Few movies elicit as wide a range of passionate and visceral reactions as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Most people either love it or hate it. It received both cheers and jeers on the film festival circuit. Many movie-goers simply walked out of the movie in frustration during its initial run in theaters. Others, like me, see it as a crowning achievement in cinema – one of the few truly great films that transcend time and place and speak deeply about humanity — the Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey for this generation.
On one level, I understand the difficulty the film presented to its viewers. The run-time feels long. The narrative structure is non-linear and withholds key information. What really set people off was Malick’s way of portraying inner thoughts and prayers as whispered voice-overs. These painful, prayerful, and poetic inner thoughts are a haunting presence throughout the movie. Still, the film uses stunning visuals to portray creation (both the act and the ongoing beauty of God’s creation and the beauty of everyday life), life, the struggles of life, loss, and the afterlife. It is both philosophical and spiritual (filled with Christian themes).
Rather than taking a deep dive into The Tree of Life – which I believe is a work of art equivalent to Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – I want to introduce the reader to Terrence Malik’s work in general. I freely admit that many aren’t ready to accept The Tree of Life without warming up on a few of Malick’s earlier films (Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) and a later one from 2019, A Hidden Life). Perhaps I will write about The Tree of Life later.
With the exception of Thin Red Line, these other films use more traditional narrative structures and are less philosophical and existential than The Tree of Life. Each of the films finds great value in the things modern people find mundane – fields, cows, quiet moments, trees, and sunlight. Each has some elements of the voice-over style, which found full development in The Tree of Life but are used in a way that is less … uh, unsettling.
While Malick’s love for philosophy is most evident in The Tree of Life, his Christian background is most evident in A Hidden Life. The film tells the story of a real-life conscientious objector in Nazi-occupied Austria. The lead character does not want to join the Nazi army because of his Christian faith. My favorite line in a Malick film is found in A Hidden Life. It is spoken by an artist painting Christian scenes in an Austrian church. “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I might have the courage to venture, not yet. Someday I’ll… I’ll paint the true Christ,” the painter said. Powerful.
Reviewers of Malick’s work often deem his narratives as “unfocused” or random and that is a fair assessment. The theatrical release of The Tree of Life skips around and leaves many gaps in the story. The director’s cut ties up many of the loose ends but truncates the most powerful scene in the movie to do so (a scene about heaven). The stunning visuals in his movies more than make up for his rambling, non-linear narratives. In fact, his narratives are much like our memories and the long strange dreams we have in our sleep – fleeting and incomplete.
The stunning visuals with long shots of waving grass or grain, lens flares, and brilliant rays of sunlight coupled with the disjointed and incomplete narratives speak to my soul in a unique way. Malick’s films are deep and challenging. When I watch his films, I remember that God created a good world that we have corrupted with war, greed, and lust. I am reminded of of love and loss and the yearning to reconnect with our Creator. Malick does not offer answers about God … he confronts us with the beauty of creation and he confronts us with who we are. We are small in comparison to our Creator and we are broken. Despite our brokenness, our Creator remains as close as a prayer.
In many ways, Van Gogh is the perfect comparison to Malick. Van Gogh saw wonderful things that we usually overlook in the evening sky, the fields, the flowerbeds, and alleyways in and around Arles, France. His great genius was underappreciated during his lifetime. We didn’t deserve Van Gogh and we don’t deserve Malick yet we have the opportunity to enjoy their genius.