Liam Mac Uaid is unimpressed by a film pondering the big questions.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival and it is certainly in a different class from other mainstream commercial successes. If it’s showing in your local cinema it’s likely to be preceded by fifteen minutes of indistinguishable trailers. These will be advertising upcoming films which rely heavily on people running away from explosions, things blowing up very loudly and dialogue in which people bark lines like “not on my watch mister” and “failure is not an option”. The intended demographic appears to be teenage boys who are self medicating their Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder by drinking several tins of Coke. To be fair one impending classic, combining two fine genres, called Cowboys and Aliens does stand out.
Malick’s film unrolls at a much more gradual pace, taking two and a quarter hours to meditate on death, family, suffering and humanity’s place in the universe. At times one has the sensation that the director is forcing the viewer to watch the development of the universe in real time from the Big Bang to 1950s Texas. He throws in the dust clouds coalescing into galaxies; comets striking the earth four billion years ago; the emergence of single cell life; the rise of multi-cellular life and takes a ten minute detour to show some dinosaurs hunting. While all this is going on we are popping back and forth to 1950s Texas and a 21st century megalopolis with the characters narrating their inner monologues. The teleological proposition appears to be that the last fourteen and a half billion years have been building up to life in the fairly contemporary United States.
And what does it all mean? Malick’s conclusions don’t represent much in the way of philosophical insight. Repressed, angry fathers can mess up their kids’ lives for years after though something horrible may well have happened in their own childhoods. If only they’d opened themselves to the glory of creation or seen a therapist so much pain could have been avoided.
He’s also troubled by the fact that bad things happen to good people. As the film jumps back from the 1950s to the 2000s Sean Penn’s character loses a nineteen year old brother and a younger friend. Malick resolves this by having Penn’s character’s mother flanked by, depending on your preference, two angels or the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, explaining that the dead have returned to God. Alternatively Jessica Chastain may have been the Virgin Mary in this narrative. By this point you’ll have given up caring.
All the while the images are overlaid with burbling about love and grace or the sort of classical music one imagines very rich Californians listen to as they practise Reiki in their hand-made silk pyjamas contemplating their spirituality gazing out the window of their ultra tasteful beach front property. But actually it is a very Catholic film. The family’s religious affiliation is never stated but anyone familiar with the inside of a Catholic church will immediately recognise that this is the one they attend. By the end the film is effectively an explanation of the Catholic view of life, death and suffering. Fr Robert Barron reviewing the film says of the miscellany of incidents shown that they are “part of the providential plan and purpose of God” and you could do worse than watch his video if you want a religious interpretation of Malick’s message.
There is a happy ending of sorts. Everyone seems to go to Heaven. To the unbeliever this comes as a bit of a disappointment. There is no sitting around on clouds strumming harps. Malick’s Heaven is a beach where you mill around barefoot in the wet sand along with hundreds of other people all wearing the expression normally seen on the face of someone walking to a station trying to remember if they’ve locked the back door. It does not seem a great way to spend eternity.
The smart thing to do would have been to have walked out when the dinosaur action was over. After about an hour the prospect of discovering if the cowboys beat the aliens had become positively attractive. If you want to see a great film treatment of religious belief rent the DVD Of Gods and Men.