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tree of lifeFew films of the new century have so forcefully posed major religious questions as has Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life of 2011. While following a near archetypical mid-American family’s quotidian joys and tragedies, the work ranges from the epic in scale to the intimate in its focus. In a manner of speaking, it simultaneously draws on the “overabundant means” of popular religious epics that Paul Schrader scorns and the “transcendental style,” i.e., a narration whereby religious themes are brought to the fore through the symbolism that suffuses the narrative, which he praises. The classic transcendentals–truth, beauty, and goodness–harmonize in a manner rarely seen in the cinema of this, or practically any, period. As Peter Leithart, author of the first book-length study of Tree of Life, puts it: “One of the purposes of art is to enhance our attention to the world around us, and by this standard Mr. Malick’s film is art of the highest order.”

The work has been called a culminating point in his oeuvre: an oeuvre where quality not quantity counts. Though Mr. Malick’s first film, Badlands, was released in 1973, Tree of Life of almost four decades later was barely his fifth film, coming after a six-year hiatus. Despite the low number of films, Mr. Malick has earned the reputation of one of America’s major filmmakers. Although the term is likely overused, Mr. Malick can be called an auteur—a director that projects a consistent vision in his work, with stylistic and thematic continuity, and even biographical concerns. Stylistic and thematic continuity is certainly present in the film. For instance, like his earlier work, the action is predominantly set in the past; it is also his first work where some of the action is set in the present. The last concern—the biographical—is seminal for perhaps his greatest work. As a number of critics have noted, the family tragedy at the core of the film bears a striking resemblance to that of Mr. Malick’s loss of his own brother in 1968, who had apparently committed suicide.

At the foreground of the film is the problem of faith in the face of suffering. However, the problem of faith in a manner of speaking is concluded at the outset of the film. Jack, the film’s protagonist, utters the first words, which, it becomes clear, are addressed to God, “Mother. Brother. It was they who led me to your door.” One of the aspects of Mr. Malick’s art that astonishes is how subtly, on the one hand, and how dramatically, on the other hand, he unpacks a story the major theme of which has been virtually concluded at the outset. That story’s symbolic and thematic richness with regards to the problem of faith and its recovery has been ably presented in the study referred to above, Mr. Leithart’s Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. The scholar aptly summarizes the overt thematic thrust of the film as “a non-Euclidian response to suffering which, like Job, involves the whole of history from creation to the end of time.” It is a work in which the personal and universal are in dynamic correspondence with each other.

However, what I find most problematic in Mr. Malick’s film is the key question of salvation implicit behind the more obvious search for God. Leithart claims, “Tree of Life is a cinematic homage to Larry Malick, a celluloid requiem.” But the implicit “requiem” also involves the problem of personal salvation at a certain level, especially with regard to the deeper, barely-suggested, problem concerning his brother’s death, which, in the unexplained tragedy of the character who represents the brother, is only indirectly suggested as suicide.

The film opens with a flame and, after Jack’s words recalled above, proceeds to the bright light streaming in from the future Mrs. O’Brien’s window as a young girl. Her early years, leading up to the news of her son’s death that introduces the theme of suffering, are quickly recapped, after which we return to the “present,” evoked by the opening words and witness Jack’s commemoration of his brother’s death. The entire narrative, as it might loosely be called, stems from the protagonist’s memories and religious musings evoked on that particular anniversary. Like the images of twisted tree trunks and tops that inundate the film, the narrative veers in a number of directions, at times difficult to follow. Aside from the snippets of the present that follow Jack on that day, these are the pathways of his consciousness and conscious with its musings, visions, and prayers. Once we see him entering his parents’ experience of their son’s death in his “present” form, we can assume that even the introductory story of his mother is filtered through his conscience, but that is an open question. During the course of the film, we primarily hear Jack and his mother’s inner prayers, so the story might be from both perspectives, at least at the celestial level. In this context, it is worth noting that some of the stars in the evolutionary sequence early in Tree of Life look like those in the opening sequence of It’s a Wonderful Life that triggers the divine response to the prayers for the film’s protagonist that initiate Capra’s classic.

In the opening sequence that introduces Mrs. O’Brien, the theological drama that will find its incarnation in the four major characters is laid out. Her voice over seems to be instructing her children: “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life… the way of Nature… and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” The second way is praised, while the first is connected with a desire to dominate. The paradox for the contemporary viewers might be that the way of grace is presented in a manner that many would associate with the positive perspective imputed to nature and its purity. They would be right about the innocence, and the polarity prepares the way for the greatest drama in the film: innocent suffering, the paramount Joban theme.

