Experiencing "The Tree of Life" as a father

August 27, 2011

At times, I think it’s all too tempting to approach The Tree of Life as a primarily esoteric or philosophical exercise. Of course, Terrence Malick doesn’t do much to dissuade that sort of approach, thanks to his existential dialog, non-linear narrative, and abstract-yet-beautiful scenery. As a result, it’s easy to approach Malick’s movie as if it’s the epitome of the ivory tower, i.e., something to appreciate and contemplate from a remote and respectful distance, to pontificate and philosophize over because it’s, you know, ART.

That was not my experience watching The Tree of Life, though I expected it to be so. Put simply, I was not prepared for how much the film would destroy me as a father. Perhaps “destroy” is too strong a word, but the anger and frustration that I had expressed towards my oldest son earlier in the week was still fresh in my mind as I sat there in the theatre — anger that I saw magnified and enlarged on the screen before me. And suffice to say, I was left a little shaken. The first thing I wanted to do when the movie was over was rush home and hug my children.

So much of The Tree of Life is about how parents, and fathers in particular, shape their children, and how their children observe and see them, and how that affects them later in life. My oldest son is still quite young, but how have I shaped him already? What sort of world have I been preparing him for, a world marked by the way of nature or a world exemplified by grace (to use the film’s core dichotomy)? What values, good or bad, have I already planted within his little soul? Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, what will be his earliest memories of me? How will I loom in his subconscious? Which of his own character flaws and strengths will he trace back to me?

These questions came rushing at me during and after the screening, so much so that when I ran into some friends in the lobby who were there to see the screening after mine, I found it hard to talk without getting choked up. Suffice to say, The Tree of Life was not merely a “philosophical” experience for me, though it certainly had plenty to philosophize about. Rather, it was primarily a searing, deeply emotional experience that struck at the core of my father-ness, and for that alone, I am quite thankful to Malick for the film.