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The Tree of Life

By John O'Brien, S.J.

2011. Director: Terrence Malick, 139 min. U.S.A.
Stars: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Music: makes use of many different classical and operatic pieces.

An impressionistic portrait of a young family in Waco, Texas in 1956, in which the eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) struggles with his loss of innocence and coming to terms with two “ways” in life: the way of “grace”, represented by his luminous mother, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and the way of “nature”, the win-at-all-costs philosophy represented by his father (Brad Pitt). There is a flash-forward to 1968, when his mother receives a telegram telling of the death of her other son (presumably in Vietnam), and a flash-forward to present day, where we see an adult Jack (Sean Penn) grapple with the memories of his childhood and the legacy of his choices; and to scenes at a mysterious seashore in an eschatological future, where the child and adult Jack interact with his parents, and where we sense the reconciliation of all things awaits.

A visually resplendent film, which asks core existential questions, and audaciously includes a lengthy cosmic creation scene, provoking the viewer to begin asking the same questions as Malick is asking.

Film History
Winner of the Palme d’Or Prize, the highest award for a film, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards in 2012, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

Spiritual Reflection
To understand The Tree of Life it helps to know that director Terrence Malick has created a film in the apocalyptic genre, especially as the term was understood by earlier generations of Christians. An “apocalypse” is not so much concerned about depicting the events of the literal end of time. Rather it is concerned with the breaking through of the eternal into the temporal, of the spiritual into the material, and of the ultimate meaning of all things, which yes, will be fully revealed at the end of time, but which is also present in the “here and now”. Since the paradox of “already and not yet” informs our understanding of the redemption of creation, we see that there are multiple layers of meaning to this story.

Malick has grappled with the question of “nature” in his films before, and it’s an issue that resonates with us moderns, who also struggle with understanding the cosmos we live in. On the one hand for Malick, nature is the realm of tranquility, beauty, and wonder, almost the habitation of the divine. At the same time it has a Darwinian dimension, especially manifest in the destructive encroachments of human beings. He asks plaintively, where does all this achingly beautiful glory come from? And at the same time, why this eruption of violence and cruelty?

He poses the question in a sort of binary way in The Tree of Life, through the voice of the mother: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.” Yet, as the film reveals, these are not necessarily two separate and irreconcilable paths. There is never any paths of “pure nature”, nor any “pure grace”, but the two work together, as Thomas Aquinas said: “Gratia non tollit, sed perficit naturam”. Grace does not destroy or negate the laws of the natural world. Rather, grace sanctifies, renews, ennobles and elevates nature. In the film, however, “nature” is short-hand for the world without God, a world that fights on its own strength and laws alone, and “grace” means that same world, transformed by God’s love.

As to the other question – from where comes the evil in the world? – it’s an age-old philosophical (and personal) question, and there are no easy answers. Indeed the question of “theodicy” – how can a good God let evil things happen – remains a valid question probably until the end of time. The great poets and saints, artists and writers are the ones who help us come to terms with it, to catch glimpses of the meaning behind suffering. Malick’s film deserves to be in their august company. He builds upon the tradition of the wisdom literature, with a particular allusion to Job at the start of the film. On a black slide we see the words:

“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

With this God is posing a question, but it’s also an answer to a previous question from Job. Job has been stripped of everything he owned, his children killed and his body riddled with disease. His accusers invite him to curse the God that he loves or admit that it’s due to a sin that he did not commit in order to make sense of the situation. He posed the question "why?" to God, and God responded with his own unexpected, greater question, one that will burst all bounds. God does not wish to give a purely conceptual answer to Job's question, but invites him to view the larger context in which the problem can be seen. Just as it is hard for us to understand God's response to Job, it may not be easy for us to understand Malick’s depiction. There is much meaning that can only be unpacked and decoded over time. We see through mirrors dimly. But God would have us know that his ultimate plan was one that had music and great joy.

Another hermeneutic hint comes in the very first image of the film: there we see a mysterious, flame-like orb of light, and we hear the voice of the adult Jack whisper:
“Brother, Mother, it was they who led me to your door.” 
If he is addressing his brother and mother, who are the “they” that led him and to what door? We see the orb of light standing at the origin of the “creation of the world” and reappears again at the very end as the final image in the film. If this flame of light represents the Alpha and the Omega, then it's seems probable Jack is not addressing his brother and mother, but is praying to God, saying that his brother and his mother were the ones who led him to the threshold of heaven. Since most of the film is a reflection by the adult Jack upon his family, and the role that grace and loss has played in his life, this interpretation makes sense, and then turns the entire film into Jack's prayer. It is Jack we see at the film's end, taking the elevator down from his glass and steel tower, through a door in the wilderness, and onto the shore of timelessness.

The Tree of Life divided critics. It’s overwhelming. It’s sometimes confusing. But Terrence Malick at least had the audacity to ask the most important questions of all, and put them in a film that would startle and provoke his audience. It does not offer cheap answers, but points, I believe, to the source of all knowing, the living Light that shines from the beginning and will continue until the end which is not an end.

1) I am born with a “nature” and all my natural faculties. How has grace been operative from “within” my nature, to elevate and sanctify me?

2) The mystery of suffering is never too far from human life. How does Malick offer the glimmers of a response to the question of why a good God could allow suffering? Does he have an answer?

3) The final scenes of the film take place on a mysterious shore. What is this place?


  1. The final scene on the sandy seashore is the "other side" of the veil of death. It is a place we, some of us, those who need such a thing, find ourselves after the body dies and while we re-orient ourselves to this "new" reality, which is in fact the old reality of our true nature, our eternal, greater Self. The seashore is a transitional scene. It is a calm, familiar, peaceful context. It is a place to be met, if that is what you need, by someone to guide and reassure you as you make the transition. We arrive at that Far Shore in different ways. Some come from the sea itself. Others walk across the desert and the rocks, as we see Sean Penn doing.

    The colored flames we see throughout the film are a representation of the individual human Self, the Soul if you will, in a form that is appropriate to a non-corporeal state. That formless state is not yet a "true" image of the eternal Self because that Being has no form. But it is a consensus shape, sort of a universal form, that is useful for communion and or communication in a group context.
    Tree of Life is about identity, and the identities we assume in our human form, while we are alive on the planet interacting. It is this context, this shared reality, that is the source of grief, of fear, of loss, and of its cousins joy and wonder. The pain comes from the limitations we adopt as we play our parts, and as we struggle against those limits, the very limits we chose for ourselves. The suffering we inflict on each other is the suffering of children expressing themselves among each other, working out their emotions, their agency in a strange world. We ask ourselves always the same question: "Who Am I?" We push against each other, seeking out the response in the "other" that tells us we are alive and real in this realm of Maya, of Illusion that is not "Life" but its mirror.
    From this perspective Tree of Life is an obvious telling. It is a literal story and not metaphor. It is a close-up in the way looking at ants through a magnifying glass is a closeup.

  2. That's very articulate existential interpretation of the film David. Thanks. I think the biblical element, such as the quotation from Job at the very beginning, also frames the story in a Creator/creature paradigm. Malick usually mixes Existentialism with Christian philosophy when he writes his cinematic discourses.


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