Every year, I get the chance to see one "grown-up movie." Usually it comes around my birthday at the end of January, just after Academy Awards nominations are made. With the help of On Demand this year, we've been able to watch both The Help and Tree of Life, and it's the latter movie that I feel is worthy of an Oscar-season review here at Point Pleasant.
I'm always amazed at the overt spirituality of the best films that are released every year. Hollywood seems like such a bastion of secularism, but time and again I am humbled by the spiritual connections made in some of my favorite movies. Two years, I blogged about the Easter-connected film, Slumdog Millionaire. I didn't have time last year to discuss my favorite movie of 2010, True Grit.
First, a note about the term, "Tree of Life." As I grew up, I understood that this was the tree that grew in the Garden of Eden, a symbol of eternal life that Adam and Eve consumed, and from which they were blocked by an angel with a flaming sword after their capital-f, Fall (Genesis 3.22-25).
(Four years ago, I blogged about this Tree of Life after I had found the species of tree that grew in the garden.) This tree makes a return appearance in Revelation 22.1-5, bearing twelve different fruits every season and engendering "the healing of the nations."
But there is a different Tree of Life I have studied in recent years--one that draws from Charles Darwin. When I studied biology in school, I understood the plant and animal kingdoms, and I broke those into phyla and other, smaller groups, each kingdom was a pyramid that grew broader and broader toward its base, where I found homo sapien among the list of primate species..
The biological Tree of Life illustrates the biological principal that life is truly broader than mere plants and animals. Ninety percent (or more) of all living things cannot be seen by the human eye, and the Tree of Life tries to incorporate bacteria, viruses, fungi, and the huge assortment of living things into one, circular family--quite a contrast to the pyramidal structure of life that I learned in my high school biology classes (a picture of this tree of life is included into the blog, a more three-dimensional representation can be found here).
This is the proper setup for the movie, Tree of Life, which is obsessed with spirituality, with prayer, with God, but not with Genesis. Instead, the film begins with a quote from the book of Job (my favorite creation account found in the Bible):
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
Tell me, if you understand." Job 38. 4
The central character in the film is a man named Jack O'Brian (yes, the initials spell, "Job"), who has come to question his faith following the death of his brother. The plot of the film takes place inside Jack's head, in a series of recollections of childhood, of whispered prayers, and of wildly fantastical imaginings. Because it takes place inside Jack's head, don't necessarily expect a beginning and middle--nor should the viewer expect to know for sure which of Jack's two brothers has died--I think it's pretty easy to figure out.
At his core, Jack has a God problem. There are two forms of God who battle for Jack's affection and respect--a conundrum that most people of faith would understand. The dilemma is stated succinctly by Mrs. O'Brian: "There are two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.
Jack's mother represents God the Nurturer--the way of grace. She is full of wonder. She is loving. She comforts Jack and his brothers. In one of her voiceovers, she whispers, "Do good to them. Wonder. Hope." This is the kind of God she is--and Jack adores her.
But there is a second embodiment of God, found in Jack's father: God the Naturer, the Striver, the Responsible. "You are not to call me, 'Dad,'" he bellows in one contentious scene, "You are to call me 'Father!'" He tries to instruct Jack, to teach him manners, to toughen him up for the challenges that life will throw at him. (In a particularly heartfelt scene, Mr. O'Brian teaches Jack to fight him, challenging the son to punch him in the face.)
These two forces seem to tear at Jack, who like St. Paul wrestles with the desires to do the things he doesn't want to do while failing to do that which he should do. An illustration of this comes in one of the scenes at church. Soon after a funeral where Mr. O'Brian's strictness and reverence has been on display, Jack can be seen in the empty sanctuary walking across the tops of the pews!
The movie never gives one form of God preference over the other. In the scene where Jack enters transcendence, both of them are there, and both greet him warmly.
The whisper is an important part of the movie. By my recollection, about 15% of the dialogue is whispered in voice over, sounding almost like prayers:
- "Are you there?"
- "Do you know what happened? Do you care?"
- "Where do you live?"
- "Are you watching me? I want to see what you see."
I'm not sure how this appears to someone who doesn't have a faith background. It must seem terribly random, this hidden, disembodied dialogue. To me, though, this is the "true" story of experience--the questions that linger, that bring both sadness and wonder.
I was also struck by the dynamic between the two oldest brothers featured in the movie. While Jack is frustrated by the different natures of his parents, his younger brother, R.L, seems to embody them effortlessly. In another transcendent scene, R.L. practices his guitar on the porch outside the room in which his father plays the piano. The two instruments gradually fade into an impromptu duet on Pachelbel's Canon. The look of pride on Mr. O'Brian's face is unmistakable--"This is the one who gets it."
And with mother, the relationship is also warm. R.L. asks Mrs. O'Brian, "Tell us a story from before we can remember," and the movie launches into it's most talked-about scene: a cosmos-spanning depiction of the creation of the Universe. This stunning, watching galaxies spin into existence, seeing the sun emerge through the dust of forming planets, peeking in on two dinosaurs that play in a riverbed.
But R.L. is an Abel to Jack's Cain. Jack's deepest conflicts come to the fore when he is around his brother. At one point, Jack demands that R.L. stick a wire into a lamp. When he isn't shocked, R.L. says, "I trust you." Later, though, Jack asks R.L. to put his finger over the tip of his BB gun, and here R.L.'s faith is destroyed. If Mr. and Mrs. O'Brian are the two sides of God, then R.L. and Jack are the two sides of humanity.
Tree of Life. It's a prayer and a meditation more than it is a story--which is why I don't necessarily think of it as a great movie. Still, it was an opportunity for me to seek God and see God again through Job's eyes and through those of the fictional O'Brian family, too.