Home > Film > Thoughts on The Tree of Life by Terence Malick

Thoughts on The Tree of Life by Terence Malick

What happens when you’re world comes crashing down? You show up for work and the boss sends you and half the department home: laid off. Or you come face to face with a horrible darkness in your own heart that has and is damaging relationships all around you. Or your beloved family member dies suddenly, and you wonder if God even cares.

There are moments in life that change all the other moments in life. Suddenly the frailty of our world, our beliefs, our relationships stand in naked clarity, and we shudder. These moments of suffering, of mourning, of anguish can make time feel as though it has stopped.

Struggling through the grief of death and loss, memories flood our hearts in no particular order. Or we may find ourselves fixated on one singular memory that shuts out all other memories. It is difficult to move, to think, to find solace. Just moving through the day feels like we’re pushing through a thick, choking smog that blinds our sight and smothers our lungs. If you’ve ever felt grief or depression or deep anguish, you know some form of this struggle.

Just after the opening moments of the film, The Tree of Life by Terence Malick, we discover a death. The mother (Mrs. O’Brien) breaks down weeping after receiving a letter. Mr. O’Brien answers the phone at a landing strip and is overwhelmed by the news he hears. Their son Jack lights a candle and stares numbly forward. They all three have come face to face with the death of their son and brother.

This sudden death immerses them and us into one of those moments that impacts all other moments. The outer world of schedules and events and daily life moves into the background as the inner world of grieving and questioning and remembering takes the stage. Eugen Rosenstock Huessy calls this “lyrical time.”

Time is no longer chronological. Just like our memories and our feelings don’t follow some chronology. They move and drift in unexpected ways. A smell takes us back to fifth grade in an instant. Seeing an old picture may awaken a flood of memories. This films immerses us into lyrical time through the death of a son and brother, the encounter with personal darkness, and the loss of a job.

We experience the memories and life of a family but at the same time, we experience the deep questions that plague the human heart, “God are you there?” “Do you care about us?” “How could you let this happen?”

The opening shot of the film sets this stage for this questioning with God’s response to Job’s questioning of his suffering and God’s righteousness. As Job finishes his rant against God for allowing him to suffer so completely, he asks, “Does not he see my ways
and number all my steps?” (Job 31:4). After one of Job’s friends (Elihu) speaks on and on about Job’s failure and God’s righteousness, suddenly a whirlwind interrupts and God speaks. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me” (Job 38:2-3). And then we hear the beginning of God’s response to Job, which Malick uses for his opening shot:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4)

If we read Job 38-41, we hear God challenging Job out of the whirlwind. He never answers Job’s complaint, but he challenges Job’s assumption that he could even understand the ways of God by asking Job about the creation of the world and all manner of mysteries throughout the cosmos. “The Tree of Life” draws from Job in the opening shot, in a scene from a church sermon and in a myriad of images from the creation of the world to all manner of mysteries throughout the cosmos. Malick does not explain that he is imaging Job.

But if we simply read Job, we simply a striking parallel to many of the images that Malick chooses to show. His visuals are breathtaking, beautiful and would seem disconnected if not for the questions at the heart of a family facing death. We are thrust into the story of Job through the O’Brien family. But we are also thrust into the heart of Eden.

The title of the film confronts us with another story, a story of a garden of innocence and a story of two tree: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and life. As Alexander Schmemman explained in the “For the Life of the World,” The tree of life is pure gift and humans receive and enjoy in the goodness of God. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is not gift. Yet humans take it. They grasp what is not gift and human history becomes a story of human grasping.

This anguish is played out in the life of Jack. He says that his mother and father wrestle within him. As he remembers and reflects on her, he rehearses a life of grace, of gift, of love, of joy. The father on the other hand, models to Jack that he has to be tough and take what is his. The two trees struggle in Jack’s heart. At one point, he takes some lingerie from a women when she is not at home and it is as though Jack has eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Suddenly, he is thrust out of the garden of Eden and comes face to face with his own darkness. He longs to return to innocence but instead mistreats his brothers, threatens his mother and tells his father that he knows the father wants to kill him. Jack is dying in his world of taking and of self hatred. He longs for a return to innocence.

He is not forsaken, but grace makes a way to restore him and his relations. As Jack’s memories of youth, of innocence and experience, of laughter and play flood his mind, we see a taste of the manifold memories from childhood that shape us, struggle within us, and resurface in the midst living.

This film is not to be watched like a puzzle to solve, but more like an unfolding encounter. We feel Jack’s joy and suffering. We lives inside the family. Yet we also encounter the mystery of a cosmos that is beyond our grasp and a Creator who is beyond that. This same Creator encircles us with grace, with wind and water and circles of love and joy and grace.

The great mourning that paralyzes Jack and his parents seems to resolve in worship. This is not a blind worship, but a letting go in trust. In series of images on a beach, we see some sort of family resolve and embrace. And then in a few images later, we see the mother opening her hands in release and possibly worship.

Malick does not try to fill in all the dots. Like the mystery of Job, he does not try to provide an answer for suffering, for death, for grieving. But he does reveal uplifted hands in apparent love and trust.

If you choose to watch this film. I would suggest approaching it like a poem. Let go of trying to solve or understand everything. Allow the images and sounds and clips of narrative to encounter you. And it may be that as you rehearse and revisit these images through memory, a richer story of life and love and trust will unfold within you.

Categories: Film
  1. July 9, 2011 at 10:19 am

    I think this might be the most impacting film I’ve ever seen, and possibly my favorite — I have thought about it every day since seeing it. You are right in suggesting to view it as a poem since it seems to have more in common with that genre — silence and white space, repeated images that double and triple in meaning, and as always, the poet’s attempt to say many things with as few words as possible!

    In answer to one family’s pain, Malick points to the whole world, and to the beginning and end of time, just as God does in the book of Job — and getting lost in the beauty and glory of those moments, each character finally finds him or herself and one another. Glorious! Thanks for your lovely review — I hope others read it and find a lense through which to view this beautiful film.

  2. July 9, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    I’d love to talk with you and Ben more in depth sometime about the film, and the film in relation to Malick’s other work.

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