The Conflict Within Us All

I am awestruck.

As I sit here trying to put together some sort of rational order to the swirling thoughts in my head regarding Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, I am not sure where to begin.  And I can’t help but think that this paralysis might be exactly what he would have wanted after one’s initial viewing.

So, I’ll start by saying this: a literary critic once identified the seven different types of narrative conflict.  They are:

  • Man against Man
  • Man against Nature
  • Man against Himself
  • Man against God
  • Man against Society
  • Man caught in the Middle
  • Man & Woman

Tree of Life attempts to tell a story embracing all seven.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

With the opening shot: a quote from the Book of Job, set to the angelic tones of a classical church choir – and the film immediately takes on a reverent tone. Yet within the struggles of each character is an unconventional questioning of God, faith, the family dynamic, life itself and our place in the grand scheme of it all.

Yet, simultaneously, there appears to be a counter-argument here, that things happen for a reason right down to the molecular level…

I repeat, I am in awe of the scope and the magnitude of this film.  And so it is without hesitation that I say Tree of Life is not for the casual film goer. This is not for the popcorn-munching, check your brain at the door just entertain me movie fan.  If you are that type of person, please avoid this film – it’s just not your thing.

If, however, you are patient, and want to be challenged … if you plan to reward this film with multiple viewings … then by all means, dive in and let the imagery and sounds marinate the senses and soul – after all, these elements are just a few of many things that Malick does so well.

The imagery in the film is still-life stolen from a museum.; the choral music is omnipresent throughout – this is a spiritual process and experience for both director and audience.  I do not think I have ever seen a more spiritual film than this one.  And let me be clear, that by spiritual – I do not mean religious.  While there are some overt scenes that dance around religion, this film truly espouses to be more – and spiritual is indeed what the goal was on many levels.  The literary critic who once identified two elements of narrative conflict as Man v. Nature and Man v. God has gotten it all wrong, Malick might argue with Tree of Life.  In this film, these two narrative elements are actually one-and-the-same.

This is also a story about father and son; and mother and son – and the struggle between this parental tug of war between nature and grace.  This may be the most brutal and difficult theme of the film for me.  One would think with all the heady talk about God, nature and spiritualism v. religion that one could easily lose themselves in the philosophical fray.  But no – the exploration of parenting in this film is what really troubles me most.

I have a son and daughter.  The daughter has proven to be challenging in some ways, but for now, and for the most part, living up to expectations. (Granted, she is not dating – and then I know I will be absolutely out of my mind.)  My son is three, and is the cutest kid I ever have seen.  I have the biggest man-crush on him…his smile and laughter are infectious, and he is at that wonderful time where everything is new, amazing and fun.  My fear is simmering at a very deep level as to whether or not I can prepare him to be a man in a world that still has a difficult time identifying what a man should be.  This fear is echoed in Brad Pitt’s character, the father, Mr. O’Brien.  You see this struggle as evidenced in the different approach with each of his three sons (three! Jeez!) He has the most difficult time balancing a hard approach, to toughen up his children through discipline and physical confrontation, or encouraging the creativity and sensitivity in them while preparing for the reality of what a man is expected to be.

The pure anguish and regret on Pitt’s face in two pivotal scenes it just hits home for me every time I think about it; and, of course, every time I look at my three year old son.

Tree of Life opens the way it closes: with a brilliant flash in the depths of space as the sounds of waves crashing on a beach play in the background. What does it all mean? Everything comes full circle? That God and life has no beginning and no end…?

I am compelled to purchase this film and watch again, and again, and again.  There is so much to take in, and chew, and digest.  I have mentioned to many of my friends before that I believe Terrence Malick is a poet working in film. I am happy that this assessment has never been more true than in Tree of Life.  Like any great poet, Malick says so much without saying much at all.  Dialogue is sparse in this film; instead images and emotions tell the story here.

Conflict rules the day. Conflict is questioned, it is explored, it is celebrated.  And it is a conflict that – at any and every level – is within us all.

[ first photo by Harish-Rao; second photo by Tim Donnelly; final photo by Ha-Wee – all Flickr Photos were under the Creative Commons license] 

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