A Visual Prayer
Let me start off by saying I'm not a huge Terrance Malick fan. Yet, I do understand why so many film buffs love the guy. His cinematography consistently impresses. He captures subtle and natural performances from his actors. He is a skilled technical director. I'm no expert on film, but I know a sure hand when I see it, and he always has that going for him. And I respect him for doing things his own way, for making the movies he wants to make the way he wants to make them. Yet, despite all this, most of his recent movies that I've seen have left me cold, and even worse, bored. The Thin Red Line, while brilliant in parts, was a bit too heavy-handed at times and too quiet for a war movie. I found it repetitive. I felt like he was hitting me over the head with the same symbols again and again and again even though I understood the meaning the first time around. As for The New World, I found it a beautiful movie for the first thirty minutes or so, but not terribly emotionally engaging. In fact -- and this may be because I was heavily medicated and recovering from a bout of viral meningitis, including two procedures within about 48 hours: a spinal tap and a blood patch -- I fell asleep several times throughout the picture. I think I finished it, but I'm not even sure to be completely honest. I never felt like re-watching it. It just didn't catch my interest enough. Too many shots of insects hovering over water and grey skies. I can see that anytime I want to by visiting the swampy nature preserve less than a mile from my house, and I often do go there to watch nature unfold and reflect on its quiet glory and amazing cyclical nature. But I'd rather experience nature than watch it on film, I guess. Maybe one day I'll revisit that movie and give it another shot, but I'm in no rush. The thing is, some people praise Malick's pacing as deliberate and steady, but I'll call it for what it usually is in my opinion: SLOW. Too slow. The symbols linger a bit too long and repeat a bit too often. "I get it," I find myself saying more often than not when "experiencing" a Malick movie. "Move on. Get back to the story."
Malick's latest, The Tree of Life, has many of the same problems. It is long and drawn-out. The symbolism is a bit heavy-handed at times. There's repetition of imagery to spare. No, this is not a film for everybody. I could see why some would absolutely hate this film, especially if they go in expecting a traditional film with a traditional narrative. And yet, it worked for me. It worked extremely well. Now, I'm going to examine why.
Perhaps this is because of my faith? I am a Christian, and I must say the film is perhaps the single most touching Christian film I've ever seen. While more philosophical than theological, the Christian worldview is definitely there and definitely a huge point of the movie. And the spirituality was handled in a way that is rare on film. It wasn't judgmental or hindered by poor production values like so many evangelical movies I've seen. It didn't veer towards the dogmatic either. It portrayed Christians living normal lives under ordinary circumstances in an ordinary town. It showed people as flawed, fighting internal demons and corruption, imperfect (with one notable exception I will explain later), yet still wanting to be good, striving towards something better. It showed Christians dealing with doubts and fears and anger over the seemingly unjust nature of the world we live in. They're not cardboard cut-out Christians, not judgmental wing-nuts, and not the Flanders from the Simpsons. In fact, they look a lot like the real thing. I don't think you have to be a Christian to enjoy the movie, but it definitely doesn't hurt because some Bible knowledge may be required for full comprehension. Much of the context in the film derives almost word from word from Biblical verses and situations.
Or perhaps it is because I am a father and a son? I thought this was one of the most realistic depictions of the father-son relationship I have seen in a movie in a very long time. Brad Pitt's turn as a normal, every-day father worked. It was an honest portrayal of fatherhood. It showed a basically good man who happens to not be the best father at times. He's not a bad father like from a soap opera or cheap novel. He's not a stereotypical drunken abuser. He is not hateful, by any means. He's only a bad father, in fact, because he cares so much in his own way. He wants his boys to succeed, to be ready for the cutthroat business world he inhabits. Basically, he's a predator in a very modern sense, and he's trying to teach his boys how to be predators in this modern world to survive. He wants for his boys to achieve the perfection that he always felt he lacks and pushes too hard. The motivations are good and honest for this character. He means well; he just doesn't always do well. In the end there's reconciliation, and you realize he isn't even really a bad father. He is just a human who made some mistakes in his home life while blinded by the false cares and labyrinthine morals of the modern world instead of focusing on the little joys of life and love and grace.
