The Tree of Life (2011) is American director Terrence Malick’s fifth feature film in his 38-year career. After more than a decade of shooting and moving the film’s namesake 65,000 pound oak tree into the small town of Smithville, Texas, Malick has left us with a true masterpiece. The film debuted at the 2011 Cannes Film festival, where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or and is now nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.
The Tree of Life is a story of truly epic proportions. Malick employs awe-inspiring imagery in a highly experimental, non-linear narrative to weave together the story of one human life and attempts at the grandest of metaphysical questions. Malick simultaneously takes us on two journeys—one humanist and temporal, one cosmological and infinite—all through the lens of the Christian paradigm.
In the personal journey, we see through the eyes of Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) a young boy growing up in 1950s suburban Texas. As Jack matures from infancy to age eleven, he is faced with the seemingly trivial choices that all children must make: whether or not to give into peer pressure and smash the windows on the shed when you know nobody will catch you; whether or not to throw rocks at a stray dog; whether or not to obey your pushover mother or to hurt your weak younger brother. The most moving trial is when Jack sneaks into a neighbor lady’s house when she is away and steals her silk nightgown. At first proud, he smiles to himself. Suddenly, he is overcome with shame and runs miles to throw the garment into the river. His conscience develops only through the experience of hurting others and himself. He reflects:
What have I started? What have I done?
Jack’s life is framed by those of his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain)—both of whom remain unnamed in the film—who subscribe to vastly different understandings of how one should live. Malick takes the difference so far as to say that these are the two fundamental ways for us to live as well. In one of the whispered voice-overs that channel the existential questioning in the film, Jack’s mother lays these out:
There are two ways through life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which path you’ll take.
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 38:4,7
So reads the film’s epigraph, which appears in between long shots of space debris with some angelic euphony playing in the background. Jack’s father comes to play the figure of Job from the Old Testament who dares to question God for bringing suffering to this world. He embodies the practical individualism that so defined twentieth century America, always impossibly hard working and tough on himself and his family. He is the way of nature, tilling his soil as man in Genesis is doomed to do, until the world backfires on him and he loses his job, forcing the family to move. Jack is strongly identified with his father, wanting the toughness and security that his father holds.
This world-view is brought crashing down when Jack’s younger brother—who is strongly identified with his mother as being of the way of grace—dies in what is presumably the Vietnam War at age 19. His father looks back and says:
I wanted to be loved because I was great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look. The glory around, trees, birds. I dishonored it all. Didn’t notice the glory, a foolish man.
Jack’s mother, then, is Mary, who embodies the grace brought to us in the New Testament. Constantly protecting her children from their strict father and living the way of love, she teaches Jack the other side of life. She is constantly seen in flowing sundresses, laying in the grass, and leading her three sons in the way of beauty. She is easy on her children and can’t find the strength to stand up to her husband. In stark opposition to her materialist husband, she is seen literally floating in a trance above her front lawn. As she sums up the way of grace:
Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts all things. It does not mind being slighted, forgotten, disliked, insults, or injuries. Nature only wants to please itself.
She has learned from the recklessness of Job. When her son passes away, she realizes, true to her nature, that her son was never really hers:
He was in God’s hands the whole time.
Jack, as we all are, is stuck between these two modes of living. As young Jack mutters to himself in prayer:
Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.
An adult Jack (Sean Penn) appears only a few times in the film, and speaks little. As an adult, Jack wears business suit, apparently an architect, and is seen mostly staring up at the skyscrapers around him. The natural awe that pervaded his childhood has been replaced by a technological, material awe at what man can do. Ultimately, we see that he has chosen the way of his father, and lost something as a result. As the adult Jack puts it:
I just feel like I’m bumping into walls.
As we see in Jack and his father’s lives, it’s all to easy to be sucked up into the economic machine in hopes of living the American dream. But we are all replaceable–economically and materially. Young Jack asks God:
Who are we to you? Answer me.
And thus begins a breathtaking account of creation, from big bang to amoebas to dinosaurs, which is absolutely awe-inspiring. The answer to Jack’s powerful question is ultimately given in a two second shot of dust in the wind.
Before entering film, Malick earned a philosophy degree from Harvard and went on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. A philosopher at heart, Malick sets at the core of the film the biggest question in human history: the problem of evil. When his brother dies, Jack confronts God:
Lord why? Where were you?
Like his father and mother before him, he is forced to reckon with the evil around him. Like Job, he is never given the closure he seeks. Regardless of our faith, human life is fragile. The way of Jack’s mother is left with us as our only tool for navigating such a world:
The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good to them. Wonder. Hope.
The Tree of Life is set to a soundtrack of humbling symphonies and choral works, especially the Requiem of Berlioz and finale of Brahms, with a dazzling original score by Alexandre Desplat, who holds his own against these giants of the Western tradition.
The film has received extremely mixed reviews, though somewhat predictably so. At two and a half hours long, many were simply bored by the drawn out images in light of the film’s threadbare plot. Others have criticized the film for relying on too many clichés and offering no substance to hang on to. Instead, many claim, it puts forth only questions.
I saw the film in theaters three times and witnessed very different audience reactions. In the UK, the audience reacted with laughter and disbelief. At a regular US theater, people either walked out half an hour in or booed at the curtain. At Doc Films at the UChicago, the audience reacted with awe, then applause. Needless to say, I was one of the latter.
There is simply no other film like this. Though the boyhood narrative has been told before, in terms of imagery, only nature documentaries to the likes of Planet Earth and Baraka can compare. Malick set out to do something great, and he has certainly done so. Only a handful of Christian thinkers (St. Augustine comes to mind) have been able to tie the fundamental questions of human life so seamlessly into scripture. Malick deliberately and successfully avoids the Christian dogma that has alienated so many in our secular age and leaves us all, regardless of belief, with an astonishing masterpiece.
Jon Catlin is a first-year at the University of Chicago studying great books and the humanities. He’s primarily interested in philosophy as it relates to happiness, Holocaust studies, religion, human rights, and other ethical questions. Jon spends his time exploring libraries, teaching young people philosophy, and taking long jogs on the Chicago lakeshore.