"The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see." - Winston Churchill
Movies don't have to be designed to entertain, and that's what makes Tree of Life stand out. It's simply not entertaining; and it's incredible. Watch Captain America and then watch Tree of Life like I did, and you'll get the two opposite ends of the spectrum in modern filmmaking.
Captain America was a WWII (I think) super hero movie with a science-fictional American Flag flying out front and some incredible special effects as bunting on the front porch. But it was fun. A Jewish professor makes a super-human patriot to fight a creepy red-faced guy with weapons fit for Star Trek. The hero sort-of dies, ending up in present day face to face with Mace Windu wearing an eye-patch. It made little sense to me, but the plot was predictable, the dialogue was as rich as a potato chip, the good guy got the girl, and wonderfully digital explosions were as frequent as prairie dogs in Nebraska.
This is what audiences want. Something that looks awesome and has enough feel-good quality to keep them in their seat for an hour and a half. Movies have much more potential. Film is a sorely unexplored medium in today's theological public sphere. Sure there may always be a subliminal (or liminal) agenda of some sort in all movies, but when personal interpretations can't skirt or avoid certain intentions of the writer or director themselves, there is a new level of idea sharing that takes place on a massive cultural scale.
Tree of Life is a movie that asks questions. It's a movie that leaves questions unanswered, but has closure and even a sprinkling of redemption. The film is an artistic presentation of the struggle between the way of nature and the way of grace. Jack, a man who'd name is mentioned only in passing, is a aging businessman in the present day, swimming through the fog of memory, resentment toward God, and questions left unanswered. Though he never directly speaks, and if he does, it is strangely inconsequential and intentionally muted, we feel the sterility of his soul through the dull frostiness of his home, office, and the wasteland of his thoughts. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Jack's brother, who remains unnamed, died at age 19. Jack is seen to light a small memorial candle in a small blue bowl before he leaves his home for his job in the city. Though not immediately apparent, I think that the two paths through life are represented artistically through the use of color. The darker, warm colors are often paired with the severity and selfishness of nature, while softer, cool colors are paired with grace. The candle in the blue container speaks to the proposition that the way of nature and the way of grace may not be mutually exclusive.
As Jack journeys through his memories of innocence, childhood, and adolescence, we see the representation of color as idea often presented through the environments, the light, and even the clothing in the story. Jack's childhood is torn between his fear of their father and the gentleness of his mother. At an early age, Jack is divided between hate, grief, and a desire to do good. Jack, as a boy, is emotionally tormented, and he struggles to find balance, but his questions to God remain unanswered. Jack's clothing continues to vary between warm and cool colors, while his parents' attires generally remain indicative of their initial paths in life. A stunning use of jump cuts and minimal dialogue paired with vivid composition and lighting ads to the juxtaposition of worldview.
Amid his recollections of his childhood, the adult Jack's mind flies to the beginning of time. In arguably the most incredible half hour of cosmic film since the IMAX Hubble Telescope movie, Jack attempts to find meaning in the creation of the universe. Apparently most of this sequence was created by pouring milk through funnels and troughs, filming it at an extremely fast frame-rate. Never before has spilt milk been so epic. Complex pairing of color in the cosmic expanses gives way to an injured dinosaur, lying on the pebbles of a green stream bed. In the first act of earthly grace, a predator dinosaur spares the life of the injured one. This is quite a testament to the innate quality of grace. The movie implies that the world was not created to run under the way of nature. The earth was created by grace and for grace, but the flame of sin kindled the selfish, self-consuming way of nature.
As a young teenager, Jack is given a chance to easily kill his father, but spares him. Gradually, Jack's father realizes his mistakes in his life and in his family and he begins to abandon the selfish way of nature.
As an adult, we can still see Jack's tormented and whitewashed soul. The warm and cool colors of life have faded into the steel and glass of the company elevator. Jack returns to his thoughts, and is guided to the end of time where the earth remains a barren wasteland after the death of the sun. On a sandbar, Jack is given a vision of eternity. People from his childhood are walking through the sand on the beach, reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's "further up, and further in" of the Narnian paradise. Jack meets his both of his brothers, still presented in their childhood age. In a previous scene, Jack as an adult is seen with Jack as a child in a desert alcove. Perhaps Jack as an adult has parted ways with the Jack of his childhood. Perhaps the adult Jack has given up the way of nature and embraced the way of grace along with his mother, his changed father, and his young brothers.
As jack leaves his office building, he looks around and smiles.
The film ends with a wavering orange flame. Perhaps a stinging reminder of the fallen world we live in.