Antonella and I watched Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life (2011) a month or so ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. Whatever you make of the craziness of the creation of the universe narrative interludes or the abstracted narrative structure, this film is a work of art of the highest magnitude. Like another great modernist Franz Kafka who could project dreams in his fragmented novels, Malik can project the impossible essence of memory on film. The way in which he captures the life of a family in Waco, Texas with only the dramatic arc of the wonder and dread that is everywhere around us always is wild. Innumerable times during the middle of this film I found Malik had again and again tapped into this sense of experience and memory that I thought was my own—a deep, respectful sense of the flawed beauty of the human condition. There are so many scenes I can point to that illustrate this, but one which continues to haunt and buoy me at once is the following scene where a child drowns in a water hole while a whole community helplessly looks on. A possibility that haunts every parent to the bone comes true in this scene—and the setting is gorgeous, the camera watches the commotion in the swimming hole from behind the parents, and the scene gets burned on your sensibility.
I’m really not sure if this film worked on me so deeply because of where I find myself in my life—40 years old, three kids, doing as much damage as good I am sure—or because it works in the world of memory sans nostalgia. A space of being there that pretends to neither idealism nor desolation, a sense of being in the past with emotion, depth, and difficulty. In this regard the oldest son, Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) was superb as was Mr an Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain respectively). The father-son relationship in this film ran deep for me, a haven’t felt as fragile as a parent after watching this since the night Miles was born. That’s the effect you want a film to have, when the emotional and spiritual psyche gets blown away you know something is happening there.