There are scenes in The Tree of Life during which I'd love to sit down with Terrence Malick and ask him what the mess is going on. But to be honest, I expected as much. This was to be a visually stunning film with a perplexing, open-to-several-interpretations 'plot'. That is what I came into the experience prepared for.
What I wasn't prepared for was the simple, lucid story(-ies) involving a father, a mother, and their three sons. This was, by some distance, the most authentic -- the most beautiful -- portrayal of a family that I've witnessed on film. It's not for everyone, but certainly all parents and children should watch it.
Malick begins by displaying creation in macro terms. Stuff explodes, planets are born, seas begin to roar. We see life through the eyes of a god. The heart of the film, however, involves us seeing life through the eyes of a child. And through the eyes of this particular child, we see ourselves. Innocence, freedom, playfulness, harshness, resentment, disobedience, guilt, forgiveness - in Malick's theologically dense terms, we see the experience of nature and we see the experience of grace, played out in the relationships created by a family.
Given the film's title, the echoes to some of the genesis narratives are not hard to hear. The eldest boy, Jack, assumes the role of Adam who lost innocence, and Cain who experienced jealousy. We watch this boy playing and eating and doing his chores, and we see him little by little inheriting the nature of his father. This is not an evil nature, but it is a nature that knows nothing of grace. The mastery of the film, however, is that Jack's world is not fated. There are other presences -- his mother and his brothers -- who know what it means to love.
I won't be spoiling anything by telling you that one of the sons dies. We discover this at the very beginning of the film, with the majority of the remainder being a series of flashbacks. Given this tragic event, you might think that this film leaves us pondering the question, "Why would a good God allow such a horrible thing happen to this God-fearing family?" You'd be right to a degree, but Malick offers no answers as a response, no way of making sense of the son's death. All he offers is a glimpse of this family as they wrestle with the forces of nature and grace. The question Malick ultimately wants us to wrestle with is printed on the screen before any events transpire:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Malick wants us to ponder the thought that grace has been wrestling with nature since the beginning, and in this present moment we are given an invitation:
...there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.
Through the story of an ordinary childhood, we are left with little doubt as to which is the more excellent way.