TREE OF LIFE: From Genesis to Revelation

A friend was recently searching for my original review of Tree of Life and discovered it was no longer available online.   So here are my initial thoughts about Terrence Malick’s towering cinematic achievement from May 2011:

Tree of Life resurrects the era when Hollywood still aspired to greatness.  Not since 2001:  A Space Odyssey (or less successfully, The Fountain) has a filmmaker attempted to capture both the origins of life and our ultimate destination.   Terrence Malick came of age when movies still mattered.   And with Tree of Life, only his fifth feature in forty years, Malick has drawn upon ancient biblical wisdom to prod and comfort adventuresome filmgoers.   Some will find it tedious and overreaching.  But those who surrender to the resplendent images may find the experience unexpectedly healing.

Countless stories have started with the problem of pain.   We wonder why the innocent suffer.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Tree of Life opens with quotations from the book of Job.   In the biblical narrative, Job loses his wife, his children, his health and his home.   Friends offer bad advice, blaming him for his ordeal, suggesting he repent from whatever sins caused God to send so much suffering.   Job is understandably tempted to curse God.  Malick has chosen source material ripe for drama.  In 1959, Archibald MacLeish turned the trials of Job into the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, J.B.    Yet, Tree of Life focuses not upon the losses of Job but upon the overwhelming answer from God.   Ultimately, Job is humbled by a God’s barrage of questions rooted in creation.   “Where you there, Job?”   “Did you set this all in motion?”  Tree of Life dares to offer a divine perspective on tragedy.

Without that framework, Tree of Life may seem random and intractable.   It is a poetic meditation on loss.  It unfolds as a visual symphony with five or six movements centered around a core aspect of life:  death, birth, the age of awareness.  The sections are separated by musical cues rather than plot twists.    The soundtrack includes classical compositions by Bach, Brahms, and Holst and contemporary requiems by Henryk Goreki, John Tavener and Mother Thekla.  The threadbare plot flows from tragedy to creation, and from innocence to experience.    A family is invited to move from grief to surrender.    And viewers are taken from Genesis to Revelation.  (Warning:  spoilers ahead)

The simple story begins with a telegram, laden with tragic news.   The O’Brien’s nineteen-year-old son has died.    We appear to be following the arc of a grieving mother (Jessica Chastain).   But a repressed father (Brad Pitt) also stops in his tracks.    We are transported to a city, where their oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn) is a successful architect.    With his brother dead, Jack flashes back to a flood of childhood memories.    Whispered questions to God, “Where were you?” and “Who are we to you?” follow.   To the insistent plea, “Answer me” comes a surprising reply.

Tree of Life takes a trip to the cosmos, to the creation of the universe.   This twenty-minute sequence arrives so early in the film that audiences will be confounded.    It plays like an IMAX science project, including nebula, lava, and steam.   Creatures emerge, slowly crawling onto land.   A tree takes root.   The connections between the foundation of the earth and the death of one child in Texas may be lost on most viewers.   We are not used to mystery, particularly in a time when most entertainment tells us what to think and how to feel.    But things get even more vexing when dinosaurs arrive.   Conditioned by Jurassic Park to expect plenty of dino-terror, we are shown a moment of unexpected grace.   Malick manages to offend both sides of the Creationism versus Darwinism debate.  Tree of Life will be too religious for some, too earthy for others.

Malick juxtaposes the way of grace and the way of nature.   He references the Apostle Paul’s meditation of love.   Grace doesn’t try to please itself; it accepts insults and injuries.   The screenplay suggests Nature lords power over us, finding reasons to be hungry rather than satisfied.    What is our calling?   To be true to God, whatever comes our way.

While such lofty ambitions could come across as stifling, Tree of Life brims with vitality.   It puts such ultimate choices inside a young boy’s mind.   Hunter McCracken makes a remarkable debut as “Young Jack.”    Brad Pitt is equally engaging, combining the soul of a church organist with the frustrations of a failed inventor.   He teaches his sons how to box because life is going to throw plenty of punches their way.   Jessica Chastain is cast as mother earth, utterly unflappable and almost silent amidst the trials of her household.   Is the family too iconic?  Are the roles of Mother and Father and Son elevated into type?    Surely that is Malick’s point—the entire human drama and even the cosmos itself is contained in one Texas family.    As 2001:  A Space Odyssey compressed the history of human progress from one weapon (a bone) to another (a spaceship), so Tree of Life leaps from the Creation to a womb.    Deal with it, people.   Rediscover the wonder of the nuclear family, from the Fall in the garden, to the tragic reality of brother versus brother.

