish.)

    Hi Paula — I posted about this a little while ago (see ). It’s not a dichotomy. It’s, at the very least, a (Peircian) trichotomy. Verbal statements made in Malick’s films should never be taken literally; his style (form/discourse), I believe, tells us that.


  2. August 5, 2011

    I guess it’s not corrected. (HTML script isn’t working.) Oh well…

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