I was chatting withe a friend today who had seen my recent posts about The Tree of Life being my favorite film so far this decade (Arrival being a close second). She asked me for some specifics about what I like the film so much and what about the movie draws me in so much. I responded, and then thought I might as well share there here as well. I've edited and expanded slightly to help clarify some things. Anywhere, here goes ...
I find The Tree of Life to be an immersive cinematic experience that is hard to come by in most films. I tend to look at stories through the interpretive lens that sees stories as an attempt to present a microcosm of life, a smaller version of our world we might actually stand a chance to wrap our minds around. In that sense, ToL is as expansive of a microcosm as I think cinema can achieve. It grapples with some fundamental existential questions humanity faces when contemplating our place in this vast universe and dealing with the pain and cruelty of our lives that are so often driven by the need for survival. How does grace and survival interact (the dinosaurs in the stream, for example)?
But more than merely touching on these things, ToL is a profoundly spiritual meditation on all of this. Listen carefully to the narrators of the film. Who are they addressing? I relate to their wonder, their questions, their longings, as I often speak this way as well in the privacy of my silent prayers. The beach scenes offer up a visual metaphor for the notion of standing on the shores of eternity and rediscovering each other in a new light where waves of long lost context and perspective rush up and greet us anew, giving us the grace (maybe even for the first time the true ability) to see each other as never before. So, for personal reasons I love it.
I love The Three of Life also as a work of cinema that uses cinematography, music, and editing in powerful (and counter cultural) ways to craft a meditative-immersive-emotive experience that engages the conscious and subconscious minds, it is in some important sense the embodiment of cinema as it was intended to be. Many film historians suggest that if "talkies" hadn't arrived when they did, cinema would have evolved into a far more visual/emotive medium than it has been in our dialogue-driven movies. In this way, all of Terrence Malick's films offer a glimpse of what might have been. ToL is something he'd been working on for some time, and the thoughtfulness of the film shines through in how it targets the subconscious mind. It's the kind of film that requires a certain setting a side of common movie expectations. It's best to simply allow ToL to wash over you and then meditate on the experience of it for days after.