The most captivating sequence in the film begins with pregnancy.    A child emerges from an underwater room/womb, a luscious image that feels utterly right.   We follow Jack from birth to first steps, through the discovery of shapes and mirrors.   As speech and vocabulary build, the boy learns of the alligator and the kangaroo, odd animals that point to the playful God who created them.   Into this Edenic backyard arrives the oldest distraction known to humanity—a sibling.  Competition arrives, along with scarcity, and the word, “No.”   With a sense of possession arises every child’s claim, “It’s mine.”    Insecurities follow, as Jack asks his parents, “Who do you love the most?”   We were given beauty and eternity, but we weren’t satisfied.   We wanted to hoard it for ourselves.  

Production designer Jack Fisk recreates the fifties in Waco, Texas with remarkable attention to detail.   Malick worked with five editors to conjure a cinematic Esperanto, designed to spark moments of recognition in the audience.    Kids revel in Halloween, fireworks, and kicking the can.   All appears blissful.   But in town, the first signs of imperfection slip in.    There is segregation.   The handicapped walk with a limp.   A house is burned.   A boy’s head is left scarred.   Criminals are arrested, shoved into the back of a police car.  In Genesis, the Tree of Life brought knowledge of good and evil.   An avalanche of theological conundrums followed.   In the cinematic Tree of Life, awareness creates anxiety especially after a childhood playmate drowns.    What kind of God allows such accidents to happen?    And if God is not good or trustworthy, then why should we behave in an ethical manner?  

With Dad on a business trip, the boys are free to run wild.   They break windows.   Jack sneaks into a neighbor’s house.   Under the first flush of teen sexuality, he rifles through her underwear.   He steal the woman’s slip.   He hurts his younger brother with a BB gun.    Confronted by his sins, the boy feels guilty, but powerless to restrain himself.   He echoes the dilemma of St. Paul, “I do what I hate; what I want to do, I can’t do.”   The family’s move away from Waco is also a move away from childhood—innocence lost.   So who or what will prevail?

Tree of Life concludes with mesmerizing scenes approximating life after death.   I haven’t seen such a compelling heavenly vision since another Texan, Robert Benton, directed Places in the Heart in 1984.   The older Jack takes an elevator up a Houston skyscraper.   It is more than little distracting to see Sean Penn suddenly walking amongst Red Rocks, spying his younger self.   But go with it anyway.   Tree of Life takes us to a gathering at a distant shore.    Is it the ocean?   A shallow lake?   I was reminded of the old Gospel hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River?”  whose lyrics affirm, “Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river; gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.”  

Having started with the Big Bang of Genesis, Malick concludes with a vision from Revelation 22 where the angel showed John, “The river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of the great street of the city.  On each side of the river stood the tree of life.”    Malick skips the city, but concludes with the eponymous tree.    The tree incident from Genesis is widely recounted.    But how rarely we talk about the tree of life in Revelation whose magic leaves include healing for the nations.   The tragic beginning of the biblical story comes full circle into a radiant, fruitful finale.  Malick restores the full tale of the tree.

All the characters reunite in a state of bliss, a dramatic curtain call.   Pain and sorrow seem to have vanished.   Dad holds his son aloft.   Angels attend to Mother.   As the sounds of Berlioz’s “Agnus Dei” rise, she lifts up her considerable burden.   This moving requiem celebrates “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the Lord.”   Mrs. O’Brien releases her son to God and a field of sunflowers appears.

The power of her surrender snuck up on me.   Having lost my younger sister in a car wreck, I am well acquainted with the grief central to the story.   Yet, I did not anticipate how purgative Tree of Life would become.    I had never encountered such purity in a movie.   The film did not insist.  It hardly coerced.   It merely offered a comforting, divine possibility.   How can all dross be removed from a movie frame?    The mystery left our audience in stunned silence.  No one moved.   A spirit of peace washed over the screening room.   We wanted the sacred stillness to linger.

I recognize that such writing opens itself up to hyperbole.    Not every image in the film works.   Some will tire of cinematographer Emmanuel Lebezki’s camera flaring from sunlight peering through a massive tree.  I was most distracted by a mask floating in the water.   But other moments, like Mom, pirouetting in the tree or a crew spraying DDT for bugs are transporting.    The message is delivered in whispers throughout.    Laid off from his job, Dad realizes, “I dishonored it all—I didn’t notice the glory.”   Mom imparts the moral of the story, “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”   Not all audiences will embrace Tree of Life as a gift.  One must surrender in order to receive.   For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Tree of Life arrives as a comforting tonic in tough times.   Malick’s artistic eye has never been on the box office.   He aims for nothing less than eternity.

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is a filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator who has been featured on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ABC's Nightline and in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He blogs as "Doc Hollywood" for Patheos.com.


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