The way of nature is framed negatively. “Nature,” explains Mrs. Obrien, “only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” In contrast, “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”

It soon becomes obvious which of the parents incarnates which of the “ways.” Mr. O’Brien is stern, even harsh at times, especially when things haven’t been going well in his career. Certainly, he is a good father in most ways, but the contrast between him and Mrs. O’Brien could hardly be starker. In fact, it initially seems exaggerated, until some nuances surface in his portrait. Moreover, besides illustrating a point, Mr. O’Brien brings a necessary quality to the film.

In Tree of Life there is almost no comic relief. Perhaps this is fitting due to the gravity of the dominant theme. Within the film’s “divine comedy,” through the father’s alternating toughness and vulnerability, triumphs, and failures, he provides the necessary human comedy without which the work would be considerably more ponderous, not to mention less believable. Through its humanity and sense of place at least one major critic claimed the film struck a chord of deep recognition. The late Roger Ebert wrote, “If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this.”

Mrs. O’Brien is grace incarnate. This also plays a crucial role in the work that goes beyond the partly didactic one more readily evident. It is through the death of R.L. that the Joban theme of suffering is introduced. For the contemporary viewer, it is easy to forget one of the problems earlier Christians had with the Book of Job, namely that on account of the doctrine of original sin, no one is innocent, everyone is a sinner.

There were, of course, different ways of circumventing or referring to this issue. In a secularized society the question is simply reduced to that of why do bad things happen to good people, which nevertheless indicates the tenacious nature of the problem. Most famously, although Job is not mentioned by name, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov talks about the incomprehensibility of a good God permitting the death of a single innocent child. Mr. Malick, who admires the Russian author, seems to use the followers of the “way of Grace” to recover the theme of the suffering of the innocent who are more recognizably so. This likely accounts for why his Texan family is Irish and Catholic, in order to be able to naturally introduce the theological theme in its life which, on top of creating an element of palpable drama within a film that concentrates on the quotidian, provides the “innocent” in order for them to suffer on a truly Joban scale. If, however, we accept the auteurist biographical reading of Tree of Life a problem remains with the instrument of suffering: R.L.’s untimely death as a possible suicide. It creates a hole for which the overall story just barely sketches an outline. This outline around the abyss is primarily created by Jack’s and Mrs. O’Brien’s stories.

Jack’s story dominates the narrative of Mr. Malick’s opus. Jack, the adult, relates his search for God. It is not the unknown God, but one from whom he has strayed. Within him the struggle between nature and grace rages. At a moment of reconciliation he tells his father he is more like him than his mother. Mr. Malick is an astute reader of Dostoevsky and it has been noted the work is permeated with a sense of The Brothers Karamazov. Jack’s voice-over confession that his father and mother, i.e. nature and grace, constantly struggle within him is a paraphrase of Dmitri’s claim that the human heart is the site of the eternal struggle between God and the devil. Twelve-year-old Jack loses his faith when a boy, possibly a friend or relative, dies at a swimming pool, but, most terrifyingly, that same Jack soon wishes to kill his father: Dostoevsky meets William Golding.

The loss of God is clearly not liberation, but the onset of a downward trajectory. “Why should I be good when you’re not,” Jack prays in defiance, accusing God of not saving the child. What is astonishing is the boy’s awareness of this decline. Thinking of his mother and brother, we hear his prayerful voice-over: “How do I get back? To where they are.” More urgently, after a series of misdeeds, echoing St. Paul from the Letter to the Romans, he thinks: “What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.” This is no Freudian guilt trip. Jack has a highly developed sense of sin and he realizes his need for salvation.

Mrs. O’Brien embodies grace and innocence in the film with her entire being, not just in her teachings to her children. She follows the Gospel injunctions, such as recognizing the humanity of prisoners and offering them succor. Significantly, her cries from the soul, starting with: “Where were you?” after her son’s death frame the updated cinematic version of God’s response—the spectacular evolution of the cosmos and life on earth creation sequence—from the Book of Job quoted at the very beginning of the film: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Mrs. O’Brien is not just a contemporary feminine Job, though. There is a slight hint of another theme, important in the Christian understanding of innocence and suffering. In one of her scenes with the children, R.L. asks her: “Tell us a story from before we can remember.” She recounts the story of an airplane ride she took as a gift after her high school graduation. Up in the air, she is close to the sky where she had indicated to her children is where God lives, and the viewers hear an air from the second movement of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Earlier during that movement, the words that had been scrawled on the cell wall of a young Polish prisoner of the SS during the Second World War are sung. Their author tries to comfort her mother, and includes a supplication to the “Queen of Heaven.”

Górecki starts the symphony with extracts from an early Polish treatment of the Stabat Mater theme—i.e. Mary at the foot of the cross in dialogue with her son. He continues in the second and third movements with variations of that theme transposed to mothers who have lost their children in wartime. As an “ordinary mother” and with her excruciating loss, Mrs. O’Brien fits into that Marian theme. In Catholic tradition, the “tree of life” is also one of the symbols of the cross.

