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Monday, June 27, 2011

Admiring The Tree of Life

I highly recommend Terrence Malick’s remarkable new film, The Tree of Life, winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and featuring excellent performances by Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, and Sean Penn, not to mention the three young actors who play the O’Brien boys.

The Tree of Life is a difficult film to summarize, and admittedly my thoughts on it are far from crystallized. It might be best to call it the story of two spiritual quests. The first is that of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), a woman raising three boys in 1950s and 60s Waco, Texas, with her husband (Brad Pitt). The second quest is that of the O’Brien’s eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), a quest begun in boyhood and continuing as he reflects back upon his childhood in the present time, especially upon his relationship with his father.

Mrs. O’Brien’s quest recapitulates themes from the Book of Job, beginning with the news of the death of her middle son, R.L, at the age of nineteen (which takes place sometime in the 1960s, from causes which are never revealed). Indeed, Malick begins the film with a quotation from Job over black:

Where were you when I laid the
foundation of the earth?...
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings
shouted for joy?
(Job 38: 4, 7)

Jack’s quest takes its impetus, in his present middle age, from a general sense of dryness and dislocation in his life—including a certain emotional estrangement from his wife. But as we experience his thoughts drifting back to his childhood, we also see him grappling with the memory of his dead brother, as well as with his memories of his demanding, distant, sometimes cruel, father. At one point, in voiceover, middle-aged Jack asks, apparently of God, “My brother…my mother…did they lead me to You?”

Early in The Tree of Life, Malick, who both wrote and directed the film, sounds a contrast between the greediness and self-absorption of nature, understood as fallen nature, and the selflessness of grace—seeming to link the former with Mr. O’Brien’s character, and the latter with the warm, loving and childlike Mrs. O’Brien.  

One of the most interesting features of the film is the approximately twenty-minute sequence showing the creation of the world (including dinosaurs!)—in which we witness God “laying the foundation of the earth.” It is a very moving sequence, though it will also try the patience of moviegoers who expect their stories to progress at Hollywood speed. Yet it is interesting to see Malick’s attempt to give his seemingly small story of family relationships eternal significance by setting it against this cosmic backdrop. In a way it reminded me of similar moves made by Thornton Wilder in Act III of Our Town and in The Skin of Our Teeth.

Are the spiritual quests of Mrs. O’Brien and Jack Christian? They seem to be. The O’Brien family is shown practicing at what looks to be an Episcopalian church, and trying to live out their faith within their home. An image of Christ is shone in one of the stained glass windows at church just as Mrs. O’Brien, in voiceover, is making an appeal to God to help her make sense of her suffering. The general imagery that we find in the film is definitively Christian.

Such as the images of the Fall. In the film’s longest section we follow Jack through various adventures of his boyhood where he encounters the reality of his ability to sin. But there are images of Reconciliation, too. Even in Jack’s boyhood Mr. O’Brien apologizes to Jack for his failures as his father, and Malick also shows us middle-aged Jack on the phone with his father, telling him how he also thinks of his dead brother every day and how he is sorry for some rudeness to his father in an earlier conversation.

Finally, there is the climactic sequence with middle-aged Jack on the beach, a sequence that appears to take us inside Jack’s contemplation, in which he steps through a door into—Heaven?—and where he meets his family members, including his brother, in poignant scenes of reunion and ultimate beatitude.

So perhaps in choosing a tree as the central metaphor for his film, Malick is thinking of the tree as an image of life, growth, and continuity through time; but perhaps he is also thinking along the lines of the following thoughts, set forth by Fr. Anthony Thorold in a little devotional book called Conversation with God, published by Sheed & Ward in 1940. The chapter in which this passage is found is called “The Tree of Life”:

The Tree of Life was planted on Mount Cavalry by the Roman soldiers. It is the sacred sign of salvation radiating God’s Light and Truth which will lead us away from evil, and guide and goad us onwards towards our goal.

Still, as I say, Malick’s film will test the patience of those, like me, used to a steady diet of Hollywood cinema. Though there is a narrative, it unfolds quite slowly, and impressionistically, and out of chronological order, with Malick depending far more on gesture and imagery and voiceover than on dialogue and conventional plot points.

And yet, The Tree of Life repays attention. As I watched it I thought of these lines from Iris Murdoch’s essay, “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts,” in which she says about beauty:

Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.

Malick does not give us kestrels, but in the loving, meditative, prayerful images he offers to us of the O’Brien family, he gives us a film that does shake us out of our everyday frame of mind, and takes us into territory where few films take us today, and even fewer still with much persuasiveness: into the world of the spirit.


  1. Thanks for your analysis. Keep up the good work!
    PS: Made me want to see the movie, however slow and patience-trying it might be!

  2. I had the opportunity to see a pre-screening of the film in May. Great analysis! The vignette styling and the impressionistic characterization were wonderful.

    This is a story of common people who experience the drama of existence and human freedom through the ordinary. The film beautifully shows how, if we are attentive to our experience and desires, the Mystery comes to meet us through the seemingly quotidian.

    In terms of the acting, I was not impressed with Sean Penn, but the three boys (especially Young Jack, played by Hunter McCracken) were extraordinary. I loved the grandiose creation scenes, but would have done without so many minutes spent on dinosaurs!

  3. Thanks for the great comment, Adam. It was wierd how in the one scene with the dinosaurs--in which one is wounded and is come upon by a larger dinosaur--that the larger dinosaur doesn't eat the wounded one for lunch. Survival of the fittest, and all that. But the larger dinosaur simply stalks away. Why? Is this the first evolutionary sign of mercy???