The Tree of Life
By david roark
June 3, 2011
Terrence Malick’s fifth magnum opus, The Tree of Life, has brought sheer confusion to the critical world. Roger Ebert refers to it as a “prayer,” but goes on to clarify, “Not a prayer to anything or anyone,” dismissing the presence of God. Dana Stevens of Slate concludes that Malick favors neither God nor science, forcing in her own postmodern reading. A whole slew of critics, including A.O. Scott, continue to offer mixed comments on the philosophical questions the film supposedly ponders. Everyone appears to be utterly perplexed by Malick’s creation.
Not to in any way undermine the film’s substantial beauty and depth, nor the genius of Malick, but I honestly don’t believe it to be all that puzzling. Sure, Malick’s approach may be unorthodox, and words hardly express the visual experience of watching it, but what The Tree of Life says to us seems undeniably clear.
The film, mostly set in 1950s Texas, opens with parts of Job 38: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world … when the morning stars came together?” This passage sets up the film when the following scenes move from a mourning family to a creation scene that literally shows the Creator laying the foundations of the world. The intuitive, captivating sequence, which bests Kubrick’s godless origins story in 2001: A Space Odyssey, stands in contrast to previous scenes of a mother—an angelic Jessica Chastain playing Mrs. O’Brien—questioning God about her son’s death. It suggests the tininess of humankind in relation to the sovereign, almighty God.
This theological concept of pain and suffering appears throughout The Tree of Life. Of course, the subject isn’t anything new for Malick. He examined it to some degree in The Thin Red Line, but whereas in that film he mainly asked questions surrounding the theme, here he answers them. In response to Mrs. O'Brien’s difficult loss, a close friend reminds her that the Lord both gives and takes away. There’s also the constant notion that God knows best, and His ways are so far above ours—that we can trust Him.
That said, Malick seems to be concerned with something bigger than human suffering. He goes even further than that, looking at why it exists, why things are so messed up, why humans are bent toward evil.
He juxtaposes the idea through the personal experiences of his young protagonist, Jack, played convincingly by Hunter McCracken and later played as an adult by Sean Penn. The oldest of three sons, Jack finds that he can’t help but lead a life of pride and rebellion. He hates his strict father (Brad Pitt at his best) and wishes he would die. In one scene, he fantasizes murdering him. Though Jack certainly loves his brothers and mother, there’s something terribly wrong with him. He wants to “be good,” but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t. Jack is a character we can all so easily relate to.
The Tree of Life calls Jack’s state “the way of nature,” essentially describing fallen man. Pitt’s character obviously symbolizes this state of being. He is proud and selfish, reliant on his own efforts and will. In contrast is “the way of grace,” which Chastain symbolizes. She isn’t by any means inhuman, but she possesses a certain selflessness, the ability to truly love and forgive. Her behavior almost always seems purely motivated.
Through addressing the problem of pain—the way of nature, or human depravity, which follows creation—and eventually addressing the only thing humankind can hope in, Malick really makes clear what he is doing: He is preaching the Gospel, and it’s through a Gospel lens that the film makes complete sense.
Covering creation, fall and redemption, The Tree of Life beautifully and imaginatively tells the greatest story ever told, the best news in the world. When this overt message comes to the screen in a sequence that takes place in a church, I’m not sure how anyone can’t see it. I’m not sure how it can be taken any other way. During a sermon, again from the book of Job, Jack listens to the preacher discuss how the righteous are not absent from pain and suffering and how God uses it as a means to reveal and draw us to Himself. But even more, he goes onto to say we will only have one way to understand our circumstances and one thing to put our hope in. In that moment, the young Jack looks at a stained glass portrait of Jesus.
Malick doesn’t stop there. Though each O’Brien at some point experiences individual redemption, the family collectively experiences an even greater redemption. They arrive at a place without pain and suffering, where love and grace triumph, where all things are good, where creation has returned to its original state—where we find the Tree of Life.