Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
Peter J. Leithart
Because I like to do things in the wrong order, I bought this book after writing about The Tree of Life for the 52 Movies project. Perhaps it’s just as well; the temptation to discuss the book’s many insights would have made my review too long.
Leithart is a Biblical scholar, not a film critic, and he admits as much up front. He was so enchanted by Malick’s film, however, and so impressed by its theological weight, that he felt compelled to write about it. He recommends that readers see the film at least three times before taking up the book, and that sounds right to me.
If you haven’t seen the film at all, not only will Leithart’s book not be very meaningful to you, but this post might spoil things too. Not that it is the sort of film to suffer from spoilers, but some people are sensitive about such things…
The book covers many topics in its short compass. I was not surprised to see him writing about music, memory, and family as treated in the film, but he also treats several topics that I had not considered before, such as the way Malick uses water imagery, or the way he focuses on hands, or his use of doors and windows. For me the most valuable parts of the book were the discussion of the film’s overall structure, of the relationship between the film and the Book of Job, of the themes of nature and grace, of the role of evil in the film, and of that long, vexing final sequence on the beach.
The Tree of Life opens with a mysterious, flame-like image that fades in and then out, and the same image recurs at three other points in the film. The first divides that moving opening segment of the film set in the late 1960s from the Sean Penn segment set in the 2010s. The second occurs soon after, dividing the Sean Penn segment from the creation sequence, and the third occurs at the very end of the film. Leithart argues, quite rightly I think, that it is significant that the flame does not divide the creation sequence from the long section of the film set in the 1950s, suggesting that Malick intends them to be taken together, as related to one another, and this provides guidance as we try to interpret what the creation sequence is doing.
On this question Leithart proposes a few answers which were not new to me. He notes (what is my favoured interpretation) that the creation sequence could be taken as an echo of God’s “Where were you when I laid the foundations?” response to Job. (And Leithart notes that the film’s main (and only named) character is Jack O’Brien, whose name actually contains an echo of JOB’s name.) As in Job, God’s answer to Job’s questions is not a direct answer; God does not justify his ways to men; but it is an answer “on the slant”, asking the one who pleads to consider God’s power and providence. Or, by setting the ordinary drama of the O’Brien family against a cosmic backdrop, Malick might be raising another Biblical question: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Yet the fact that the film itself is certainly mindful of the O’Briens makes us think about what the answer might be.
Leithart has also helped me to appreciate much more clearly how well-structured the film is as a whole. On first viewing(s), The Tree of Life can seem like a disconnected collection of chunks: the bit in the 60s, the long bit in the 50s, the bit in modern times, the creation bit, the beach bit. But Malick has subtly tied these parts together. For instance, in the very first moments of the film, when we see the mysterious flame for the first time, what we hear are the sounds of water on a beach, an obvious anticipation of the film’s closing beach sequence (but not so obvious that I hadn’t missed it before). And, crucially, in the early Sean Penn sequence there is an insert shot of his younger brother, R.L., standing on that same beach, and he speaks the words, “Find me”. I might almost say that this brief shot, which lasts less than a second and which I had hardly noticed on previous viewings, is an interpretive key to the whole film, for it is this “Find me” that sets in motion the descent into memory and the wrestling with God and death that constitute most of the film and determine its course.
Indeed, R.L. (whose initials we know only from reading the credits) emerges from Leithart’s analysis as a key character. His birth is the first disturbance to the happiness of his older brother Jack, who begins to experience jealousy and feel temptations to violence. He is a graced character, following his mother’s lead much as Jack follows his father’s, and so permits Malick to set up the nature / grace contrasts in both generations of the family. And it is R.L.’s forgiveness of Jack’s cruelty which, late in the film, begins to heal the wounds that were threatening the family’s life together. It is in light of R.L.’s place in Jack’s life that I begin to discern the overall structure of the film and its meaning, for that initial “Find me” on the beach is finally answered in the long beach sequence in which Jack does find him. The beach sequence is not just a strange add-on, but a fulfillment and completion of what came before. (Watching the film again after reading this book, I was surprised to find, for the first time, that this beach sequence actually brought tears to my eyes.)
Most interesting was Leithart’s analysis of the elements of this beach sequence. He points out that it is actually divided into two parts: a ‘resurrection’ part, with imagery of candles, processions, and figures rising from coffins, and a ‘reunion/restoration’ part, taking place on the beach. The two are separated by a shot in which the adult Jack passes through a doorway erected in the desert. In a long footnote, he cites evidence that the ‘resurrection’ part was originally planned to be much more extensive, and that Malick spent a lot of time filming material for it. It gives me another reason to want to see that rumoured 6-hour director’s cut!
Most commentators on The Tree of Life highlight the themes of nature and grace, and Leithart is no exception. He argues that as used in the film they don’t map readily onto Christian theological understandings of either. In the film, ‘nature’ stands for domination, competition, and control, whereas ‘grace’ stands for receptivity, contemplation, and love. Nature could be taken as representing modernity, while grace presents us a vision of an earlier order, or later (the influence of Malick’s beloved Heidegger is probably felt most strongly here). Grace is attention to being, which cannot be controlled or managed. Indeed, it is Mrs O’Brien’s openness to grace that makes her so vulnerable to loss and evil. Leithart also reminds us that Malick is himself a famously “graced” filmmaker, often working without a script, using reams of film in the hopes that something special will be captured fortuitously.
The film closes with two odd images: one of a field of sunflowers, and the second of a bridge. The latter is hard to love, being just a rather pedestrian shot of a suspension bridge, but Leithart argues that it is itself a symbol of reunion, uniting what had been separated, and therefore echoing the action of the film, and I suppose that is fair enough. (Perhaps not incidentally, Heidegger pontificated (if I may) about bridges.) The field of sunflowers is richer; Leithart calls it “the perfect image of the way of grace”, for a sunflower is rooted in the ground, but follows the arc of the sun with its face. It is indeed a beautiful, and beautifully apt, image.