That’s a brief, inadequate, back-of-the-DVD-box summary of the film. What cannot be so easily summarized is the way in which Tree of Life vibrated on the same frequency as the invisible organ inside of me, the one stamped with eternity. The film opens with a passage from The Book of Job, and the narration throughout is packed with echoes of scripture—particularly scriptures wherein man cries out to God in confusion, sorrow, and anger. “Where were you when I needed you?” “We ask God to send healing for our wounds, and instead he sends flies.” “I can’t do what I want to do, and I do what I hate.” A young father strives after the wind of fortune and success, and starts to lose his family in the bargain. A mother is drawn and quartered between devotion to her husband and the affection of her sons. A boy is suffocated under the weight of his father’s authoritative cruelty, and embarks down the path of sin—against his own desires—to escape.
In other words: life happens. Life in all its mess, confusion, heartbreak, and glory. We chase after that which promises us happiness, and trample the only things—the only people—that really matter. Sometimes we lose those people before we had the chance to beg forgiveness, to tell them that our life was empty without them. And yet there remains the chance for release, for redemption. To let go of the weights and scars we drag from the past, and cross the bridge to something more beautiful—back into eternity.
The Tree of Life so exquisitely captures the evasive lightning of what it feels like to be a child. To grow up, to meet baby brothers, to run in circles on the front lawn at sunset. To love parents, yet also fear them. To discover death for the first time, to discover hatred for the first time. To timidly cross the Rubicon of sin and selfishness, and feel hopelessly unable to return to innocence. To stare into the heavens, looking for God, and finding nothing but silence. And then to discover God hiding in the tiny feet of a baby, in the marvel of white clouds pluming out of an oceanic sky. To find God in the people you took for granted, in the simple pleasures of family, in the room next door.
Perhaps it’s because I’m one of three brothers, or because I was homeschooled (and thus spent most of my growing up years with my family)—but The Tree of Life felt like a portrait of my early memories. I recognized the toy trucks; I remember sticking a flashlight in my mouth to see my cheeks glow red in the darkness; I remember the accompanying shame of first giving in to my selfish appetites; I remember hurting my favorite people. The film’s style is like going back to birth and running through disparate and half-remembered memories—which, to me, makes it much more profound than a standard plot. However it did it, Tree of Life bypassed my “movie brain,” and went straight for my spiritual jugular. To the place of memories and dreams, of guilt and joy. It spoke to my very core, where eternity and the things I love deepest are buried and—too often—forgotten. It made me remember the best and most important pieces of my life—and it taught me never to forget them.