How to explain a Terence Malick film to someone who has never seen one? All at once, they are poetic, rapturous, maddening, illuminating, and even, perhaps, in a few choice moments, a bit pretentious. But one thing is for sure. No matter what else you one might be tempted to say about a film by this man, you can never say that it is … expected. Enter Malick’s latest offering: The Tree of Life. Lacking anything that could be conventionally described as a clear or linear storyline, the director, instead, seems utterly content to film a visual meditation on the themes of creation and evolution, fathers and sons, faith and doubt. It is a story about a particular family rooted in a particular culture, but it’s larger than that, more ambitious in its reach. Perhaps the best way to say it is to say that while this is the story of a family set in the 1950s, it is also the timeless story of humanity and its’ God.
In his book entitled Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, psychologist Paul Vitz puts forth an argument in which he suggests that severe disappointment with one’s biological father often leads to an individual rejecting the concept of a heavenly Father. Tracing both the histories of prominent atheists as well as prominent theists, Vitz turns Freud’s projection theory of religion on its head, as he makes a compelling case for a correlation between our willingness to conceive of a God that cares and our experiences with fathers that may or may not.
In many ways, The Tree of Life is an almost prayerful examination of Vitz’s central thesis, filled with wondrous moments of staggering beauty and wrenching snapshots of belittling pain. And in the end, you can almost hear the words of the Apostle Paul echoing through the narrated voiceover: “There are two ways in life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”
I highly recommend The Tree of Life as one of the most audacious and profound films released in this new millennium.
This film has been rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief language.