The Tree of Life

“There are 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. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature 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. And love is smiling through all things.”

Here’s a review of the film from our friend Michael Frost:

The Tree of Life review

by Michael Frost on Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 8:19am

The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is a film like no other. And judging from the dissatisfaction and ridicule expressed by those who saw it in the same cinema as us, that’s not necessarily a good thing for many moviegoers. Those of us who’ve been fans of Terrence Malick since the 70’s are more likely to be better prepared for what awaits us. Like Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, this picture includes all the standard Malick hallmarks, like multiple voiceovers full of existential questioning, dramatic shots of nature (especially his much-loved windswept tall grass), stunning use of light and shadows, and a glacially slow meandering narrative. But it’s what else The Tree of Life includes that is so striking, taking this film to a whole new and astonishing level. They include scenes from outer space, the dawn of time, and dream sequences that appear to be set in heaven. It is grand, ostentatious, and simply breathtaking.

And yet at the heart of the film we find the relatively mundane story of twelve year old Jack O’Brien, growing up with his two brothers in Waco, Texas, in the late 1950s under the iron fist of his father, a failed musician and inventor.

The film begins with Jack’s mother speaking (in voiceover, though appearing to be talking to her sons): “There are 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. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature 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. And love is smiling through all things.”

While this sets the tone for the rest of the film, it really makes sense of Malick’s other films as well. They all seem to be about the struggle between the way of nature and the way of grace. But rather than simplistically separating these two ways, as though they are always distinct from each other, Malick sees both nature and grace wrestling throughout everything. He has filmed extraordinary patterns in nature and architecture as well as scenes of unspeakable physical beauty to depict the omnipresent way of grace. But he has also included images of devastating volcanoes, crashing meteors, and unpredictable sun flares. Nature and grace are everywhere, even in nature itself. In one amazing scene he takes us back in time to when dinosaurs roamed the earth (yes, you read right, dinosaurs) and shows a predatory dinosaur capture an injured prey beneath it’s clawed foot, only to show it grace by releasing it into the wild.

In the scenes featuring Jack and his little brothers at play we see moments of deep and genuine love and trust, but also moments of destructiveness and spite. Young Jack begins to recognise this himself as the film unfolds and we hear him (in voiceover, of course) quoting from Romans 7: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  The way of nature and the way of grace appear to have seeped into every pore of every part of the universe, especially into human nature, according to Terrence Malick.

To personify this battle, Malick has created Jack’s parents. Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) follows nature, while his angelic wife (Jessica Chastain) is embodied grace. Jack’s father is tough and hard with his boys, preparing them for the way of nature, as we’ve already heard, the way of pleasing oneself, of lording it over others, and getting one’s own way. As a result Jack grows to despise his father while at the same recognising that he shares so many character traits with him. Having said that, the Brad Pitt character is not all evil. In fact, he displays moments of genuine grace and a deep affection for his boys. Even in Mr O’Brien, nature and grace is at war, but, given the overall effect on young Jack, it is the way of nature that dominates him. Mrs O’Brien, on the other hand, is all grace. She is forgiving, selfless, playful and beautiful. In one scene she inexplicably dances in the air, as if the law of gravity has no hold on her. I think Malick is saying that when grace takes hold of you it is complete and utter.

A devout Catholic, Malick has filled his film with overtly Christian symbolism and imagery. There are several scenes set in church, including a baptism, a funeral and holy communion. We hear part of a sermon based on the Book of Job. There are images of stained glass, crucifixes, trees reaching heaven-ward, organ pipes and more. Later in the film, the adult Jack (Sean Penn) must pass through a door frame in the desert to reach a heavenly shore in his search for peace.

The central theme, it seems to me, is expressed by the adult Jack, a middle aged architect caught in the midst of an existential crisis, reflecting back on his childhood and the premature death of one of his brothers (which provides the emotionally heart of the story). In voiceover (of course), he bemoans, “Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

This wrestling inside him is the eternal struggle between self-centredness and love, and Malick is telling us that it contaminates every part of human society and every aspect of the universe. Jack’s mother had told him: “The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end,” but when his younger brother dies, presumably in the Vietnam War though this is never fully explained, Jack reflects on how that brother personified grace much like their mother. As a result, Jack is tortured by questions about how suffering can coexist with grace.

The resolution of these questions, if resolution is what it can be called, on the heavenly shore I mentioned, will be comfort to some and an annoyance to others. And yet these scenes were so full of emotion and beauty they brought tears to my eyes.

The Tree of Life opens with a quotation from Job 38:4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundation 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 this passage Yahweh condemns Job for daring to question him and fires off a barrage of unanswerable questions for the feeble Job to ponder. That’s pretty much what we get for the more than two hours this film lasts – questions from God. How can we explain the power of the sun, the relentless of the rolling surf, the fury of the volcano, the vastness of the solar system, the majesty of the deepest ocean, etc? And in the middle of all this, how can we explain how the way of nature and the way of grace wrestle within each human heart?

In a year where a surprising number of films are exploring religious themes in an overtly Christian manner (Of Gods and Men, Get Low, etc) The Tree of Life is a staggering meditation on the meaning of life, the presence of God, the character of human nature, and the perpetual longing for grace. Even if this is lost on the less discerning moviegoers who sat behind us in the cinema.

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