There seem to be two basic types of emotional movies. The first allow you feel basic human emotions: happy, sad, compassion, anger, fear. I would say the bulk of movies made utilize these emotions, or are based upon a premise connecting with one or many of these emotions. The second allow you to feel something below the surface that does not necessarily have a name. We might attribute abstract contextual labels to these feelings, such as longing, or uncertainty, or hopefulness, or angst. We might not be able to easily describe how we felt, even if it deeply connected within.
Tree of Life is not tremendously quotable. Its not easy to follow. And though stunningly beautiful, almost in a hallucinatory sense, it is not easily captured by the senses. Much of what is important is said in barely audible whispers, in between vaguely related images and scenes. There is no easily recognizable climax. The meaning is buried beneath layers of feeling and understanding.
From what I understood (rather than directly experienced), Tree of Life is about, well, life. It carries two narratives. The first is explained through the depiction of the creation of the universe, the solar system, and then eventually its destruction with a supernova of the sun and the universe becoming a wave of beautiful movement or potential again. The second narrative is about human life, centered on family and their three boys living in Texas in the 1950’s. The story primarily focuses on Jack, the older brother, and R.L., the middle child, and their relationship to each other, their parents, and the world around them. But it is mostly focused on Jack, and his internal struggles and awareness, his internal monologue becoming almost a soundtrack throughout the film.
The movie opens and leads you to think the story will be about loss, as the parents receive word that their 19 year old son, R.L., has died. Though we are not told how, we can assume it was in Vietnam. The story flashes to the present day, to a grown up Jack, as he struggles to feel the presence of his deceased younger brother. He struggles to place him in space and time, as he recollects about their lives and moments he could not have known that span his early life and prehistory. His brother is out there. Not in a corporeal sense, but out there, somewhere barely perceivable.
And this is where we find the real story. He struggles to find him in time; in this little bleep of an existence we have in relation to the vast history of the universe. Our lifetime is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But rather than take a nihilistic approach to this concept, the life we have with those we love so deeply and profoundly becomes so meaningful it is somehow more to us than the universe as a whole.
The story touches on wonderful themes such as the death of innocence (an illusion to the Biblical decision taken in Eden between the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). In a very touching scene I can very much connect to, Jack as a child does something wrong, and then another, and then another. But in these actions he feels such sadness and despair, asking at one point “how can I go back to where they are”, meaning the innocent state of his younger siblings. The story moves us into themes of forgiveness, compassion (in both a dinosaur and humans), acceptance, and love.
Throughout the movie you feel more than you experience. I found my self connecting with the sons to such a point that I left the theater wanting to call my parents and tell them I loved them. You experience the difficultly of being a parent and balancing your own insufficiencies and fears with the raising of your children, struggling to understand what you will impart upon them of yourself and of what you wished you were.
I loved the movie despite my feeling so desperately unsure about my life after it was over. It was as if a wave of existential crises rushed over me upon leaving the theater. I spoke to my wife in hushed tones, afraid to break the silence. I began to picture my life within the grand scheme of the universe, feeling that at 31, I’m most likely only years from halfway through my life. But as pictured by the director, my short, little existence might be nothing in comparison with the immensity of time and space, but that nothingness is everything to me.