The TREE of LIFE a film by Terrence Malick

by Geoff Hall on August 2, 2011

The TREE of LIFE a film by Terrence Malick. 2011. (138mins) Winner of the Palme D’or.

Featuring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn.


Much has been written and commented about this film. I went to see it at the Watershed Media Centre, in Bristol UK, where there was a special Q+A with Nigel Ashcroft, a Bristol-based Natural History Producer, who created the 20 minute Creation sequence on The TREE of LIFE.


It was interesting to see this section represented as the ‘Evolution’ sequence, which seemed to me to be quite at odds with the other evident narrative, of Creation and its metaphor of ‘The Tree of Life’. I’m not aware of Darwin using it as a facet of his Evolution narrative, but it was quite clear that for Ashcroft and Paul Appleby of Bristol Media, that it was far from their thoughts. Not even the opening quotation from Job 38v4 &7 caused a stir,


Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth…When the morning stars sang together?


This then is the cipher for Malick’s film and the Creation sequence should be viewed in this light. When we see the birth of stars and galaxies we need to understand this as a song, equal to if not surpassing the sacred narrative thread, provided by the music of Bach and Berlioz. This is the realm of grace, not nature. The cipher is also set in the context of human suffering.


The Mother, Mrs O’Brien has this to say to her children.


“There are two ways through life; the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you follow.”


Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) has chosen the way of grace and her husband the way of nature. He says of her,


Your mother is naïve; it takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.


Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) complains that she takes what comes and doesn’t utilise this ‘fierce will’ to seize hold of life’s opportunities. The film is in part a remembrance of their middle son and the grief his death causes them. Their eldest son Jack sees the tension between his mother and father being played out in him.


Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me.


He is quick to scold his mother for letting his father ‘walk all over her.’ Within this tension we hear his prayers; that he wants to see God, that he wants to know God, somehow. However, nature obstructs this view and this sense of knowing God.


The strain within young Jack, wonderfully and worryingly played by Hunter McCracken, is then taken up by Sean Penn as the older Jack. His father’s surrender to nature left him as a failed musician. Jack however, is successful in business. Did he get where he is by the brute force of nature or by the lightness of grace?

Susan Sontag, in her essay on the ‘Spiritual Style in the films of Robert Bresson’ writes,


“Consciousness of self is the ‘gravity’ that burdens the spirit; the surpassing of the consciousness is ‘grace’, or spiritual lightness.”[1]


It is here where I’d like to point to what I think is a cinematic dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky. This is where Malick stands, on grace. It is weightless; it defies the gravity of nature. The scene where Mrs. O’Brien is floating next to the tree of life, enraptured by grace, is of course very reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s film Mirror. In this Russian classic, the mother floats above the bed, in the weightlessness of love. Defying the gravity of nature is one thing, but grace also has the capacity to stop time. Malick’s mother tells us,


Unless you love, your life will flash by.


Perhaps this reflects a little of St Augustine’s view of time being ‘subjective’? And that is the only theological point in this piece!


The second cinematic discourse is with Lars von Trier. Trier is influenced by Nietzsche’s view of nature and in the film ‘Antichrist’ sees humanity fleeing to ‘nature’ escaping to the forest of “She’s” madness. ‘She’ informs us that “Nature is Satan’s Church’. In this she follows Baudelaire’s Satanism; that matter is evil and spirit is good! As I’ve said before, if you follow a madman, don’t be surprised if you end up going mad! This is von Trier’s dilemma. When the ‘will to power’ can’t get its own way, can’t enforce its will, then all that is left is an acute sense of ‘Melancholia’, but no doubt we will hear from Lars von Trier on that subject sooner, rather than later.


This flight to nature in the ‘Antichrist’ is, in The TREE of LIFE, juxtaposed with the scene on the beach of a resurrection renewal of life. There we see RL, the deceased son, with the older Jack (Sean Penn) and his family again. Madness is driven from us by grace. When the ‘Will’ seizes the opportunity to get its own way, it does so by brute force. The most disturbing scenes in the film, which pierce the calmness, is when Mr O’Brien loses control and seeks to punish RL, who had asked him to ‘keep quiet’. For O’Brien, respect comes from the fear of others. When he goes away on a business trip, the air is tangibly lighter, the family relax.


Malick’s dialogue with Tarkovsky and von Trier seems to have gone unnoticed by many film critics including Mark Kermode, who appears more willing to talk about ‘pantheism’ than a spirituality of grace. It appears clear to me, but then I’m not a critic. With this relationship in mind we should note a split between Tarkovsky (grace) and von Trier (nature). Cinematically and Socially we see the effects of grace in the great movement of non-cooperation with evil. With nature we see it uncovered with National Socialism in Germany, Communism in Russia and more recently in the acts of judgement and terror with Anders Breivik in Norway. In Europe today, nature is dominant. We need to turn this around; we need to tell stories of a different kind.


Malick’s relationship with Tarkovsky is also noted in the scenes of torches and candles lighting the hands and bodies of the O’Brien children compared with Tarkovsky’s woman, whose hands we see glow, apparently with love. This then is not the story of linear, but of poetic narrative. This form, evinced in Mirror, is made up of a series of chronotopes (time/space scenarios), or poetic stanzas.


Mako Fujimura – in an interview with Alissa Wilkinson on the Cardus Blog says this – “The film’s collaborative, non-linear expression challenges our assumptions about how a film is to be made.”

This ‘non-linear’ cinematic narrative is none other than Tarkovsky’s (and Bresson’s) form of poetic or spiritual style in film. We can also perhaps add to this Kieslowski in his later films. Malick is for me a filmmaker of the highest order and he follows in the shoes of such European luminaries.


Whilst many have waxed eloquent about the theology of the film, one thing has been overlooked and it is this relationship between filmmakers who shunned the linear Hollywood style of storytelling and allowed the weightlessness and timelessness of grace to run through their work in a poetic, spiritual style of filmmaking.


We can be sucked into the ideologies and theologies in the big stories of Origins; we can decide that our storytelling will be controlled by asserting our will over time and succumb to gravity. We can even understand that whether we postulate a Creation or Evolution narrative, we were not around to see it happen. It all needs a bit of faith to join the dots! Whereas Evolutionists will point to the evidence of fossils, the Creationists should point to the evidence of grace and love; not observed in dead fossils, but in living memorials to the Word becoming flesh, in the individuals and communities of humanity’s richest treasure – that of storytelling.


Malick has chosen to build on the legacy of some great filmmakers. I tip my hat to him. I write not as a theologian or film critic, but as a filmmaker of small things. Thank you for the grace you have shown us and for a time helping us become weightless from the pull of nature.


Geoff Hall

[1] in, ‘Against Interpretation’. Published by Penguin Modern Classics, 1966. p193.

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