Some Personal Thoughts on "Tree of Life" movie, Directed by Terrence Malick

Tree of Life – Terrence Malick 

"A man's heart has heard two ways through life. The way of nature. And the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked...It accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. It 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. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us, that no one who loves the way of grace, ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes..." 

The Tree of Life is a movie whose ambition sets out to encompass the entire experience of the human life, both good an bad. The music plays in incredible part in the texture of the film, utilizing many great pieces of classical music. The visuals are stunning, as is common to all Terrence Malick films and his style of shooting. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest movies ever made. To fully appreciate it, though, requires full attention to the movie, as sometimes the genius of it is shown in clips and phrases which pass very quickly. It also requires some background understanding of the plot and timeline. Here's my attempt at cracking open the genius of this film. I hope that you watch it and ponder it for yourself. I would recommend watching it alone, on a big TV, with subtitles on. Please comment below your thoughts on the movie!

The Book of Job 

The movie is a modern day retelling of the Book of Job from the Old Testament. In the Book of Job, God allows Job to be tested regarding his faith by letting the devil strip everything away from him. Hs wealth is stolen, his children die in a freak accident, his wife turns on him, his own health begins to fail, and his friends accuse him of sinning. It is at that point that Job calls out to God. His despair is so great that he wishes that God would have never let him been born, and so he calls out to God asking why these things have happened since he has been a righteous man. God comes to Job and shows him the creation of the universe and the creation and maintaining of the seasons and animals. God is showing Job that his divine perspective on life and suffering is different than our limited human perspectives on things. Secondly, God introduces Job to the Leviathan, the sea dragon of chaos. 

The Leviathan is a metaphorical beast which no man can tame, run from, or harm, but who seeks to humble the prideful of humanity, bringing the haughty low. God has created chaos along with man to prevent him from his inclination to prideful rebellion. Finally, Job asks for forgiveness for losing his trust and the vision ends. Job concludes with a Heavenly epilogue in which Job has more children, becomes even wealthier than before, and lives out his old age to see generations of decedents grow up. That is just a little background that would be helpful going into the movie. 

Timeline and Layout of the Movie 

The movie is about a family from Waco, Texas. The father (played by Brad Pitt), the mother (played by Jessica Chastain), Jack (the oldest son who in some scenes is played by Sean Penn), and the two younger brothers. The middle brother, who is portrayed to be a very sweet and innocent child, is shown to be dead at the age of 19 when his mother receives a letter in the mail. This starts off the dramatic journey of the movie. How is it that God let their son/brother die so young? How is one supposed to accept such a fate? How can we trust God when these tragedies happen? To my knowledge, it is not said how the second son dies. The movie, though, can be confusing as there are cuts between five different time periods throughout the movie. There is the 1970's Waco house where they receive the news of death, there is the 1950's Waco house where they are all little kids growing up, there is modern day where Jack has grown up and is a middle aged man at his job, there is a lengthy section which depicts the creation of the universe, and finally there is a section at the end which is something like a Heavenly reunion. 

After watching this movie many times, it became clear to me that in reality the whole movie takes place within one setting, the rest of the cuts are cuts away from that one basic setting. The entire movie takes place on the anniversary of the middle brother's death, 40 years later in contemporary time. Jack wakes up on this day and spends the day contemplating his brother, his family, his experiences, his own goodness, his relationship to God, and if there can be some type of resolution. He mindlessly wanders around his work lost in thought during this one day. It is these thoughts and imaginations that make up the rest of the movie and the cuts between time frames. We are entering adult Jack's mind and imagination and exploring it. That is the entire movie. This also explains why many of the scenes in the movie are shown from a perspective that transcends reality, because its in the mind and memories of him as a child, and Malick tries to show the fantastical nature of life from that child's perspective. You experience, through Jack's eyes, love, wonder, excitement, growth, exploration, discovery, but also fear, sin, resentment, hatred, and tragedy. 

