Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth. When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — Job 38:47, shown at the opening of “The Tree of Life”
Mother, brother – it was they that led me to Your door. — Addressed to God, the first spoken words in “The Tree of Life.”
I’ll start by saying this post is in no way a recommendation to watch “The Tree of Life.” If you watch it and don’t like it, don’t write me complaining you’ll never get those 2 hours back. It’s not a film for everyone. Just read the buyer reviews on Amazon to see how strong (and varied) the opinions are.
But I want to try to express why it moved me so much, and also to explore some of the theological themes that run through the film.
What stays with me are the images of this intensely spiritual movie. It is simply the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen – Director Terrence Malick worked with Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to paint a light-infused visual symphony. As one critic wrote, you can pause the movie at any point and blow up the frame and hang it on your wall. (Lubezki was the cinematographer of the only other film I’ve seen that blew me away as powerfully as “The Tree of Life” with its camerawork – “Children of Men”).
“The Tree of Life” has engendered strong reactions from film critics – some love it, and some loath it. When it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it was enthusiastically applauded and lustily booed (it ended up winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, so I guess the applauders won out).
At the matinée I attended, as the end credits began the loudest sound in the theater was the exasperated sigh of a patron who apparently wanted to share her joy that the whole thing was over. Several people had walked out earlier.
It is a film that requires a lot of its audience. There is no linear “plot” and it jumps all over the place in time – all the way back to the Beginning (as in the Big Bang or “In the Beginning” as in Genesis 1:1 – or both, more about that later). There is very little dialogue in the traditional sense – most of what is spoken is whispered in voiceover as inner thoughts and prayers. It’s “only” 2 hours and eighteen minutes long (the first cut was reportedly 8 hours – how big a sigh would that have inspired from that woman?), but if you get into it there’s a sense of timelessness. When I emerged from the theater, not only did I have the usual matinée bright-daylight shock, but I was also kind of surprised it was still the same day.
Lots of discussion I overheard on the way out centered on “But what did it mean?”
But that’s the wrong question. Art is not about the meaning, or about one meaning. That’s especially true of Impressionist art – what do Monet’s paintings of water lilies mean? I’m not saying that Malick is Monet, but there is no question that this film is very impressionistic. The way he and Lubezki use light (especially Malick’s favorite image – sunlight streaming down through tree limbs) is reminiscent of impressionist paintings.
The “right” question then is not about meaning – the proper query is “What does it evoke?” No one answer – and no one’s answer – is going to be definitive. What it evokes is going to depend in large part on what the viewer brings to it.
So I guess it’s no surprise that for me the core of the film is not what most critics say it is. In the numerous reviews I’ve read online, those who praise and those who pan seem to agree that the “theme” of the film has to do with one of the first things we hear the mother character – “Mrs. O’Brien”- say:
There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow. . Grace doesn’t please itself. It accepts slights, insults, and injuries. Nature likes to have its own way, to lord it over.
Great stuff, and it is certainly one of the themes developed in the film. The central part of the movie is about a family in Texas during the late 50’s. “Mr. O’Brien,” played by Brad Pitt, is the “nature” part of the equation. He wants to impart toughness to his three sons. He believes the world is a battlefield where most folks get ahead by trickery. He is balanced by the “grace” of his wife, who tells the boys, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”
One of the wonderful things about this film is that it doesn’t simplistically laud the superiority of grace. Although there is cruelty in some of what Mr. O’Brien does to toughen his sons, he is shown loving them (and at one point in the movie apologizing to them).
In fact, the film seems to make an argument that both grace and nature are valuable. Although the boys and their mother are relieved when Mr. O’Brien leaves for a lengthy business trip, all hell breaks loose when he is gone. The oldest boy, Jack, gives in to (sinful) nature and begins a destructive run with a gang (in the 50’s suburban sense) of other boys.
I couldn’t help but see the nature vs. grace conflict through the Lutheran Lens of Law vs. Gospel. Both are essential. Without the Gospel, the law is only a burden, and you can’t comprehend the need for the Gospel without the law. Although the O’Briens are very clearly Roman Catholic, I will make the bold statement that Terrence Malick has made a very Lutheran film (Luther did say to “Sin boldly!).
