It is a beautiful thing that the Yukon Film Society was able to bring us “Tree of Life” through their new Available Light Cinema incarnation at the Yukon Arts Centre once a month. Even more amazing was the swiftness. Whitehorse is not known as the place where new good films come quickly–but the YFS have almost bridged the gap between us and Seattle. Tree of Life was handed the Palme D’Or in May, and we have it in September. I’d say that was pretty darn fast. It shows again on Wednesday night, Sept 14 at the Yukon Arts Centre.
The Tree of Life is many things to many people. The film doesn’t concern itself with a complicated, or even clear, narrative. It has a simple one. At the opening of the film, the death of brother/son sends the characters reeling. What follows is a montage of scenes recalled from the mind of a surviving brother, now grown up (Sean Penn) as he tries to figure out what happened to “allow” this death in God’s great scheme of things. The Tree of Life, for me, was a calling out, a plea, a requiem to God for our personal tragedies–asking many times of God, Where were you? Why did you let this person die? Was he a bad person? The film is loosely tied together with scenes from a Texas childhood–a paradise of sorts–with a scary center, a frustrated musician father (Brad Pitt) who takes out his anger, at having to put away his music, on his three boys.
There’s a lot of whispering in this movie. Be careful when you cough. You’ll miss them. Often the whispered pleas begin with “Father” or “Mother” or “You”— as the man, who speaks as the boy, tries to figure out whether he was more worthy of death than his brother.
God appears in this movie, but not as Christians typically think of him–he is a bit distant, but consistent with the book of Job. There is the other “Where were you?” to consider: the movie opens with an epigraph from Job, asking Job–in the voice of God–“where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?” And there is stunning cinematography that takes a viewer from the beginnings of creation through to the moment the son is born. Through this, the pleas and the questions cry out— “God, are you there?” plays over a volcanic planet being birthed. The magnitude of the event of creation overshadows the magnitude of the personal tragedy. It is almost as if Malick is answering for God: I was worried about much larger things.
But to make that the only statement Malick makes would be to miss his emphasis on the importance of love and forgiveness in the face of the cruelties of life and death.