Outline of the Plot 

If I were to describe a basic outline of the movie, it would be like this. Grown Jack is asleep dreaming as it turns into the day of his brother's anniversary. In this dream he sees his mother receiving the news of death, her grief, her prayers and struggles, her questioning God, and his brother's funeral. My son. "I just want to die. To be with him. He's in God's hands now. He was in God's hands the whole time. Wasn't he? My home. My God. I shall fear no evil. Fear no evil, for you are with me. What did you gain?" 
Then he wakes up on the morning of and we see him light a candle for his brother before work. He heads into work at a large corporate job but can't seem to focus on anything. As he goes through his day at work he sits and daydreams about life and his brother's death. The movie cuts then to the creation sequence where you see the Big Bang, the formation of planets, the beginnings of life, the dinosaurs, and finally present day. The movie cuts then to life for the family in their early years as the boys are all born and slowly growing up. There is some back and forth between these early years and his time at work, but this is the lion's share of the movie. Jack appears to probably be around 11 or 12 years old. The movies slows down and you get to spend time in his memory at that age. This is where a lot of the drama happens. Finally, the movie ends with a scene of Heaven in which there is total resolution to Jack's suffering and the suffering of his family. 

Themes of Nature and Grace

"Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will." It is during these years of young Jack's life that two themes emerge which color the whole movie and effectively represent the dichotomy of life which the Book of Job presents as well. These is the dichotomy between "nature" and "grace." This is fundamental to Jack understanding everything about his life. On the one hand, there is the side of life which is dominated by nature. This side is impersonal, cruel, tough, sinful, selfish, unforgiving, and humbling. Like the Leviathan from Job, nature doesn't care if it causes chaos in your family, if someone you love dies, if you father is abusive to you, if you become selfish and sinful and twisted, that's just the way things work. We see Jack learn and experience this through his relationship to his father. His father is a hard man. He believes in working hard, picking yourself up by your bootstraps, never saying you can't do something, being wise as a serpent in a worldly sense, and fighting for what you want. 

"You're going to stand there and you're going to close this door quietly, 50 times. Count it out. You can't just take off the top. You got to get them by the roots. Your mother's naïve. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you're good, people take advantage of you. Every one of these top executives, you know how they got where they are? Floated right down the middle of the river. Don't let anyone tell you there's anything you can't do. Don't do like I did, promise me that. Dreamed of being a great musician. I let myself get sidetracked." ... "He's a friend of mine. The one who's after real estate in town. Frank Johnson. Started out as a barber. He built something, big. Now you'd think he was the fourth person of the Holy Trinity. They never talk about their money. Wrong people go hungry. Die. Wrong people get loved. The world lives by a trigger. You want to succeed? You can't be too good." ... "Toskanini. Once recorded a piece 65 times. You know what he said when he finished? It could be better. Think about it. It means ownership, ownership of ideas. You gotta sew them up. Get them by the nuts if you pardon my French. Be rich. You make yourself what you are. You have control of your own destiny. Can't say I can't. You see I'm having trouble. I'm not done yet. Can't say I can't."

At the same time he comes off as abusive at times to his family, cold and harsh, always trying to toughen them up for the real world. Jack also experiences nature in himself when he begins to follow in his Dad's footsteps, hurting others and committing sins. "What I want to do I can't do. I do what I hate." Finally Jack sees it in God, as he questions God when he sees a boy drown at the pool, or a deformed man hobble down the street, or a convict arrested. Now on the other hand, Jack experiences the other side of life, that of grace. Grace is about love, about forgiveness, gentleness, appreciation of each moment, fun and laughter, and contentment. He experiences this primarily through his mother who is portrayed as a saintly figure, so kind and loving to them all. He also sees this in his childhood during the good times, the good memories, and most especially reflected in his younger brother, a pure soul. "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good to them. Wonder." One of the themes of the movie, and of Job, is that life is always going to be colored by these two realities, you can't escape them. Even if you try to bolster yourself against tragedy and suffering, you will never be successful. Suffering comes for us all. A beautiful sermon is given by their priest one Sunday at Mass. 

"Job imagined he might build his nest on high. That the integrity of his behavior would protect him against misfortune. And his friends thought mistakenly that the Lord could only have punished him because secretly he had done something wrong. 