The other incarnation of grace and innocence in Mr. Malick’s film is R.L. During the first church scene of the lengthy childhood sequence, a priest gives a sermon on the Book of Job. While he brings up the passage of the Lord giving and taking away, the camera poignantly comes to rest upon R.L., and the boy looks up at a stained-glass window depicting Christ in a red robe with a crown of thorns. The death of Jack’s brother is thus “linked with Christ,” but this can be understood in a number of different ways. Some might even interpret him as a Christ figure. The important question is: How does Mr. Malick see his death?

There is actually no reason given for R.L.’s death in the film. Since the 1960s are hinted at, which is both the time of Mr. Malick’s brother’s suspected suicide and the Vietnam War, when numerous American mothers received similar telegrams, there is a measure of ambiguity surrounding the news that Mrs. O’Brien receives. Except when one considers that the filmmaker’s brother studied guitar in Europe, and there are a number of scenes where R.L. is playing the guitar; most tellingly after the news of his death the camera enters his empty room where a guitar is prominently situated. We do not meet R.L. in the film after the childhood scenes, but it is hinted that like many creative people he suffered from depression or some similar mental disorder, when after learning of his death Mr. O’Brien remembers: “He used to hit himself in the face for no reason.” For Christians, suicide is traditionally connected with the sin of despair. “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin,” insists Chesterton: “It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life.”

Even when not understood to the degree expressed above, although the death would be no less a tragedy, the sin of despair would at the very least take a good measure of the “innocence” from it. To some extent, the Joban theme of the film would be undercut. One can still impute a degree of a cinematic Christ-figure in the depiction of R.L., in the sense of his loving forgiveness of Jack’s cruelty toward him in the latter’s degenerate stage, but there is likely another meaning behind the boy and his prefigurative association with the Christ in the stained-glass window.

Although the message is ambiguous, there do seem to be hints of the uncertain fate of R.L.’s salvation. His appearance in Jack’s visionary musings, once at a great distance on a beach near the end of the film, with his words: “Find me” could also be interpreted as: “Help me.” We do not know whether it is R.L. that Mrs. O’Brien is helping out of a grave in the related ending sequence; if so, it is possibly symbolic of his death in despair. And R.L. is lifted up by his family toward the end of that sequence before he goes off on his further journey, as if he requires special support. The fact that the visionary scene seems to take place in a sort of limbo, and not paradise, together with the concern that is displayed for R.L., indicates that his premature death might not have been a mere accident. Significantly, we see him as a twelve-year-old, perhaps an indication of when he was still in a state of grace. Jack’s dwelling on the importance of R.L. for his salvation throughout the film may be understood as a form of intercession for his brother’s soul.

At any rate, if indeed we can understand the death in the film as referring to the filmmaker’s brother, there is no indication that Mr. Malick denies the danger to one’s salvation entailed in suicide. It is thus in the cross and the love of God in which the hope for R.L’s salvation must be sought, which may indicate why the stained-glass Christ seems to look down on R.L. Mrs. O’Brien spoke of the nuns at the beginning of the film. Echoing not too far below the surface of her luminous words which close the film are the teachings of the fourteenth-century English nun, Julian of Norwich, who forcefully proclaimed in her teachings, as Peter Berger has summarized them, “that God is love, that he created the world out of love, and that this love keeps the world in being every moment.” The serenity of the ending in which R.L. seems to go off toward some sort of purgatory evokes one of the most famous passages from Julian’s writings: “And all will be well. And all will be well. And every manner of thing will be well.”

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2 replies to this post
  1. This post posits that Tree of Life has a problem with addressing the question of personal salvation solely because the writer finds hints that the younger brother committed suicide. It is an interesting take, but I’ve seen the movie a number of times and have read many essays on it — though not, as of yet, Leithart’s book — and I never picked up on these inferences of suicide.

    It is a mistake to conclude that the character committed suicide just because Malick’s brother committed suicide, just like it is erroneous to conclude that Decker was a replicant just because Ridley Scott later said he was. (Or that Dumbledore is homosexual because Rawling later “revealed” it. If its not in the “text,” its not there.

    I’m not sure it makes any difference, however. The suffering of the family would be the same whether or not the younger son committed suicide. Also, there is nothing in the “salvation” scenes that R.L. Is treated any differently than others who have passed this life. Nor, to be consistent at least with current Catholic understanding of suicide, would there be reason to assume that the character would be treated differently in the heaven (there is no indication if it is limbo, purgatory, or heaven) scenes if he had committed suicide than if he had died at war, for there is certainly no indication in the film that R.L., if he committed suicide, committed a rational act out of despair. It’s just not there.

    Nonetheless, it is food for thought and will probably prompt me to watch the movie again.

  2. I received a copy of the telegram used in the film and it identifies the cause of death as a car accident in Mexico City. (Paul Maher Jr. editor/author of One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick)

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