Dear Tree of Life,
Most art relies on empathy to create an emotional response out of an audience. We see characters who have hopes and dreams and resemble our family and friends, and we gain a connection to them that allows for us to feel for them. Empathetic reactions make us root for the underdog, make us happy when the lovers find one another again. We are not experiencing a new emotion, an evocation of our own selves, but more or less feeling something out of our shared sense of humanity.
You, however, created in me a flood of personal, solely internal emotional responses. Throughout the course of our time together you managed to make me feel not only for the characters on the screen, but also about myself. You broke into me and reached plains of understanding and knowledge that I had forgotten to remember. At one point I found myself wishing you were over, not because I didn’t want to watch you or felt that we were done, but because I wanted to have already seen you in your entirety. I wanted to compact you and experience you in a single moment, so that I wouldn’t have to wait for all of the other emotions you would instill in me.
This kind of magic, this alchemy of sight and sound, at first seems wholly unexplainable. However, over time, left to wonder about your effect on me, I think I have come to a few basic understandings as to the source of your power.
As the story of a man looking back on his childhood, your greatest asset is in your attention to the aesthetic details in both production design and cinematography. Terrence Malick, your director, and Emmanuel Lubezki, your cinematographer, have a way of looking at and appreciating the common place that turns any item into an object of wonder. Their camera views the world like a child, lingering on small details and focusing on little miracles. The world of 1950s Texas is filled with running streams, open windows and fluttering curtains. Nature and people flow together, separated by the thinnest barriers. These images, these ruminations on life and the things that fill it make one remember their own life, the way they too used to consider blades of grass and the weave of a carpet as though the universe and all its secrets were contained in there.
Your actors also prove themselves an asset. Brad Pitt, as the father, encapsulates the way of nature (fierce will, competition against all others, strict order) while Jessica Chastain is ethereal as the mother, who believes in the way of grace (kindness, universal love, acceptance and understanding). These two create a perfect collision of the two extremes of what humanity can be, and in each we see the justification for that way. There is no clear cut villain or hero, though they would appear that way from the outside. Even when the father tries to apologize to his son, the son tells him that he was not wrong.
Is that what you are about, though? The two means by which man can exist in and leave this world? Your narrative also contains messages regarding God, and His place in a world that seems cruel and unyielding. You evoke the story of Job often. Yet you also touch on themes of forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, loss, innocence. You are a story about life itself, and all things contained therein.
It makes sense then that you would devote a healthy amount of time in the course of your story to telling an abridged history of the earth. Beginning with the big bang, working your way up through the eons, you contextualize and enrich your story by placing it in its proper place amidst the whole history of the world. This family, which we care so much for, are but a part of a timeline that knows no simple beginning and sights no end. Even a pair of dinosaurs are given a moment of interaction that leaves the audience questioning the meaning behind the veil of understanding.
There is a reason that I do not like to talk openly and unsolicitedly about my religion. Though I am devote and would never deny my faith, I often find that I lack the capacity for earnestness needed to express the richness and depth of my beliefs. I cannot justify my faith because faith and religion reject the idea of justification. I feel it, I believe it, therefore it is in me. The concept of opening myself and my beliefs to inspection feels like a violation of my one true place of solitude and order. When something is truly special to you, you can’t easily define or examine it, and that makes the idea of having to do so daunting and embarrassing.
When you were over, Tree of Life, I know that this letter would be such an exercise of futility. Still, I tried my hardest, opened up the rawest part of my artistic appreciation and spiritual center in an attempt to justify my ever-deepening love for you. I hope I have done you justice.
Brian J. Roan