Is cinema expected to entertain you or educate you? Make you scared or make you smile? Be escapist or challenge you? Have everyone agree or promote debate?
Certainly Terence Malick’s Palme d‘Or-winning The Tree of Life (2010) does the last, if indeed not all of these.
Whether it entertains or educates can be summed up by my being spellbound with admiration but by past halfway of its 138 minutes, I was struck by a desire for the film to end.
Then could not wait to see what happened next.
By this time, the message of the film was crystal clear in my mind only to be diluted by film’s end. The good thing about The Tree of Life is that no matter what meaning the viewer draws from it, the film is so different from what we are used to that your theory cannot be completely shot down by anyone.
So here goes.
A girl (Jessica Chatain) brought up in loving rural circumstances marries a navy pilot (Brad Pitt); they settle in small town USA and have three male children. At maturity one of them dies, presumably while in the armed services as the mother finds out by Western Union telegram.
On reading the news the mother fights her long-held faith. Why us, why should we lose a child when we are good people who have never done a thing wrong? Where was Jesus or God when my boy was taken? Why weren’t you looking?
Malick then explores earth’s creation through the Big Bang, providing a stunning, almost interminable, visual collage that plainly speaks to Creationists: God didn’t do this, man evolved. A telling scene of a prehistoric creature bringing a smaller beast to heel by standing on his face before letting it be is meant to portray that the beasts were learning compassion. From whom, from where?
Fast forward to the mature adult oldest son Jack (Sean Penn) dealing with his past. Has his mother just died and he must reunite with his estranged father? Must he consider his brother’s death so many years before and the impact it had on his mother? Certainly he has been financially successful and, as we observe through flashback, this was something that haunted his father, affecting the way he brought up his sons.
This is another parable of post-war Western life. Fathers, toughened by their own upbringing, the harshness of the times and the experience of war are thrust into a world where their children-to-be become the successful baby boomers in the most financially buoyant age in history. Did the children just strike it lucky being born in such an age or was it the uncompromising fatherhood, cemented by silent mothers, which guided them to eventual success. Perhaps a bit of both?
The three boys’ upbringing seems typical of the age (the historic pastiche of childhood is the closest to general films that this movie comes). Mother is loving, caring and fun. Father is tough, serious and humourless. Jack as a boy (Hunter McCracken) seems particularly in thrall of his father, loving and hating him in equal measure. The times do not allow for freedom of expression and the father pursues a working man’s career against his deep desire to have been a serious musician – further fuelling the angst of watching his boys grow perhaps to waste the opportunities his going without has provided.
While his mother – before the death – is a dedicated God-fearing woman, the son is wrestling with good and evil, right and wrong inside him. In an astonishing preface to his mother’s cry after the death of her child, Jack questions why God let him do a bad thing – “Why were you looking the other way?” – when he plays up, doing what any inquiring child of the era may have done in the circumstances.
It is this struggle between right and wrong and whether a belief in God means believing in a man-like being who lives above the sky (“That’s where God lives” his mother says, pointing to a blue sky) or a belief in what has been taught by Mother and Father, the school teacher or any other significant other in a young boy’s life, that pervades The Tree of Life.
Malick tells the story in whispers, in visuals without words, in music and in riddles. Was the son who died the youngest or the middle one? Indeed which son was the middle one and which was born last? Did the father become middle management or did he own the huge plant in which we see him stride as an older man? Was it the mother’s funeral that Penn sees on the beach or was it the final reconnection of the family after he himself has died?
The beach scene either disproves my previous theory or is Malick’s sop to Creationists. Okay, God didn’t make the world in seven days but I will grant you a Heaven – it’s a beach in Santa Monica!
The movies may be designed to educate and challenge, stir debate. If that is their reason for being then this is one of the best films ever made. The fact that people boo or laugh at its end proves it has stirred reaction. To be afraid to say this is a great film, is to be afraid of your fellow man and disagreeing with the status quo. You will be labelled pretentious but stick with it.
Any movie that can have me starving for a plate of scaloppini and still interested until the end is a good product. It has flaws but then it has so many layers and so many ways it could have been presented. I read that its editing took three years. It will polarise opinion. Isn’t that a good thing?