Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life is visually beautiful, and perhaps it would succeed as art even without the narrative and philosophical layers that give the movie its real weight. Each set is immaculately composed, with a palette of warm browns, lush greens and frigid blues. More importantly, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography results in a sensory experience that approximates the way in which we consciously interact with the world and yet still feels dreamlike. And this is the way in which the film has settled into my mind, as a mysterious and beautiful dream.
As for those narrative and philosophical layers, The Tree of Life may be difficult in some respects, yet it builds around a very simple idea, that wisdom engenders love. Not just love, but total, unconditional and volitional love. The Greek term agápe—family love, as opposed to romantic or erotic love—has been co-opted by theologians to describe the relationship of God to the world. And this is the scope of Malick’s vision, that our relationship with an infinitely complex universe evolves from fear into agápe as we approach understanding. While The Tree of Life may be seen as a “religious” movie, it is only so in the sense that religion is a human institution that explores and values transcendence. More accurately, it should be viewed as a “philosophical” movie.
Granted, these themes would be cold absent illustration. And so Malick tells us the story of Jack O’Brien and his boyhood in mid-century suburban Texas. While Jack’s parents represent archetypes (stern father, adoring mother), they also seem very real and very human, as do Jack’s brothers. So too does Malick’s abstract and elliptical representation of their lives together. Combined with Lubezki’s cinematography, this realness is incredibly moving.
The Tree of Life cuts deep, delving into viewers’ own private history and memories, all while cultivating a sense of agápe, of family love. And after the movie ends and you continue on with your life, you still feel all of this deeply. While Malick never really succeeds in explaining why this is important, it doesn’t matter, because it feels true.