Perhaps it is because of the duality of the theme? I've gone into my love of mystics before, and William Blake remains one of my favorite historical mystics and writers. The duality here is Nature vs. Grace. Nature is the natural world, the will to live, the will to survive, to thrive, to conquer, a Nietzsche-infused view towards the natural world. Grace, on the other hand is the will to serve, to love, to accept those unseen things that are felt and known to be true all the same. And this film shows this duality at work inside of all of us. The Father, more times than not, represents Nature. The loving Mother embodies Grace. The children contain both of these elements and deal with that internal struggle. They want to do good but sometimes do bad. At one point, a child even paraphrases a letter from the New Testament on the subject (Romans 7:21-25). This duality and resulting internal struggles -- the sometimes selfish cares for this temporary world versus the desire to serve something eternal (call it God or Love) -- are strong driving forces in the narrative, and explored well. For the most part, anyway.
I will note here that my one main criticism of this film stems from this point: The Mother was almost too good as the embodiment of Grace. She was too perfect to a point it almost seemed unfair to all the other characters. With the exception of a few voice-over questions and perhaps showing preference for one child over the others, she didn't seem to have any flaws. I did not sense much in the way of internal struggle. To see her struggle a little more in her actions and be a trifle more imperfect would have perhaps made her character more three-dimensional and believable within the context of this film. Still, the casting and performance for this character works.
But mostly, I think, the movie worked thanks to the imagery and how well it tied to the overall meaning and various themes. This is, by far, the most beautiful work of modern Christian art in any form I have seen in some time. It is epic in scope, covering creation to the end of time. By doing so, it shows us how miniscule we are in the larger schemes of the universe while at the same time showing how much sometimes our smallest actions can affect those around us in the largest ways imaginable. Just because you seem insignificant in the larger scope of the universe or feel that way sometimes doesn’t mean that you don’t matter. The movie really did inspire. It touched my heart. In fact, the birth scene, shown after a long depiction of the creation of the universe, captured all the feelings of perhaps the most significantly spiritual moments of my life to date: the birth of my own boys. That brought back memories and feelings and even a few tears to my eyes. This and other scenes in this film made me stop and consider and appreciate the miracles all around me, not least of which – considering all the variables that led us up to this moment -- is the miracle that we exist at all. And despite the suffering at times, our lives are a beautiful miracle. It is such a blessing that we can think, that we can reason, and that we can make films or tell stories despite no real evolutionary purpose or function for doing so that I can think of. If that isn’t effective story-telling, if that isn’t effective and worthwhile as art, I don’t know what is.
In films, like in any other medium, taste is subjective. The film is undeniably slow at times and sometimes disjointed. I’ve read reviews upset with the ending (which I think may possibly be due to misinterpretation – despite the Christian themes and worldview, I don’t think the film was as black-and-white or as dogmatic as some people make it out to be – the “Beach” may have all been in the Grown Man’s mind as a visual metaphor for how he was reconciling his past to his present the way I see it). I’ve read reviews that Sean Penn’s role wasn’t necessary or explained well enough – and understand that point. But even those scenes worked for me. Sean Penn didn’t have much to work with, script-wise, but his weathered face told a subtle story just beneath its surface all its own which I found intriguing.
Ultimately, the film worked for me because it captured emotions. And, despite most of those emotions being fairly universal in nature, it captured them in a unique way. And it felt honest. Much of the story is told in the form of prayers to God. The movie itself feels intimate, like listening in on someone else’s prayers. And it’s amazing how much so many of those prayers sound like they could have been my own at various times in my life.
No, I’m not a huge fan of his movies, but I think Malick really put his heart on the line with this one. And it worked. It was a beautiful prayer.