The Tree of Life
America has found its prophet, or at least a director of astonishing rank. "More than any other active filmmaker Mr. Malick belongs in the visionary company of homegrown romantics like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and James Agee," A. O. Scott recently wrote of the director of The Tree of Life. And indeed, what Terrence Malick has created with his newest film is a masterpiece on par with some of the greatest works of literature. The comparison to Melville is especially apt because what Malick has given the world is not merely an American classic but a spiritual tour de force.
In the tradition of Augustine's Confessions, The Tree of Life is the story of a single life drawn upward to God. Jack O'Brien, the main character, asks, "When did you first touch my heart?" and the rest of the film formulates an answer. Jack's journey begins with his own memory: a reconstruction of the great and small tugs that finally brought him into true, inward reconciliation. When did God begin to draw Jack to himself? When was Jack aware of God's presence? And when did he at last open himself to it fully? For Jack, the answers are as personal as the swirls on a fingertip: a mother's kindness, a brother's forgiveness, the beauty of the Texas sky. "Mother, brother, it was they that led me to your door," Jack concludes as he retraces his epiphany.
The Tree of Life is ultimately the story of two contrary motions: a soul being drawn into the mystery of God's grace in the midst of the downward pull of human nature. "There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose which one we'll follow," the mother's voice declares early in the film. Therein lies the story. As young Jack grows, he is torn between the example of his mother (Jessica Chastain), the way of grace, and his father (Brad Pitt), the way of nature. Jack's mother tells him to love. His father tells him to pursue the ideal of self-sufficiency to get ahead in the world. Jack's mother revels in the landscapes around her, while Jack's father tries to dominate them, weeding and forcing grass to grow where there is no light.
"My son, mark diligently the motions of nature and grace; for in a very contrary and subtle manner these are moved, and can hardly be discerned but by him that is spiritually and inwardly enlightened," Thomas à Kempis writes in The Imitation of Christ. This passage gets to the very heart of the movie; perhaps Malick had it explicitly in mind. In fact, Chapter 54 of Thomas' book, "On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace," from which this passage is taken, contains the gist of the entire film.
While meditating on the tension between nature and grace, Malick glorifies a different form of nature, that is, God's nature, as manifest in the world's beauty. Audaciously, Malick at one point interrupts Jack's story for an epic twenty-minute re-imagining of the sweep of Creation: galaxies, lava, jellyfish, trees; landscapes that are unprecedented for their ability to pull down the viewer's jaw. Malick's palette of footage—which was reportedly assembled over the course of thirty-plus years—urges us to contemplate our place in the cosmos and to walk with wonder in our stride.
"It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor grey matter of Creation and turns it into radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life …. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see," John Ames observes near the end of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. To see nature in such transfiguration, to see it not as ember but as glowing coal, is something of what Malick attempts here. He asks the viewer not just to stare at creation, but to stare at it until there is a willingness to see. An attentive viewer cannot leave the theater without feeling that God has indeed blown on the ember of creation, and that we spend a great deal of our lives only seeing the poor grey matter.
Malick's preoccupation with creation is not a side-plot but an essential product of his visual sermonizing on love. The glowing coal of creation is the vision that flows out of a life transformed by love, and Malick makes this difficult to deny by lifting the following passage from The Brothers Karamazov nearly word for word:
"Love all of God's creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love."