The way of nature, the way of grace

Last night, Guion and I went on a date and saw Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated and highly regarded new film, “The Tree of Life.” It’s been a long time since I saw a film in the theater, and whoa. What an experience. Jonathan and I have been talking about it since before it came out and we’d been exchanging reviews and our own thoughts and guesses about what the film might be like. “The Tree of Life” stretched patience and attention, but it exceeded my expectations.

I’m not even going to attempt to write about the film as a whole, because I do not think I am capable of such a task, but I’ll share a few lasting impressions.

Early in the film, a voiceover from Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, explains that in life we must choose between “the way of nature or the way of grace.” Her character clearly chooses the way of grace, living in compassion and kindness toward all people and living things. She is ethereal, charming swallowtail butterflies in the yard, and she is generous with love, cradling her sons in the aftermath of their father’s vengeance.

It is tempting, therefore, to characterize Brad Pitt, who plays the strict father, as embodying “the way of nature.” He lives by a harsh code of perfectionism and demands such high standards from his sons. But Guion and I agreed that Malick didn’t cave to such an easy dichotomy. Pitt’s character grows in complexity over the course of the film. He is not purely the villain. Though it is not his first instinct, Father is also capable of choosing the way of grace.

Overall, “The Tree of Life” struck me as a visually rich epic poem: A series of meaningful images strung together to create a deep, moving whole. Those who need linear plots in art will be immensely frustrated by this movie. Malick isn’t trying to tell you a story; he’s trying to show you the creation of the universe.

Malick, who previously taught philosophy at Ivy League universities, asks all the big questions. Is God watching us? Does God care what we do? Why are we here? The questions are asked directly, often by the protagonist, the son Jack, who grows up to be Sean Penn. Jack and his mother weave their prayers throughout their lives. It is a film, simply, about God. And God’s involvement (or lack of involvement) in the creation and sustenance of Earth and all its inhabitants.

We left the theater hushed, speechless. I was hesitant to speak. I saw the moon disfigured by the clouds and thought about the glory of God in a way that I had not done in a long time. I could be wrong, but I think that’s what Malick was hoping I would do.

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