The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Terrence Malick is undoubtedly a master of the grand and profound visual statement. His films consistently feature glorious, breathtaking cinematography; this, coupled with his tendency to downplay dialogue and overt narrative, make his work notable for communicating feelings while de-emphasizing the need for objectivity. Malick’s style is, therefore, perfectly adapted to the idea he wants to communicate in The Tree of Life: that there is no God, and no purpose to suffering and sorrow; that the search for truth ends in futility, and the only meaning in life is found in the personal, existential experience.
Through a voiceover, the movie claims at the start that there are two paths through life: the path of nature and the path of grace. The way of nature is said to be self-seeking; the way of grace is humble, and looks to the good of others. One’s life will be free of trouble, it is claimed, if one follows the way of grace.
The film centers around the experiences of the O'Brien family, and it is apparent that Mrs. O'Brien follows the way of grace. Right away we see her as she learns of the sudden death of her son, and as she struggles to make sense of her loss. She prays to God, asking Him to explain why her son died. This part of the film, as Mrs. O'Brien pleads with God for understanding, contains glorious and awe-inspiring visuals made by Douglas Trumbull, creator of the imagery in the celebrated end sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are shown images which correspond to the evolutionary explanation of the origins of the world and of life. It is Malick’s way of saying, “There is no God. Mrs. O’Brien’s pleadings are unheard, and there is no meaning behind her tragedy.” This sequence culminates in a scene of two dinosaurs, predator and prey; the predatory dinosaur almost kills and eats the injured prey but graciously turns and leaves. Malick is saying, “since these brute animals exhibit empathy and even pity, can it really be said that there is anything superior to the way of grace?”
The rest of the film follows the story of Jack, the O'Brien's oldest son. Now in his late middle age, he reflects on his childhood, trying to discern the presence of God in what he remembers of his youth. The film enters his childhood world, watching him as he grows up. As he begins his teens, Jack continuously is tempted by, and engages in, acts of disobedience, violence, and rebellion. He prays to God, asking God to “bring him back” to conformity with his parents’ expectations and standards; it is not apparent that God ever answers him.
His mother, who in the film embodies the way of grace, is presented to us as childish, almost imbecilic; certainly she is of a much weaker temperament than her husband, who, although well-ordered and to a degree successful, is aloof, domineering to the point of being abusive, and incapable of showing love to his children in a way that they can understand. Mrs. O'Brien is unable to maintain order among her children when her husband is gone on a business trip. Jack’s relationship with his father disintegrates into flagrant rebellion. Yet, towards the end of this sequence, father and son make peace; the father apologizes for his former harshness and expresses genuine love for Jack. If, the film is asking, the way of nature is so inferior to the way of grace, why is it that the father, and not the mother, is capable of a wholesome relationship with Jack?
Jack’s quest for God in his childhood memories ends without resolution on a beach, surrounded by people from his past, including his adolescent former self. Is this supposed to represent heaven? A dream? We are left without a conclusive answer, but whatever it is, it has meaning for Jack. His search is over, not when he finds the truth, but when he finds what he is looking for, even if that is unintelligible to anyone else.
The Tree of Life ends with a shot of a bridge. A bridge to what? This film, full of images that could be interpreted any number of ways, is telling us that meaning lies across from truth, in personal experience; that is fact there is no truth, no meaning at all.
Watching a Malick film is certainly a feast for the eyes. But I must admit that the other films of his which I’ve seen (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World) left me disappointed with their lack of focus and unwillingness to actually say anything; Malick’s skills seemed, in those movies, to be a means without any end. In The Tree of Life, he finally made a statement about something—but it’s a statement that I have to disagree with. I was surprised at how many Christian critics praised the film on its release, with World calling it “deeply spiritual”, while also admitting that “critics may not agree on its meaning.” These is a tendency for Christians to get excited whenever our secular world creates a work of art which even remotely takes seriously the big questions of God or faith. But I’m not ready to praise a film, such as The Tree of Life, which takes the opposite conlusion to what I would take. As I said, Malick is an undisputed master of imagery and technique. I’m waiting for someone with the same skills to create a film that is The Tree of Life’s counterpart—arguing for, instead of against, the existence of God, truth, and meaning.