Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a lyrical masterpiece. It is also the most audacious meditation on grace, suffering and human nature that I have seen on film. The sweep of ideas and the sincerity and honesty with which Malick presents the redemptive power of love, would, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, come off as pretentious and self-absorbed (as many critics have accused Malick of being). But far from “pretentious and self-absorbed,” I found Malick’s film to be heartfelt, thoughtful, humble, and true. This is art, and high art at that.
The story begins with a passage from Job, a signal that we will be grappling with some profound issues here: namely, unbearable suffering and a crisis of faith. And sure enough, it doesn’t take long for us to learn that a young man has died–a beloved son and brother. We are never told how, but it is the why that matters here.
The first scene sets up what amounts to the film’s central problem: how are we to find grace in a world in which there is so much intense pain, suffering, and selfishness? This is presented to us in a whispered voiceover from the mother (played by a beatific Jessica Chastain):
“The nuns taught us that there are two ways through Life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. It accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, and others to please it too. It likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, and love is smiling through all things.”
At the end of this meditation we are shown a brief image of the young son whose death will bring such grief to the mother who has spoken those words. Her theology will be put to the test.
In Malick’s story the mother is grace, and the father (played wonderfully by Brad Pitt) is nature. As the film unfolds we will often see the two in conflict. But whenever there is true beauty they act in harmony–shown in tender moments between father and son, mother and father, and in nature itself.
Malick’s reflection on this theme is built on the story of Job, the righteous man who had it all, but lost it in a test of faith. Job’s plea to God, “Why?” “Where were you?” echoes throughout the film.
God never answers Job directly. He never tells him about the high stakes game he has been playing with Satan (or the “adversary,” depending on your text). Instead, God describes to Job a litany of all the things he has created, even things that Job has never seen. God’s description of them has the effect of overwhelming Job with His power.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? …When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job, chapter 38:4, 7)
In a popular reading of this passage, God is telling Job, “Buck up. You cannot possibly understand what Life is. You are merely human and I am God.” But Malick complicates this interpretation with his own astonishingly beautiful depiction of the creation. The imagery in this now famous, or infamous (depending on your point of view), twenty-minute section of the film, is stunning. We see powerful explosions of galactic gasses, breathtaking blue and orange supernovas, magnificent bursts of glowing lava–all in their own way both powerful and graceful. In what will likely become one of the film’s iconic scenes, there is even a brief expression of grace in an encounter between two dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs), when one puts its foot on the neck of another, but for some reason decides to let it go. I had a deep sense of humility while watching these scenes, and it made me realize that Malick wasn’t choosing grace over nature (or vice versa), but rather presenting grace as a healing power, a redemptive complement to nature’s will.
Then, in a remarkable jolt of time consciousness, we are led from the sublime creation of the natural world back to the family. Life asserts itself anew with the birth of the family’s first son, Jack (this is all taking place sometime in the 1950s). By this point the adult Jack has already been introduced to us as a deeply depressed middle-aged architect (played by Sean Penn) who is still grieving over the death of his brother. He wanders distractedly amidst the cold, steel and glass structures of his adult world. The lifelessness of the buildings and the sadness in his eyes stand in stark contrast to the pure wonderment, astonishment, and glow of life we see beaming through him as an innocent baby.
In these childhood scenes Malick creates a wonderful sense of the kind of Eden Jack’s early life was. He offers several beautiful images of his mother just sitting with him in the shade on the cool grass, sunlight shining all around them. We see her lovingly tend to a wound on his foot, and patiently teach him how to name things. To me, the most beautiful scene of all occurs when the mother spins around, carefree, with her son in her arms, around and around in the pure light of motherhood. This is love. And we know at this point that Jack had it.
But Malick, being Malick, is operating on multiple levels here. On the one hand, he has suggested through the scenes of the creation of the natural world that human beings are merely a brief moment in an incomprehensibly vast cosmos. But on the other hand, with the birth of Jack and the creation of a young family we see the manifestation of all of those same forces within us. It is as if each human being somehow encapsulates the entire creation. We are nature, and we are grace.
