“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. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries… Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. 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.”
“Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
• from The Tree of Life
It is likely you have not seen a film like Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It is a sprawling piece of magnificent impressionist art. It may also be the most thoughtful and artful portrayal of the Judeo-Christian spiritual perspective that I have ever viewed.
I’ve heard Life compared to Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, indeed, they may belong in the same category. Both tell stories with a scope that reaches back to prehistory and forward to the eschaton. In Malick’s case, he goes even further than 2001 and attempts to visualize creation and the early evolution of life itself, with a nod to dinosaurs along the way. Both films allow much space for silence and use the strains of sublime classical music to encourage contemplation. Both films build cathedrals of spectacular images that invite us to encounter transcendence.
Indeed, for The Tree of Life, Malick worked with Douglas Trumbull, who created the special effects for 2001, which were mind-blowing at the time. Forty-three years later, the ante has been raised again. The visuals in this film are truly awe-inspiring and, as in 2001, serve their purpose well. As A. O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, “The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality.”
Each film asks us to consider ultimate questions about the meaning of life. However, they do so by a different route and to a different end. 2001 is science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke was co-writer). After a glance back to the beginnings of human technology, it looks forward into a sterile environment of minimalist design, the ubiquitous hum of computers, some of which are so advanced that they “think,” and space travel to distant planets. Accompanying and confronting humankind along the way are mysterious austere black monoliths, representing a power transcending human experience and leading homo sapiens forward in the evolutionary process. 2001 is an imagination, in stark futuristic terms, of where humans as a race may going, their conflicted relationship with technology, and the mysteries that may lay beyond the distant moons of Jupiter.
The Tree of Life, on the other hand, looks back and tells the most human of stories, asking questions that arise from our own laments. The film begins with a quote from Job 38: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and whispered voiceovers swirl around impressionistic images, echoing the prayers and questions humans ask when confronted by the mysteries of life, love, and death.
Terence Malick’s ambitious meditation on these mysteries and the human search for meaning is firmly grounded in a specific time and place. If you were a boy, in particular, who grew up in post-war small town U.S.A., you will recognize and appreciate this world. I concur wholeheartedly with film critic Roger Ebert, who said after viewing The Tree of Life:
I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this. His scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness and urgent unsaid questions about the meaning of things.
In this world, which I also see in my own mind’s eye so clearly, children walk without fear down the middle of the street in tree-lined neighborhoods, on their way to and from home. Lawns are closely clipped and no fences separate neighbors’ properties. It’s a place of front porches and open windows. Few secrets exist when one can walk down the sidewalk in the evening and spy without effort on events and arguments thinly veiled by sheer curtains fluttering in the breeze. Children play outside all day long, stopping only for lunch and supper. They throw the ball and run through the endless yards that stretch from house to house. They are ever climbing trees, finding water in which to splash, wrestling and cavorting freely. They have adventures in the fields, the woods, and along the river. They catch frogs, mischievously bind them to toy rockets, and launch them skyward. Sometimes they get carried away and break a few windows.
At the dinner table, grace is said and children gather with “Father” and “Mother,” addressing them as such, speaking when spoken to. Silliness is not tolerated, and the child who does not practice self-control is dismissed and goes hungry. Father enforces this, as he does most of the rules. His job? To toughen us up and help us prepare for life in the real world, which isn’t always fair and is often cruel. (The film reveals that Mr. O’Brien himself had once had dreams of his own, now lost). Father disappears during the day and occasionally for a week at a time when that outside world demands it of him. When he returns, he brings gifts but the rules remain the rules. Mother, on the other hand, is always there, with food, a smile, a gentle way of soothing a wound or hurt feelings. She laughs and finds time to play. She pushes the swing, runs through the sprinkler, and catches butterflies on her outstretched hand. When Mother wakes the boys for school, she playfully puts ice cubes down their pajamas. Father rips off the covers; it’s all business.
Grace and nature. Nurture and structure. The songs of innocence and experience.
In The Tree of Life, the character in whose mind this world is relived is Jack (Sean Penn), oldest child of the O’Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). We know from the beginning of the film that Jack’s younger brother died at age 19. That event casts a shadow of grief and spiritual angst over the entire film. When we are introduced to Jack as an adult we can see in his eyes that he feels lost in the world. An architect or building planner of some sort, he lives in a world of steel and glass, impressive in its own right but ultimately cold and lifeless. His brother’s death has left a gaping hole in his heart, and when we hear his voice asking, “Where are you?” we know Jack is not only asking about his constant boyhood companion, but also about God.
Then comes the movie’s remarkable creation sequence, which ends with Jack himself emerging from the primordial waters and into his radiant mother’s arms as her firstborn. The story proceeds as a kaleidoscopic reverie within Jack’s own mind: brothers are born, young Jack (wonderfully played by Hunter McCracken) learns to negotiate the dance of relating with Father and Mother, and finally he comes of age and faces the complicated and confusing experiences of adult anger, a playmate’s death, the dominance he gains over his younger brother, and the stirrings of sexual awakening. A. O. Scott says it well in his review: “There are very few films I can think of that convey the changing interior weather of a child’s mind with such fidelity and sensitivity. Nor are there many that penetrate so deeply into the currents of feeling that bind and separate the members of a family.”
In the end, Jack knows he has become like his father, or at least more like him than his mother. Grace is gone. A significant scene recalling an encounter with his younger brother and a BB gun confirms that. There is also the fact that he now lives in a world of man made pinnacles and project deadlines, bound to his job just like Father.
Where has grace gone? Has nature swallowed it whole? Does the move from innocence to experience mean the loss of grace forever? Are we humans condemned to completely forfeit the Eden so beautifully portrayed in this film the wonder of creation that leaves us breathless, the continual refreshing and renewal of heaven’s waters birthing and sustaining us, raining down on us, flowing over us, the carefree exuberance of childhood, the angelic beauty of Mother’s face?
The Tree of Life suggests not. For the film ends where life began, on a beach at the shore of the great ocean. Here parents and children, brothers and sisters walk the sand, find their lost loved ones, and are reunited in a world to come, where the waters give birth to a new creation. Grace wins.
Like all great art, explanations and descriptions pale in comparison with experiencing The Tree of Life and allowing it to affect you. It tells the simplest of stories: a common, personal boy’s tale. However, one might feel like Jacob after viewing it: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” Or like Job, who was overwhelmed and shut his mouth.
In the theater where we watched The Tree of Life, there was total silence as the credits began to roll. That said as much to me about the power of this film as anything.