Watching The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, came out on DVD last week. I watched it late on Saturday night thinking I would watch maybe half an hour of it before bed, and watch the rest the next day. Instead I watched the entire film, and woke up early the next morning and watched it again.

The film opens by juxtaposing the cathartic hugeness of one family’s grief over the loss of a son and brother with a vast cinematic expanse of space and time showing the birth and evolution of the universe in a very long sequence that may be, on it’s own, the best science documentary ever made.

The movie has several similar “epic asides,” including a lengthy depiction of the family sitting in church absorbing a dark but hopeful sermon on a text from Job. Another scene towards the end of the movie depicts the earth incinerated by the Sun expanding into a red giant.

But the real strength of the film is its simple and beautiful depictions of ordinary people doing very mundane things – in scene after gorgeous scene. She is rinsing her feet in the grass with a hose, he is reading a newspaper by the window at twilight, she is teaching new words to a toddler, he is pulling weeds from the yard with his sons, they are getting ready for dinner.

The film’s music (and musicality) is another reason I loved The Tree of Life: the scenes at the church organ, at the father’s piano, his records playing on the record player at dinner time. More than functioning as a soundtrack, music is depicted doing what music does: lending beauty or excitement to mundane experiences. And Malick made some really excellent selections. The film prominently features Smetana’s Die Moldau and, in the clip below, Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses:

My favorite scene shows Brad Pitt’s character – a man who is severe with his sons out of a desire to instill in them the temperament to get ahead in a cruel world – playing the piano while one of his son plays along with a guitar. The father and the son are physically far apart (the sons’ fear of their father is a major theme in this movie). The boy appears to be sitting out on a porch playing along to the strains he can hear from his father’s piano inside the house. The distance between them is fitting. But the music they make together is rich and beautiful. Across the emotional distance and despite the father’s cynicism, the two seem to be reaching out to each other in a momentary triumph of grace over nature, a struggle the film expressly sets out to explore.

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