On my other site, bestlovedfilms.com, I’ve been rewatching America’s 200 most canonized, important films. (Don’t ask the criteria; read the site for that.) Anyway, I’m almost done with the 200, and I can confidently say that none of them has shaken me quite so much as The Tree of Life.
The phrase “it hits kinda different now” was invented for how I feel now. Mostly, films don’t do that to me. I see it once, I see it a second time years later, and I tend to feel a lot of the same way.
I only saw The Tree of Life once, when it came out ten years ago. At the time, we knew Dar was delayed, but everyone told us he’d get better. Nobody told me that Dar’s life would eventually hit me like the loss of a child. Like as if he had died.
Wow, The Tree of Life is hitting me hard. Because of Dar.
Within the first ten minutes of The Tree of Life, you learn that it’s about a child who died and the father, mother, and brother who mourn him and look for God in the wake of his passing…a wake that lasts decades. We flash back to a 50s childhood and flash forward to a late-middle-aged man in the 21st century.
Of all 200 of the films I’ve been watching, a plot summary really does not do this film justice. It’s not really “about” a linear plot in the way movies are. Instead, it’s about flashes of experience, snatches of life, moments of reverie, bursts of events that question how and why and when some parts of our lives become more important than others. In whispers, the surviving family asks God and their lost son/brother many intimate questions (“When did you first touch my heart?” “Why?”) on voice-over of the 50s childhood but also over cosmic celestial wonders and a lot of other visuals that aren’t in other Sean Penn or Brad Pitt films.
What really hit me was watching the mom, played by Jessica Chastain, long after we’ve seen her mourn her son (as I said, that’s less than ten minutes in), flashing back on – or is her son’s flashback? – the little rituals of raising a child, like reading a book about rabbits, or playing with little wooden alligators and kangaroos.
Implicit in that scene, as it is in most of the film’s Texas scenes, is “what did this mean? What was it worth?” If the child is now gone?
This was profound to me.
Ultimately, sure, the movie is probably saying it wasn’t useless, that it got us closer to God. But that’s an over-simplification of the film and the way it works. It truly connects closely, deeply, to ideas and thoughts that most films don’t even try to address.
A movie like Ordinary People has a sort of superficially similar plot – family loses child, and mom, dad, and brother deal with the fallout. I actually love Ordinary People, it’s terrific. But it’s not even trying to explore the poignance and resonance of little will-of-the-wisps of our brief existence the way The Tree of Life is.
I have a “secret” connection to the film. My dad’s sister, my Aunt Meredith, went to school with “Terry Malick” and knew him a little. The lush suburban Texas isn’t entirely unlike my Dad’s childhood. So yes, there’s that. But I don’t think you need that to be affected by the film.
I’m just feeling the feels right now.