One of the most agonizing experiences in life is crying out for meaning in the face of suffering and loss of innocence – and getting no answer from God or the universe. In the face of silence to our questions, what gives meaning to life? Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life tackles this most profound of questions.
Set in the 1950s, we follow Jack, one of three brothers, as he moves from the marvellous innocence of childhood to the loss of that innocence following his troubled relationship with his father (Brad Pitt), experience of sickness, suffering, and death, and into adulthood (Sean Penn) as he works in a competitive concrete jungle business world where the self is the only thing that matters.
The Meaning of Life is a very unusual movie. The narrative is minimal and much of the 2 hours and 19 minutes consists of impressionistic cinematography around our universe and on our earth. The experience of the story’s protagonists are almost overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe’s history from its birth to its death – once again not told in linear form but rather in frenetically wonderful glimpses that are thematically related and which build to an experience of awe-fullness in which human life is reduced to near triviality. The overall experience of the film is one of meditation and humility as Jack struggles to answer the big questions of human existence. An answer is provided at the end of the movie – there is a meaning to life – but depending on your current point of view, you may or may not agree with it. I won’t reveal it here because it will have more impact if you discover it in the ambiguity of this stunning meditation.
Many Christians provide inadequate and insipid answers to the why questions when it comes to suffering. They appeal to nonsense like ‘God has a plan for your life’; ‘This was meant to be’; or ‘We will understand the meaning of our suffering in heaven’. All of these are inadequate and, for many Christians who cry out to God in their darkest moments, become downright offensive when there is no response from God to our cries – a God that is supposed to love and care for us. It may be that this film provides the answer – whether we are Christian or atheist, religious or secular.
The Meaning of Life is definitely not a mainstream film. Don’t go to see it just because your favourite film stars are in it – you’ll be disappointed. When it was shown in an Italian cinema over one week, the first two reels of the movie were accidentally switched and no one noticed – attributing the result to the director’s editing style. In some American cinemas, signs were posted warning cinema goers ‘about the enigmatic and non-linear narrative of the movie – following some confused walkouts and refund demands in the opening weeks.’ (IMDB) That should give you an idea of the nature of this film. As one reviewer has described it, The Tree of Life is a ‘total sensory immersion’ film.
But if you are willing to immerse yourself in an almost unfathomable meditation that takes patience, courage, and perseverance to survive nearly 2 and a half hours of ambiguity and slow exploration, there is much to be pondered. The Meaning of Life reminded me of the book of Job in the Old Testament (the movie opens with a quote from the book) – except The Meaning of Life proffers a different answer and one which may be more satisfying to some. Near the beginning of the film, we are told that ‘there are two ways through life, the way of nature, and the way of grace, and we have to choose which way to follow’. If you dare to experience a completely different type of movie – go and see it and make up your mind which way you will choose.
'There is simply nothing like it out there: profound, idiosyncratic, complex, sincere and magical; a confirmation that cinema can aspire to art.' – Ian Nathan/Empire
'Glibly put, this challenging time-skipping rumination is the big screen equivalent of watching that "Tree" grow.' – Roger Moore/Orlando Sentinel