I have walked out of a movie once: it was the sequel to the Blair Witch Project and I felt that wasting the money I used to pay for the movie (by not finishing the film) was better than torturing myself with more screen time.
It was with this context that I observed, with amusement, how fellow moviegoers during the screening of Tree of Life stood up one by one, some in batches, and never returned to their seats: they clearly wouldn’t tolerate the film, even that of a Cannes Best Picture. Mon and I stayed even though it was clear we too had trouble getting it, judging by the gush of giggles we’d have now and then. I rooted not only for ourselves, but also for the old and romantic couple in front of us who stayed up late for the 10:40pm screening at Power Plant Mall, but alas, about two hours into the film, they stood up and left too.
It is a difficult movie to watch (by the way, we did finish it), in the sense that poems may be more difficult to comprehend than a narrative. I’d like to think I did get it: for one, is there really a God? Is someone really listening? When one of the characters direct a question to him, “Lord, why? Where are you?” and all he hears is the rustle of the wind against sheer window curtains or grass-end bristles, is that God responding or meteorology at work?
The movie opens with a mother explaining the difference between living the way of nature and living the way of grace. ‘Nature’ is selfish and leads to survival and self-preservation. ‘Grace’ is accepting what is—whether that be grief or death. (This contrast is also exhibit by the parenting techniques of Mother and Father.) The film then paints beautiful imagery on the screen, explaining how the universe and earth came to be, with its explosions and osmosis and evolution. It was all ‘Nature’ until it showed a dinosaur having the grace, the conscience, to reflect on whether to make or not make a meal out of its prey.
I refuse to accept that: a dinosaur is a dinosaur.
An asteroid hits the earth, wiping out dinosaurs and other animals, (no Great Floods here) and consequently, blankets the world in ice. Amid all these National Geography drama, we hear various voice overs from the mother and the rest of her family: their silent prayers to God, all delivered in hushed tones. With the universe as their backdrop, the prayers begin to feel minute and trivial. The wind blows, the sun shines: the world is as it was—indifferent. (I also have a problem with these hushed voice overs: if you’re praying silently, then why do you have to whisper?)
I loved the movie right until that point because that’s how it is for us humans. We have our faith, of not knowing what really is out there and yet, we cling to God. We are free to accept nature’s gifts as that from Him, or a demonstration of the Big Bang and Darwinian theories. All constitute free will.
But then Terrence Malick (writer and director) made the last 15 minutes and imposes his personal religion on the viewer, which would have been fine, if it were at least revolutionary and thought-provoking.