The Tree of Life

June 25, 2011 — 1 Comment

It is a film that fascinates and frustrates. It enchants and exasperates.

Two and a half hours of whispers, enrapturing scenery, and the occasional dinosaur. This will be a movie hated or loved, in fact, I find myself between the two.

Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is like moving from Ruth to Revelation. Most movies have a straight forward story, while Tree of Life uses images, sounds, and camera angles to communicate. The movie, like art, is meant to evoke feelings, and to be interpreted. Malick, as usual, breaks all of Holywood’s rules and composes a film that at times confuses, and other times soars. One reviewer rightly says:

The imagery focuses on life on a cellular level, to the family, to the vastness of space. It seems to show mankind’s place in God’s plan simultaneously as both insignificant and of the upmost importance. Beauty is shown all around us and emotion is displayed through the smallest facial gesture.

The Plot

The movie begins by quoting Job 38:4,7  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding…when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” In its entirety it is about God, the deep questions of life that only Scripture answers, and the opposing forces of nature and grace.

The plot begins with a tragedy in the O’Brien family and shows them struggling to survive with their emotions. Then as if harkening back to Job, Malick has a 15 minute section with no dialogue and an array of captivating scenery that chronicles the creation of the universe. Most identify it with the “Big Bang,” but my brain bent towards creation ex-nihilo. It felt at one point, as if I were seeing only what God saw before he made mankind.

It goes back to being 10 percent normal by rewinding back to the O’Brien family in Waco Texas in the 1950’s. Here it shows the complexity of this one family and the nature/grace dichotomy between the father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain). Malick centers on the eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn), entering the complexity of the emotions of a pre-teen. Through this boy Malick somehow combines a range of emotions that every child felt and did not know how to process. Guilt, happiness, anger, jealousy, lust, are all magically shown through the facial expressions and whispers coming through the screen.

In the end Sean Penn symbolically dies and enters the after-life on the beach with his family from the 1950’s.


The film is aptly named The Tree of Life because it has moved from the creation of the world to the death of it’s main character, Jack. Along the way the conflict between nature and grace are woven throughout its cinematic scenes. It is clear that the struggle of Jack is a microcosm of the struggle of the universe.

Towards the beginning the narrator says “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.”  On the other hand, grace is “smiling through all things.”  According to the way of grace, “the only way to be happy is to love.”

This dichotomy is most clearly seen in Jack. His father is a hard man, while his mother is full of grace. But as the movie goes on it is evident that Jack is turning out more like his father than his mother, he even admits it. Towards the end of the movie Jack whispers, “Father…mother…you are always warring within me.” With this line the scenes of Old Jack chasing Young Jack through the desert and beach begin to make sense. Jack is trying to figure out who he is, how he came to be.


The movie moves beyond itself. At times it was pure worship, as if the Psalms and God’s speech in the whirlwind to Job, were coming to life before my very eyes. But at other times, I was bored and confused.

On the other hand, my wife began laughing when the credits rolled because she thought the whole thing was completely outrageous. And a part of me sympathized with the laugh. But I also sympathize with those who will love it, who can identity with Jack’s childhood, who can sit and appreciate the beauty Malick painted.

I think Malick could have made the film briefer, and easier to follow, but still kept his unique touch.

No matter what one thinks of the movie, they will walk away thinking beyond themselves. They will wonder where they were when the foundations of the earth were laid. They will wonder where the dwelling place of light is. They will come close to saying…

“I am of small account; what shall I answer you.” (Job 40:4)

And that is not so much a bad thing.

Patrick Schreiner

Posts Twitter Facebook

I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Tree of Life Synopsis | Ad Fontes - May 2, 2012

    […] have commented on this film before. Below is an excellent observation. Rather than seeing the content of the film as a series of […]

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>