Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life is quite polarizing for its audiences. NPR is even reporting that a small percentage of viewers walk out on the film and some of those ask for their money back. Now I’ve walked out on a number of films over the decades and I can understand many reasons for not wanting to finish a movie. There is no way to know why people leave before The Tree of Life is over, but I wonder if any do for philosophical reasons. This is a philosophical movie, but I also found it immensely entertaining, beautiful to watch, and never boring. This is one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen. It makes me think of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. Another film about naturalism.
The Tree of Life attempts to answer one of the most difficult spiritual questions in philosophy: Why do bad things happen to good people. The film begins by telling us that life is a battle between grace and nature. Throughout the film we hear the character pray to God asking for guidance, forgiveness, understanding and meaning, and when a son and brother dies, his parents and siblings suffer greatly, partly at the loss, but mostly for not understanding why.
The film quotes The Book of Job, and has a scene where a pastor gives a excellent sermon on Job. Job is one of the most complex stories in the Bible. Many of the faithful have given up belief in God trying to understand “Why do the righteous suffer?”
I do not live by faith, but I like the word grace. Terrence Malick shows the history of the universe in this film, making a good case for evolution is part of reality. The faithful believe we are here by the grace of God, but I believe we are here by the grace of evolution. Our universe is immense in size and ancient in age, and our lives are a miracle of unintentional consequences. I think the word grace applies to that too. I also believe the most sophisticated of spiritual philosophers accept evolution and incorporate it into their philosophy.
The difference between the faithful and those who accept evolution is life after death. The faithful want to believe that no matter how much suffering we experience in this life, it will be soothed by the life we get after this one. And Malick shows that in The Tree of Life. I’ve wondered if some of the people who have walked out on this picture was because they thought Malick was selling evolution. If they did, they should have stayed. Malick sticks with faith all the way through, although it’s subtle, leaving room for some atheists to interpret the film differently. All great fiction is ambiguous, so it’s unfair to suggest my views as the only views of this story.
Here’s the thing, for most of the faithful, suffering can only be made sensible if there is life after death, either through rewards or punishment. To those who side with nature, suffering is just part of life. There is no philosophical problem for atheists, because we don’t believe God is making us suffer. The hardest thing for the faithful to endure is to believe that God is making them suffer. Thus the story of Job.
The evolution of liberal thought is one that fights suffering directly by trying to make living in this life better for all. Malick doesn’t go there at all. This is a deeply spiritual movie in the sense that it is totally metaphysical. Striving to do better is shown to cause suffering as illustrated by the role of the father played by Brad Pitt.
This movie is not for people who want escapism. I’m not sure this movie is even for young people. Terrence Malick was born in 1943, he’s not a baby boomer, but like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he’s of the generation that speaks to the baby boomers. I’d say anyone who grew up in the 1950s America should watch this film if they have a philosophical bent, it’s a film about and for us.
This trailer will give a hint at what The Tree of Life is like, but only the slightest of one.
This rather enigmatic web site gives more scenes from the movie, but you need a lot of patience to try out all the rather short clips. Go see the film for the full cinematic rollercoaster ride.
JWH – 7/4/11