When his father returns from the business trip, Jack asserts, “I’m more like you then her.” But we hear his unspoken struggle in another voiceover, “Mother, father, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
Early in the film we meet the adult Jack (Sean Penn in a role in which he mostly gets to brood) who is still undergoing that internal wrestling. But that struggle between nature and grace within Jack is only a battle, not the war. The real war – the real center of the film – is the question we hear Jack ask God near the beginning of the film, “When did you first touch my heart?”
Jack’s existential crisis is the true heart of the film. The crisis is the culmination of Jack’s disconnection with God. At least that’s how I saw the film, and as I said above that may have resonated with me more deeply because of what I brought to it – my own history of spiritual disconnection and reconnection. I was a self-identified atheist or agnostic (depending on how bold I was feeling) from the time I went away to college until I was about 33. I saw my story of moving away from faith and then God drawing me back in spite of all my questions in Jack’s journey in the film.
Jack’s break with God was finalized when his brother died at 19 years of age. (One of the weaknesses of the film is that it’s never clear which of his two brothers died, at least to me.) We never find out how he died – the news is brought by a telegram and it’s during the Vietnam Era, so I guess we are meant to assume he was a casualty of that war. That’s what I assumed, anyway.
Not only is this death a crisis for Jack’s relationship with God, it also shakes the foundations of Mrs. O’Brien’s faith. After she gets news of her son’s death, we hear her pray, “Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?”
You can see the parallel to Job in Mrs. O’Brien’s questions. This occurs at the beginning of the film, and the death of the son and Mrs. O’Brien’s prayers are soon followed by a 15 or 20 minute depiction of the origins of the universe, harkening back to the “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” quotation from Job.
In this section of the film, we see the universe being born, planets forming, life emerging, dinosaurs ruling the earth and then the asteroid that wipes them out. It is a grand and audacious sequence, but if one keeps the Job verses in mind it makes sense – “This is how it was when I laid the foundations of the earth” God seems to be saying in answer to Job/Mrs. O’Brien. (I did feel sorry for the folks who wandered in late and sat down in front of me during the dinosaur scenes. They seemed very confused – they must have thought they had mistakenly entered a showing of “Land of the Lost” or something.)
After the dinosaur detour comes that longest section of the movie about growing up in the late 50’s. One more observation about that part: Malick evokes the emotions and struggles of growing up – of figuring out who you are, of determining your own identity apart from your parents – as well as anyone has done in a film.
This includes a wonderful allusion to Romans 7:14-20, the passage in which Paul admits his sinfulness, admitting that he does the things he doesn’t want to do. This is exactly what young Jack whispers in a voiceover, “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.”
Just in case you might see this movie and don’t want to know how it ends, stop now. Actually, what comes next is not strictly a spoiler, though, because you may interpret it differently than I do.
There is a great deal more I could write about how this film touched me, but I’ll jump to the ending. I said above that the heart of the film is Jack’s crisis of faith. It is very clear to me that the film circles back to those first words Jack speaks in the film: Mother, brother – it was they that led me to Your door. Those words are a prayer. Jack walks through that metaphorical door at the end of the film and is reconciled with God. But not just with God . . .
One of the most powerfully spiritual scenes in any film is the end of “Places in the Heart.” The scene takes place during communion in a Texas church. As the bread and grape juice (it’s a Baptist church) are passed, communion is shared by everyone we’ve met in the film – “good” people, “bad” people, even dead people. It is a stirring reminder of the extent of God’s grace – and of what we mean in the Apostle’s Creed when we say we believe in the “Communion of Saints.”
The end of “The Tree of Life” is like that. On a beach, Jack is united with his family – living and dead – and with a multitude of others. Some critics have interpreted this as heaven, but I believe they are wrong. This is the Communion of Saints (without the bread and wine/grape juice). When Jack is reconciled with God, he is reconciled with his family and beyond.
The first and last image in “The Tree of Life” is a pattern of light flickering in darkness. In the beginning, there was darkness. The first thing God created was light. In my interpretation, that flickering light is the faith God created in Jack. At the end of the movie, the light in the darkness has been recreated.
Or something like that.