film 6 of 6

The Tree of Life

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

If the LDS Temple Endowment were undertaken by a filmmaker/philosopher with Catholic roots, tons of nerve, and infinite reserves of imagination and perspective and tenderness, this is what it would look like. Not only does writer-director Terrence Malick have the effrontery to start his film thusly … :

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.  

Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; 

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job, 38: 4-7)  

… he then has the effrontery to be adequate to the illustration and elaboration of both concept and event, and implication besides.  

This is heady, exalted, even exalting stuff. I’m wondering. Here’s 3 Nephi 19, expressing a common scriptural trope.

32 And tongue cannot speak the words which (Jesus) prayed, neither can be written by man the words which he prayed.

33 And the multitude did hear and do bear record; and their hearts were open and they did understand in their hearts the words which he prayed.

34 Nevertheless, so great and marvelous were the words which he prayed that they cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man.

In part, for sure, I believe. We can’t conceive of certain things. Inexpressible sights and sounds and feelings await us. And, or, is this partly rhetorical? How can you possibly formulate a nobler expression than the one found in Job? And can images and sounds, and sorrow and comfort be more beautifully expressed than they are in this film?

You might leave it right there, just leave it at that. It might even be best, so as to allow and require each communicant to work it all out himself or herself, for each struggle to resolve into revelation and apotheosis, or just gentle gratitude. But you try to put vastitude into words, don’t you? More importantly, this is an almost unprecedentedly intimate, phenomenological film. That is to say that it requires your contribution and conversation, and it isn’t finished until you respond, engage, and apply.   

It all starts with a localized grief, indirectly observed and barely articulated. It starts with a mother’s anguish about the death of her son. The inevitable, inexorable, implacable questions come immediately to mind. What is the reason, the meaning, the point of it all? That’s the detail, the close up as it were, from which we pull back to consider the context in which the detail operates, and signifies. That context is nothing less than the great Plan of Salvation, from the creation of the cosmos—through and including the birth of mercy in the infinite reptilian past—to the joyful advent and painful passage of this one obscure family in one little Texas town.  

At first glance there might seem to be a problem of scale here. Galaxies, and then Waco? It is a problem, but one that far predates this film, which is correct to take it on. It’s a Pilgrim’s paradox, a theological conundrum, one of Christ’s temptations, the annihilating prospect that gives way to our greatest desire, and our greatest comfort. Man is puny, inconsequential, contemptible;  man, and woman, and child, are the reason for and the centre of all creation.  

More LDS; discussed here … :

… and here:

Samuel Beckett famously concluded his famously sorrowful novel The Unnamable (1953) with these shattering, impossible, strangely encouraging words:

“… Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on …”

Is this high modernism, leading to a paralyzing and terminal despair? Or is it every communicant, kneeling at an altar, on the brink of promised, further light and knowledge? Beckett and Malick are on the same frequency, except that the latter might be seeing farther.  

This fictional family, and all of Creation. The entire cosmos all for this, for all this, to allow for this very sorrow. Having taken this much on Malick pushes on, quite naturally and convincingly, to the Resurrection of the Just. 

A person could resist all of this. Many have. But why? Tree of Life is like the Eames’ Powers of Ten (1977; here:, or rather the galactic principle that their film illustrates. Actually Roman Kroitor and Colin Low’s Universe (1960) might be a more suitable, a more suitably majestic comparison.  (Here: Both of these films accord us a microscopic view that is exactly parallel to and completely balanced by the macroscopic totality. Malick adds to that conceptual grandeur a nearly innumerable array of tiny, perfectly observed interactions, the cruelties just as exquisite as the kindliness. 

Is it too soon to make a call like this? Probably. Let’s make it anyway. This is one of a very few candidates (Ordet, Pather Panchali) for the best and most important film ever made.