Terrence Malick's new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude.
Not long after its beginning we apparently see the singularity of the Big Bang, when the universe came into existence. It hurtles through space and time, until it comes gently to a halt in a small Texas town in the 1950s. Here we will gradually learn who some of the people were as the film first opened.
In Texas we meet the O'Brien family. Bad news comes in the form of a telegram, as it always did in those days. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) reads it in her home, and gives vent to grief. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) gets the news at work. We gather a child has died. It is after that when we see the universe coming into being, and Hubble photographs of the far reaches.
This had an uncanny effect on me, because Malick sees the time spans of the universe and a human life a lot like I always have. As a child I lay awake obsessed with the idea of infinity and the idea of God, who we were told had no beginning and no end. How could that be? And if you traveled and traveled and traveled through the stars, would you ever get to the last one? Wouldn't there always be one more?
In my mind there has always been this conceptual time travel, in which the universe has been in existence for untold aeons, and then a speck appeared that was Earth, and on that speck evolved life, and among those specks of life were you and me. In the span of the universe, we inhabit an unimaginably small space and time, and yet we think we are so important. It is restful sometimes to pull back and change the scale, to be grateful that we have minds that can begin to understand who we are, and where are in the vastness.
Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.
We all occupy our own box of space and time. We have our memories and no one else's. We live one life, accumulating it in our minds as we go along. Terrence Malick was born in Waco, Texas, and has filmed much of "The Tree of Life" in small Texas towns; the house of the O'Brien family is in Smithville. I felt like I knew this house and this town. Malick and I were born within a year of one another, and grew up in small towns in the midlands. Someone else, without my memories to be stirred, might be less affected by its scenes of the O'Briens raising their three boys.
I know unpaved alleys with grass growing down the center. I know big lawns with a swing hanging from a tree. I know windows that stand open all day in the summer. I know houses that are never locked. I know front porches, and front porch swings, and aluminum drinking glasses covered with beads of sweat from the ice tea and lemonade inside.I know picnic tables. I know the cars of the early 1950s, and the kitchens, and the limitless energy of kids running around the neighborhood.
And I know the imperfect family life Malick evokes. I know how even good parents sometimes lose their tempers. How children resent what seems to be the unforgivable cruelty of one parent, and the refuge seemingly offered by the other. I know what it is to see your parents having a argument, while you stand invisible on the lawn at dusk and half-hear the words drifting through the open windows. I know the feeling of dread, because when your parents fight, the foundation of your world shakes. I had no siblings, but I know how play can get out of hand and turn into hurt, and how hatred can flare up between two kids, and as quickly evaporate. I know above all how time moves slowly in a time before TV and computers and video games, a time when what you did was go outside every morning and play and dare each other, and mess around with firecrackers or throw bricks at the windows of an empty building, and run away giggling with guilt.
Those days and years create the fundament. Then time shifts and passes more quickly, and in some sense will never seem as real again. In the movie, we rejoin one of the O'Brien boys (now played by Sean Penn) when he grows to about the age his father was. We see him in a wilderness of skyscrapers, looking out high windows at a world of glass and steel. Here are not the scenes of the lawn through the dining room windows. These windows never open. He will never again run outside and play.
What Malick does in "The Tree of Life" is create the span of lives. Of birth, childhood, the flush of triumph, the anger of belittlement, the poison of resentment, the warmth of forgiving. And he shows that he feels what I feel, that it was all most real when we were first setting out, and that it will never be real in that way again. In the face of Hunter McCracken, who plays Jack as a boy, we see the face of Sean Penn, who plays him as a man. We see fierceness and pain. We see that he hates his father and loves him. When his father has a talk with him and says, "I was a little hard on you sometimes," he says, "It's your house. You can do what you want to." And we realize how those are not words of anger but actually words of forgiveness. Someday he will be the father. It will not be so easy.