Here Malick reads the mind of God, you might say, and takes the story of Job beyond the tale of a righteous man whose suffering leads him to the limits of his knowledge (and ultimately to God’s unquestionable power and authority). In Malick’s hands, God’s speech to Job leads us to a deeper understanding of what we all carry within us–the great powers of Life. In this sense, the book of Job is not only about suffering, but also grace (whether Malick intends this in the tradition of medieval Christian foreshadowing, or something else, I’m not exactly sure).
Perhaps this is the point of the title of the film. In Genesis, because we have eaten from the tree of knowledge we are cast out of the Garden, and thereafter denied access to the tree of life. The tree of knowledge bears the fruit of an ethical world, the human world. God says, o.k. since you’ve made the choice to disobey me, you must now live according to the decisions you make, and by the way, nothing will be handed to you anymore. Thus cast into an ethical world (you can call it free will, or whatever…), we must choose how we live, and our choices have consequences. What Malick seems to be saying is that even if we choose the way of grace we must also embrace the way of nature. This is likely the reason why the mother, upon receiving the news of her son’s death, almost instinctively runs into the woods to grieve. But in the end, it is love–whether through God’s grace, the love of a mother for a child, or even the father’s tough love–that shines through Life and makes all things bearable.
This is something that the adult Jack has not yet accepted. In him we see a deep internal struggle between the way of nature, as taught to him by his father, and the way of grace, as taught to him by his mother. In the adult Jack, the balance is tipped heavily in the favor of nature. But something about that as a way of life makes it untenable, and casts Jack into the deep spiritual crisis that constitutes the beating heart of the film. In the beginning we see that he has the trappings of success, something his father always strived for but never thought he had attained (despite having the light of a beautiful family shining all around him). But Jack’s modern house is cold and empty. It is sparsely furnished, with no art, and no children. His sympathetic wife seems to be aware of this when she cuts some flowers to bring inside, but aside from Jack and his wife, the flowers are the only living things in the house. It is an empty existence.
Yet all around him, wherever he goes, at home or at work, we see light shining, or trying to shine, through the huge windows of steel framed structures. At one point, as he is gazing through the window of his office, Jack sees a tree, which jolts his memory back to the time that he planted one with his dad. The visual poetry is breath-taking. All of these childhood scenes play on the ironic distance in Jack’s mind between the lifeless, self-imposed enclosure which he thinks is the way of Life, and the nurturing grace found in nature, which is the real life.
Despite all of his efforts to defend himself from the dog eat dog world that his father taught him, Jack cannot keep out the light of Life that is shining on him. But he just doesn’t see it yet.
Malick edits the memory sequences tightly, but as fast as they fly by we somehow never lose the forest for the trees. I have to say their emotional impact took me by surprise. In isolation, each moment seems so simple–the kind of thing we don’t stop to think about, and probably don’t think is all that important as it happens. We see a carefree Jack rolling in the tall grass with his brothers, climbing trees, and thumping a tire with a stick for no good reason. There is no way to describe how powerful an effect these moments have on the viewer–you just have to see it to believe it. Somehow, Malick has figured out a way to play with time just as memory does, allowing the moments that shape us to freeze in consciousness just as they do in our actual thoughts. The effect is a remarkably powerful sense of having both lived the events (or at least having identified deeply with them) and having just seen them flash by in an instant. A friend of mine pointed out that these scenes reveal the difference between life as experienced and life as reflected upon–which is exactly why I think we achieve so much empathy with Jack. We really understand what he has lost. All of this love, so intense and moving, just flies by so quickly.
