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Good Letters

As the barista took my ATM card, she noticed my notebook and asked, “What are you writing?”

“A movie review.”

“Oh, really? What movie?” She scribbled my coffee order on a strip of paper and gave it to her coworker.

“The Tree of Life.”

“I haven’t heard of that. Who’s in it?”

“Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, and an actress named Jessica Chastain.”

“Sean Penn and Brad Pitt,” she said. “Wow. It must be really good.”

I clenched my teeth, dreading the inevitable question.

“Did you like it?”

Well, crap.

It would have been so much easier if she’d been asking about Kung Fu Panda 2 or Midnight in Paris. But how does anybody sum up The Tree of Life?

As the barista blinked, I tried to find an alternative to the emotional outbursts I’ve been reading about this movie: “Awe-inspiring!” “A masterpiece!” “The reason that cinema exists!” “A film for the soul!” “Ponderous.” “Pretentious.” “Sentimental!” “Kitschy.” “Boring.” “Intolerable.”

Great art films challenge each moviegoer to interpret what they’re seeing. Those interpretations often tell us more about the interpreter than they do about the films in question.

Many critics are still wrestling Terrence Malick’s earlier films, groping for ways to describe their experiences. Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World—none of them are simple entertainment. Those who require conventional narrative are often bored, but others inclined toward poetry often describe overwhelming emotional experiences. “You just have to feel them,” they say.

It’s true that our emotional responses are an important, and often undervalued, part of the artistic experience. But feelings are untrustworthy and fleeting. There’s more to a feast than how it makes us feel. I’ve learned that the post-viewing discussion—a process of criticism and discernment—can increase the joys and rewards of moviegoing beyond measure.

It took Terrence Malick more than three decades to prepare The Tree of Life for us, and it shows. It’s his most challenging work yet. (I say “yet” because his next film is rumored to be quite abstract.) It deserves rigorous critical analysis and multiple viewings.

And that takes time.

“Did you like it?”

As the barista asked me to sign a curling ATM slip, I cautiously answered: “Well… it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about a man who is burdened by grief and confusion. He calls out to God. Like Job in the Bible.”

Her eyes widened in surprise.

But I wasn’t exaggerating. The movie begins with an excerpt from the Old Testament. Job has just demanded an explanation for his sufferings. God answers—and I’m paraphrasing—“Look, Mister, I made the universe—from stars to jellyfish. Everything. The music of the spheres—ever heard of it? I composed that music. How dare you talk to me like this?”

Then we meet Jack O’Brien.

Jack is an architect living in a grid-like kingdom of metal and glass. He’s haunted by a lifetime of brokenness, caught between forces his mother called “nature” and “grace.”

That is to say, he has one foot on the path of fear and selfishness, and the other on the path of love. Sifting through memories of his childhood, he’s searching for consolation. His mother was an angel of tenderness, but his father ran the family the way a drill sergeant runs a platoon.

(As a boy, Jack is played by a remarkable boy named Hunter McCracken, who looks just like a boy growing up in small-town Texas in the 1950s. The adult Jack is played by Sean Penn at his most morose, the furrows in his brow so deep that I think he might keep his Best Actor Oscar in one of them.)

“God answers Jack,” I told the barista, “with a vision of the creation of the universe. The birth of stars. The origins of life. The rise of the dinosaurs.”

I think she actually took a step back from the counter at this point.

“It carries us all the way to the daily life of the troubled man’s own family. It’s really beautiful.”

She glanced over my shoulder at another customer, a hint of apology in her expression.

“Did you see The New World? The film about Pocahontas?” I fumbled for magic words to persuade her. “OrDays of Heaven? With Richard Gere?” As I stepped aside, I concluded, “Just…go see it. Take some friends. Be sure you have time to talk about it afterwards.”

I sounded ridiculous, I know.

But if a picture’s worth a thousand words, I could write a book on the river of vivid images that flow through The Tree of Life. These pictures talk to one another. They reflect, open up, contradict, and raise questions about each other. Malick began as a storyteller with a flair for the poetic; now he’s more like an artist guiding us through an exhibition that he painted in a fever of inspiration, and the paint on his canvases is still wet.

Writing about this film, I’m tempted to steal a line from a New York Times book review for Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale: “I find myself nervous…about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance.”

And yet…while my first encounter with The New World left me with tears of joy on my face, knowing I’d just fallen in love for a lifetime, I don’t have that feeling about The Tree of Life.

Not yet, anyway.

I’m reluctant to describe my frustrations. I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing what many will say is 2011’s most important film. But some of the euphoric praise I’ve read seems a bit hysterical.

So I feel compelled to share why The Tree of Life was, for me, something less than a stairway to heaven…keeping in mind that my relationship with this movie has only just begun.

Tomorrow: The Tree of Life, Part 2

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has been recognized for his writing on cinema in The New Yorker, Time, The Seattle Times, and Image, and spent an award-winning decade as film reviewer for Christianity Today. Overstreet writes fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism. He is an international public speaker and teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith, including a term as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College in Georgia. Random House’s WaterBrook Press has published four of his novels including Auralia’s Colors. Through a Screen Darkly, his “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” is available from Baker Books. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the poet Anne M. Doe Overstreet, and serves as contributing editor to Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he works as a Communications Specialist. He is currently writing two novels, a book about film, and is enrolled in SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He blogs at Looking Closer.

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