Somewhere in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life one dinosaur stumbles across another lying injured in a riverbed. At first it seems the first will kill the second. Then it decides against it and runs off. Watching it I asked myself this: did that creature make a conscious decision to spare a life despite its instinct to destroy it? If so, Malick seems to be saying that mercy is not a quality of humanity, but of all life, and will shine the moment we scrutinize the urge to destroy. I could be wrong – but, my interpretation isn’t the point.
The film plays out like a visual and audible poem of primordial syllables and clicks. It is a gorgeous and affecting film, and one that must be submitted to completely – but one I cannot describe.
Typically I could start off a synopsis with, “Well there’s this boy…” and although there is “this boy” we do not follow him so much as simply watch him. I could not tell you his wants or goals past the wants and goals of my own at that age – which may be the point. He grows up during a time (1950's Texas) when part of “being a man” means harnessing aggression, at an age when aggression is frightening. Malick juxtaposes the beats and rhythms of his youth against images both vast and microscopic. In this layering of random moments and images we come to learn certain things: we fit into the microcosm, as well as the whole; to some we matter greatly, to others we will never even be a passing face; we can affect the world around us, but we are not necessary – we are at once significant and insignificant. Again, I may be wrong, but that's not that point.
The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are black and white. The film is either loved, or hated. One reviewer hated it so much he said, “If I can prevent just one person from watching this, it'll have been worth suffering through it.” A lot of people will hate this film for a simple reason: the awe, wonder, and patience of our society has diminished.
It takes effort, time, and humility to really understand something. Often we must admit that our initial interpretation of events, and our assessment of the motivation of others, is wrong, bruising our egos and making us even more stubborn. We have become complacent of our expectations. I would go so far as to say that our expectations motivate us, rather than our desires. Save whining, we do little to alter our ability to deal with curveballs, and our malleability suffers for it.
Writing this I am reminded of how a few months back a woman attempted to sue a movie theater over the film “Drive.” She expected it to be more like The Fast and the Furious, which it is not, save the fact that includes cars. She could have tried to enjoy the film, but she didn’t, because she saw the film as something it never was and that gap caused for her conflict and disappointment.
It is instinct for most, including myself, to react without thinking. Malick asks us to be better than that. Simply by creating this film he is asking us to take up the responsibility of patience – to be mindful of moments where instinct may want to take over – to observe rather than judge, to experience rather than decide if something is good or bad. This film doesn’t need to be liked or disliked, it doesn’t need to be called a Masterpiece, or dissected for merit (although its technical achievements and scope of vision are considerable). The film simply needs to be experienced for what it is, rather than what it is expected to be. Whatever questions or interpretations come of it are insignificant – the significance is in the process of finding something that is at first unseen.
Malick has given us a dazzling riddle. He is asking us, for fuck’s sake, to take a few hours out of our lives and be thoughtful. He is asking us to exercise our ability to understand something that may not be immediately apparent. For many people this will be too much to ask. This is not good or bad, but unfortunate.