‘The Tree of Life’:
Nature vs. Grace, Deconstructed
Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
Fox Searchlight Pictures
2011, 139 minutes
Winner of this year’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or award, many have hailed Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as the must-see film of the year. One film blogger gushes that “The Tree of Life” will “leave you stunned and speechless because words can hardly describe this spiritual experience.” Yet, when the final credits rolled at the festival premiere, many film buff audience members booed Malick’s latest artistic efforts.
From touting the film as enlightening, heartbreaking, and transcendent to decrying it as pretentious, soulless, and didactic, these filmgoers’ polarized experiences probably sound familiar if you’ve followed Malick’s career. Each of his earlier films (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “A Thin, Red Line,” and “The New World”) reveals a philosophical preoccupation with the individual’s place in and responsibility to the larger world, particularly how the desire for self-preservation often stands at odds with social obligations. “The Tree of Life” asks a similar question: are we doomed to choose between two paths in life, one of nature (self-oriented) or one of grace (other-oriented)? Malick explores this philosophical quandary on an epic visual scale, weaving hard-science footage that depicts the origins of the universe and life on Earth with the memory of a 1950s baby boomer family in central Texas.
The movie opens when the middle-aged O’Brien couple, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, receives word that their second-born and most beloved son has died at 19. Mostly devoid of dialogue, these heartbreaking but pitch-perfect scenes crosscut between mother (grace) and father (nature) as they grapple with their grief. Soon after, we meet the oldest son and the film’s disillusioned protagonist, Jack, who, years after his brother’s death, admits to his father via telephone that he thinks about his brother every day. Though a successful architect, Jack is emotionally and spiritually at sea amid tall buildings and endless highways. As he watches a large tree being planted downtown, Jack begins what will become the central reminiscence of the film: his formative years with his family in Waco, Texas.
Rather than immediately cut to Jack’s childhood, however, Malick first treats us to gorgeous scientific footage of the Big Bang as well as of the first organisms to populate Earth, all the while imbuing this astronomical story with spiritual weight. This earthy evolution eventually zooms in on Jack’s birth. His development from infancy to young adulthood then serves as the heart of the film.
Why this narrative move for an otherwise straightforward coming of age story? According to New York Times film critic, A. O. Scott, “The Tree of Life” proposes that a person’s coming of age is rooted in acknowledging the struggle between one’s nature and one’s grace:
…the loss of innocence is not a singular event in history but rather an axiom of human experience, repeated in every generation and in the consciousness of every individual. The miraculous paradox is that this universal pattern repeats itself in circumstances that are always unique…so this specific postwar coming-of-age story, quietly astute in its assessment of the psychological dynamics of a nuclear family in the American South at the dawn of the space age, is also an ode to childhood perception and an account of the precipitous fall into knowledge that foretells childhood’s end.
The idea that the modern human psyche is forever at odds with itself, divided between the id/ego and superego, is old hat in both film and literature. However, few filmmakers so carefully reveal how this division has been stamped into us since the universe exploded into existence and the first living cell squeezed itself in half.
“The Tree of Life” trailer promises a battle between animal desire and spiritual maturity. Mrs. O’Brien, the overly saintly mother, says that “[t]here are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.” From a young age, the film shows Jack longing to be as selfless as his mother and actively resisting his “nature”-oriented father, a man whose personal desires are constantly frustrated because of his responsibility to his family and who shows his fatherly love primarily by encouraging competitiveness and “fierce will” in his sons. During one whispery voiceover, young Jack says, “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Throughout the Texas childhood moments, Malick provides numerous tense scenes that reveal Jack’s psychological struggle between nature and grace. Particularly compelling are the moments during Jack’s adolescence when he battles the selfish tendencies inherited from his father. For the young boy, each emotional outburst leads him further from the grace of his mother.
During the first three quarters of the film, Jack does follow the path of nature. A big-time Texas developer, he appears to prove that, in a culture of individualism, we’re more likely to realize our self-driven desires to thrive than to willingly sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. However, at the film’s hotly contentious close, adult Jack has either reached End Times, died, or merely relinquished his ego. Whichever interpretation you favor, he meets his mother, father, and younger brothers on a scenic seashore peopled by softly-lit folk. Here, nature and grace meet, suggesting that our divided selves can be made whole only when we cease fixating on the need to compartmentalize our identities. As the film’s title suggests, all things in life, from conception to death, even the death of our species—are connected; and homo sapiens sapiens’ greatest tragedy is the inability to psychically reconcile that connection in our lives.
Gwynne Middleton, Managing Editor