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."
Love, Jack's mother explains, must reach not only brothers and sisters but everything. "Love everyone, every leaf, every ray of light. Forgive," she whispers. Because of his infatuation with the natural world, one could almost understand Malick as a sort of modern day Francis of Assisi. "He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man," G. K. Chesterton writes in his biography of Francis. Malick clearly shares the same sense of wonder. But this love for nature is no empty pantheism. Like Francis, whom Chesterton described as "the very opposite of a pantheist," like Marilynne Robinson's John Ames, Malick loves the natural world as a gift from the masterful artist who created it. "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in things that have been made," Romans 1 says. Malick has shone a light and made it even harder to miss the character of God.
The Tree of Life has provoked strong responses from audiences, from awe to anger. That should come as no surprise. For over two hours, Malick presses and presses, posing challenges to the viewer that are intensely counter-cultural. Rejecting the assumptions of a society that often props itself up as judge and arbiter of faith—unpersuaded until reason convinces—Tree of Life does not coax the viewer to accept the likelihood of God, but rather begins with his existence and then expects the viewer to reckon with it. Instead of "does God exist?" the question is "what will you do in response to him?" "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" Malick asks in the first frame, citing Job 38:4.
Largely ignoring romance, Malick lifts up a selfless agape love instead. As one reviewer pointed out, "in a culture where romantic love is the dramatic engine behind 90 percent of what passes for entertainment, Tree, in its attempt to articulate the very meaning of life, arrives at the conclusion that it is love." And there is no doubt that the love conveyed is that of the Christian variety, as evidenced by the film's opening quote from Job, the sermon heard during a Sunday morning scene, the face of Jesus the camera pans past, the example of Jack's mother giving water to a prisoner before he is taken away, not to mention the myriad lines—usually in hushed voice-overs—that are wholly Christian, not in any trite sectarian sense but in the fullness with which they understand the gospel.
Malick also shakes and jostles our dependence on human achievement. By insisting on God-inspired selflessness, the beauty of "naïveté" for the sake of love, Tree unmasks the myth of the self-made man and points to a greater strength beyond one's boot-straps. Human life is full of meaning and dignity, but it is not of our own making; it is endowed with significance by the creator of the universe. Thus humility and love, not power and self-sufficiency, are the only paths that truly matter in the end. "No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end," Jack mother's says. "Unless you love, your life will flash by."
Finally, in a culture so sure of life's bounded materiality—nothing here but us—The Tree of Life points to a spirituality that inflames the universe with God-bestowed beauty. We pray to God because he exists, and our eyes are renewed as we begin to love him. "All things shining," goes the last line in The Thin Red Line, and the line might as well sum up the rapture in every frame of The Tree of Life. God's creation is indeed ablaze with his glory, and we are called to acknowledge it.
The movie concludes with just such an acknowledgment. Contrary to nearly every review, the final scenes of the film are not a vision of the afterlife (Jack never dies) but rather a highly abstract rendering of the experience of stepping into faith. After nearly two and a half hours of recounting the tuggings of grace, The Tree of Life attempts to capture the moment of reconciliation with God. As Sean Penn walks through the symbolic desert, admitting how he has long wandered through the world, the viewer sees him pass through a door where he meets his younger self. Time is split by eternity. Jack finds himself reunited with his family on the sands of a reflective beach. All the strands of Jack's memory that brought him to faith are there: love, suffering, beauty, his childhood, his father, his brother, his mother. Incredibly, the viewer hears the words, "I give you my Son." This is the climax of belief. And when the camera leaves Jack's mind and views him again from the outside, the only indication of change is the mysterious smile on Sean Penn's face as he stands outside his office. But that is enough.
Kristen Scharold is a writer living in Brooklyn.
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