Not all of the childhood flashbacks are joyful. There is a drowning, there are moments of verbal and psychological abuse from an overbearing father (nature), and there is Jack’s painful recognition that his little brother, who smiles so sweetly and seems so indifferent to his father’s tirades, is the one most like his mother (and as a musician, the one his father secretly longs to be). And the final insult comes when the father loses his job, which forces the family to move from the home where all of these memories were created. But as a coda to this era in Jack’s life, Malick offers us a beautiful little ceremony where Jack’s little brother buries a pet fish in the back yard (my own son did this, making this scene particularly moving to me). As he pours dirt over its grave, the last act of grace in the old house, we hear Jack’s mother say in a voice-over, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
We are then ripped back across time to the present, where we are re-introduced to the adult Jack. We sense now that he has just experienced the human version of the tour of the creation that occurred near the beginning of the film. But at this point Malick begins preparing us for Jack’s rebirth. We hear a fragment of a cell phone conversation between Jack and his father, with Jack apologizing for something he has said to him. The words, “I’m sorry Dad” are practically the only thing we actually hear the adult Jack say. Malick then switches to the interior space of Jack’s mind, and shows him once again wandering across the desert. This time he encounters a doorway–just a frame supported by heavy stones and surrounded by desert. One gets the impression that he has a choice about whether or not to pass through it. He chooses to walk through, and as he does so he is transported to the shores of eternity, where he encounters his family, including himself, looking exactly as they did during his childhood. His father smiles and lays his hand gently on the adult Jack’s shoulder, just as he had done in his more tender moments when Jack was a boy. And when Jack’s mother sees him, her face lights up and she hugs him tightly. We see tears streaming down her cheeks. Without saying anything to each other, the family walks together on the beach for a few moments. This is a moment of reconciliation–a passage into acceptance. There is no hint of sadness, grief, or resentment on their faces. Everyone is content.
Then Jack’s mother and father escort his younger brother (the one who died, but here in his eternally childlike state) through the doorway of a building that looks like a church (but I can’t tell for sure–it may be a home). Here they will send him off into a vast expanse of brightly lit white sand. But before doing so his mother strokes his cheeks, and the two look at each other one last time. Again, there is no sadness or despair–only acceptance. The mother, now flanked by two angelic looking women, and supported by a beautiful, ascending musical score, raises her hands to the sky and releases a bright light, saying, “I give you my son. I give him to you.” As the music achieves a crescendo the audience experiences a dramatic release. An enormous burden has been lifted.
Flash from the eternal to the present–an elevator descends, and through its large windows (yes, even the elevator has windows) we see tall steel buildings and a concrete parking garage. This is Jack’s adult world. In another crash edit Jack suddenly appears outside the buildings (for the first time), and looks at his surroundings. He seems surprised by them, as if they are new. Then, as his gaze follows the walls of a steel skyscraper upward toward the sky itself, we see the light above it all, shining through it all. A little smile forms on Jack’s weathered face. The film ends with a quick transition from the light above the building to an image of reflected sunlight on an expanse of water beneath a long bridge.
Several critics have been dissatisfied with this ending–not enough closure, or too ambiguous for them I guess. Even Sean Penn has said that he wasn’t exactly sure, or even informed by Malick, what his character was doing there. But if we consider the larger themes of the film, including the mother’s repeated statements about love shining all around, and nature wanting to be unhappy even “when all the world is shining around it,” it is pretty clear that Penn’s character has had an epiphany. He has finally accepted the light all around him and has found grace. In doing so, he has also reconciled the conflict between himself and his father, his father and his mother, and most importantly, between himself and God over the loss of his brother.
The film is not told in a traditional narrative form, and is therefore not an easy movie for some people to follow. But the effort it takes to unpack the symbols, the visual poetry, is infinitely rewarding. It is a deeply spiritual film, and I have read that Malick is a Christian (I should note, however, that the level of his commitment to Christianity is unclear–like so many other things about the man), but he also has a serious background in philosophy, having studied with Stanley Cavell at Harvard. He even published a translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons. For these reasons I see this film as a modern version of the old medieval contemplative tradition of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. One could only imagine what those two might have produced if they had been exposed, as Malick has, to Heidegger and William James.
I think it is perfectly fair to critique the theology here, but to call this film a “mess,” as some critics have, is an admission that the critic hasn’t really been paying attention. Malick does not insult our intelligence by explaining things. He is a poet. Poetry is the intentional use of the ambiguous and polysemic power of symbols to activate our minds toward understanding something in a new way. The best poetry shakes our consciousness, disturbs it, and forces it to play with new possibilities of being. In this regard, “The Tree of Life” is a resounding success.
That this film did not win Best Picture at the Academy Awards is probably for the best. When it was nominated, a friend of mine who reviews movies for a local paper said, “This is kind of weird. Like a Mahler symphony up for a Grammy against Adele. I like both of them in a way, but they’re not really in the same ballpark. It’s unbecoming.”