But no. Misfortune befalls the good as well. We can't protect ourselves against it. We can't protect our children. We can't say to ourselves, even if I'm not happy, I'm going to make sure they are. We run before the wind, we think that it will carry us forever. It will not. We vanish as a cloud, we whither as the autumn grass. 

And like a tree, are rooted up. Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe? Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing, which does not pass away? We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forth. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace, but that. Is the body of the wise man or the just, exempt from any pain? 

From any disquietude, from the deformity that might blight its beauty from the weakness, that might destroy its health. Do you trust in God? Job too, was close to the Lord. Are your friends and children, your security? There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you. No one knows when sorrow might visit his house, any more than Job did. 

At the very moment everything was taken away from Job. He knew it was the Lord who had taken it away. Return from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal. As he alone see God's hand, who sees that he gives. 

Or does not also the one see God's hand, who sees that he takes away. Or does he alone see God, who sees God turn his face towards him? Does not also he see God, who sees God turn his back."


This idea is also seen the humbling of the father towards the end of the movie. The father who has tried to be such a big man, self-made, successful, proud is humbled when his proposed patents fall through, and he is laid off from his job to a position that no one wants. He has the realization that his priorities have been wrong the whole time. "I wanted to be loved because I was great. A big man. I am nothing. Look, the glory around us. Trees and birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn't notice the glory. A foolish man. They're closing the plant. They gave me a choice. No job. Or transfer to a job nobody wants. Father. I never missed a day of work. Mother. Tithe every Sunday. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will. You know Jack, all I ever wanted for you was... Make you strong and, grow up and be your own boss. Maybe I've been tough on you. I'm not proud of that. I'm as bad as you are. I'm more like you than her. It was about all I've done in life, otherwise I've drawn zilch. You're all I have, you're all I want to have. My sweet boy." Again, this connects to the same meaning as from the Book of Job. God has allowed us all to experience, not just the good, but also suffering and trial in order to humble us, in order to have us turn to relationship with him instead of to ourselves, in order to get us to trust in his divine perspective, and in order for us to receive the resolution of all things in Heaven. Finally, at the end of the anniversary day, older Jack finds the resolution has been looking for to his pain. He begins to accept God's providence over his life and there is a scene in which he encounters everyone from his life, most especially his family ... and they are all at peace. 

Other Symbolism

Now there are some other consistent pieces of imagery throughout the movie. The "flame" is one that is present before several of the cut scenes to different time periods. It is there at the first shot of the movie before creation, and the last shot of the movie at the end of the world. This flame represents God's presence guiding all of history along, present in each of our lives, calling out to us to trust him, inviting us into relationship with him. 

There is also the "tree" which is shown from a similar angle throughout with the camera at the bottom panning upwards into its branches. This is, of course, the "tree of life." The tree of life is the origin of this life we live, this live split between its dichotomy of nature and grace. It was Adam and Eve who ate from the tree, causing them to be cast into the world of suffering, yet it was also this fault which merited God to offer us a plan of salvation through his son. As is one of the deepest mysteries in life, the very thing that makes us suffer is often the very thing that brings us to redemption. Third, there is the symbolism of a "doorway" and "bridge" which is shown at different points and represents a transition into trust and providence. "Was I false to you? Lord... Why? Where were you? Did you know? Who are we to you? Answer me. We cry to you. My soul. My son. Hear us. Light up my life. I search for you. ... Keep us. Guide us. To the end of time. Follow me. I give him to you. I give you my son." When Jack, and his mother too, transition from questioning and suffering to trust and acceptance, they cross from earth into Heaven. 


In conclusion, this movie, in so many subtle ways, explores the deepest questions of life. Why do I suffer? Why does tragedy strike the innocent? Where are you God in all of this? Will there ever be a resolution to my life? How do I choose to love and to trust when it's so easy to become jaded and selfish? On the flip side it also interestingly paints suffering, like in the Book of Job, and to a certain extent, not completely, as a means by which God humbles us in our rebellious pride, leading us to seek his face. In this sense, I again argue that is one of the best movies ever made if you take the time to appreciate it!