Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Tree of Life: Mixed Feelings (Movie Review)

It was with great anticipation that I went to see this movie last night.  I'd only read one review, but Jim Martin, S.J. is one of my favorite writers on the intersection of religion and contemporary culture, and I trusted his recommendation.   More than a recommendation; his reflection on the film as "like living inside a prayer" was an invitation to a vision of life.

Only a few minutes in and I was sitting in a state of horrified shock, wondering why he hadn't mentioned that a young adult son dies in the first few minutes.  And that it's a death about which we learn as his mother learns about it ~ alone, opening a telegram, looking about for a few stunned moments before the animal sound of a sob breaks out of her body.  


(And later (or earlier, actually, in chronology, although not in the film itself), there is another death, when another young boy drowns, despite the father's efforts to revive him and the wails of that boy's mother in the background.)

A few more minutes and I leaned over to my surviving son and asked whether this was too hard to watch.  "No -- but it might be too boring," he responded.

He hated it, seeing in it an unsatisfactory imitation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  

I saw some other things.  Yes,  the coming-of-age aspect of the narrative: the three boys growing up in Waco in the 1950s; the gently passionate mother; the father, who alternates affection with harshness, driven by his genuine love for his boys and his music and by his desire to prepare his sons for lives that supersede the disappointment he has found in his.

I saw also the endless and often challenging symbolism: the wide branches of the tree overhead, the stairs and ladders and windows and doors, the mother's frequent baptisms of her legs and feet in water from hoses and sprinklers, the water - everywhere, the skyscrapers that ambiguously soar and yet constrain the adult life of one of the surviving sons.  I'm sure that there is something more akin to a master's thesis than to a blog post in all of that.

But mostly, I heard the questions, some the mother's and some her grown son's.  The questions which haunt bereaved parents and siblings and young friends (all of which I am), whether we are pacing through our own backyard woods or through our imagined vision of the exploding fire and water through which the universe came into being, trying to understand life and death as we experience them in our particular tragedies in relation to the God who laid the foundations of the universe:

Who are you?

Who are we to you?

Where were you?

You let a boy die.

You let anything happen.

Why should we be good, if you aren't?

I wonder if the film seems different to those who do not live these questions every day with the intensity of a mother whose son God let die.

I find that I have no idea at all whether I would recommend it.


  1. What a weekend you've had, between the film and the neighbor.

    These questions are the heart of it, aren't they? Are they asked explicitly in the film?

    Love you.

  2. Yes, they are spoken as whispered voice-overs at various points throughout the movie.