Talking Pictures in Review: The Tree of Life (Pt. 1)

It’s hard to find a film this past year that has sparked stronger reactions than The Tree of Life. It’s garnered no small amount of critical acclaim, including winning of the top prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and being nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography). At the same time, its release prompted some theaters, after several walkouts, to warn moviegoers that the film is unconventional. Interestingly, the film earned an 84% positive rating from critics on, while the audience rated it considerably lower at 60%. 

All of this helped make The Tree of Life a natural choice for last Friday’s presentation of Talking Pictures at The Crossing. Here’s the first installment of a discussion recap for those who haven’t yet seen the movie or wish to process it further. (After starting this, I eventually realized that putting the whole thing in one post would make it quickly overflow its banks.)

Before (or After) You Watch: Helpful Tips

Going into a film, I normally don’t look for people to “help” me watch it. I mostly prefer to form my own impressions and compare notes afterward. The Tree of Life is likely a notable exception to this rule of thumb. Rare is the person who comes away with a commanding grasp of this film immediately after watching it for the first time. The film is both too demanding and too rich for that. With that in mind, here are a few points that I shared with the Talking Pictures audience before showing the film, but they should also serve well in retrospect:

1. As C. S. Lewis once advised a young girl about writing, “Instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible,’ describe it so we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description.” This film, more than any other I have ever seen, seeks to “show” more than “tell.” Dialogue is sparse, if still crucially important, and the pictures are indeed worth thousands of words. These and other elements, like the music and sequencing of shots, work together not only to create an experience the viewer is meant to enter into, but also to communicate and drive the narrative. This means that those watching need to be alert and engaged to find significance in what they’re witnessing. This is not a movie that will connect all the dots for you.

2. Realize the film doesn’t progress in a straightforward, linear way. Instead, it alternates from the experience of the adult Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn in a wonderfully subtle performance) to remembrances and impressions from his childhood. Throw in scenes that are literally cosmic in scope (more below) and it’s relatively easy to become disoriented. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a discernible narrative arc. 

3. The Tree of Life focuses on the story of one particular Texas family, and even more specifically on Jack, both as a kid and an adult. This comes alongside scenes meant to convey the creation of the universe, the origin and development of life, and eventually, the end (or new beginning) of all things. The relationship between the smaller, particular story and the larger, cosmic story is an important one for understanding the film. With that in mind, note especially what precedes the creation sequence.  

4. A few other things to keep in mind as you watch:

  • Take note of the passage of Scripture you see at the beginning of the film, as well as the first image you see. 
  • Pay careful attention to voice-over narration. One specific point along these lines: Mrs. O’Brien’s (Jessica Chastain) beginning contrast of the “way of nature” with the “way of grace” very much frames the movie.  
  • The middle of the film finds the O’Brien family in a church service. I’d argue the sermon and an accompanying visual are both important to understanding the fundamental message of the film.  
  • The closing sequences of the film, including the adult Jack’s “visionary experiences” and what briefly follows, are bursting with significance. Seemingly every shot conveys a great deal. 

If you’ve not yet seen the film but are still planning on watching it, that should give you some decent tracks to run on. Next week, I’ll run through the post-film discussion.

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