“There are two ways to go through life,” we’re told in The Tree of Life. “The way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.”
We are born into worlds of science and wonder. Our bodies are built of DNA and protoplasm, molded from clay and dust and the breath of God. We’re torn by random tragedy, healed through purposeful transformation. Ours is a place where the strong survive and the meek are blessed. It is a place of paradox.
Jack was born into a world of enchantment and light. Sunshine cascades through green canopies to the grass below, bounces off water like rippling gold. It’s a land of discovery, of soap bubbles and sprinklers. And at the heart of it all, Jack sees his mother … as if she made it all happen.
His father’s there, too, a strong and stalwart man. And as Jack grows, his father’s presence grows with him. He begins placing demands on the boy: Don’t put your elbows on the dinner table. Don’t talk bad about other people. Demand respect. Be strong. Sit up straight. Call me sir. Don’t slam the door. Don’t speak unless I tell you to. Answer me when I’m talking to you. Don’t talk back. Don’t! DON’T!
And so Jack watches and learns. Strength is power. Power is good. And Jack begins testing the limits of his own power: The power to strap a frog to a bottle rocket ship, the power to hurt a stray dog, the power to scream at his mother. He longs for more strength, more power … the power to overcome his enemies, the power to crush the weak, the power to …
His father’s working underneath a jacked-up car. The jack handle is in his grasp. With a push he could—
He wants his father out of the way. He wants to free his mother, have her all to himself. He wants—
No one would know. It’d be an accident. It’d be one of those things. It’d be natural.
There are two ways to go through life, we’re told: nature—cold, selfish, unforgiving; and grace—warm, selfless, giving. The strong survive. The meek are blessed. Jack must choose—not just today, but tomorrow and the day after, for weeks and months and years. He must choose.
In The Tree of Life, Jack is looking for salvation—both as a young boy growing up in the 1950s and as a middle-aged man. And here’s the good news: He finds it.
Most of the story takes place when Jack is a boy. He’s angry and confused, wondering why he’s turning into everything he hates. He hurts other things and people. He’s becoming his father, losing sight of the grace embodied by his mom.
But he finds it again—in the model of his brother. Jack is stronger and (let’s face it) meaner than his grace-filled sibling, Mother and Father’s middle son. He picks on him, ruins his art projects and even physically hurts him. But after a particularly violent transgression, young Jack begs forgiveness—forgiveness that his brother grants. For all Jack’s strength and aggression, his meeker younger brother proves that there’s strength in grace, too—and that it’s a better way to go.
From then on, we see Jack make better decisions. He befriends a neighborhood child shunned by most of his playmates. He comforts his littlest brother when the family’s forced to move. He makes peace with his father—who comes to a better understanding of grace himself.
“I wanted to be loved because I was great,” he admits to Jack. “I’m nothing. … I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”
The Tree of Life is a rumination on God and nature, and of God’s nature. It begins with the quotation from Job in which God asks Job where he was “when I laid the earth’s foundation.”
Director Terrence Malick often uses light and the reflection of light to illustrate the real but ethereal presence of God. When characters talk with him, he is represented onscreen by a clutch of swirling, eddying colors—echoed in the film by a symphony of stars or a water-born reflection from a baptismal basin. Nature, meanwhile, in Malick’s presentation is a cold, Darwinian progress, sometimes represented by very unnatural manmade constructs, like massive turbines or towering skyscrapers. Yet the light is still there—reflected off the glass of a building or glimmering on the underside of a bridge.
The characters talk to that light—God—often. “Brother, mother,” Jack says as an adult. “It was they who led me to your door.”
There’s tension, of course, in this faith.
The film begins in the future, with the death of Jack’s grace-filled brother, to unknown causes. We see his deeply faithful mother grapple with what that death means. “He’s in God’s hands now,” someone tells her. “He was in God’s hands the whole time,” she thinks to herself. And we hear her ask unanswerable questions: “Was I false to you? Lord, why? Where were you? did you know? Who are we to you?” Jack’s mother’s own mother’s attempts to comfort—”You’ve still got the other two. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. That’s how He is”—seem stark and flimsy under the weight of the grief.
It’s telling that Jack’s father—a “natural” construct lacking in what Malick would call grace—is, in some ways, the most overtly religious person in this story, leading the family in prayer, lighting candles at church and shaking hands after services. Malick seems to be showing us that even the most religious of us don’t always have a handle on whom it is we worship.
Jack feels that tension. He prays, “Help me to be thankful for everything I’ve got; help me not to tell lies,” while asking far deeper questions: “Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to know what you are.” After a child dies at a swimming pool and Jack begins struggling with his own sinful inclinations, the questions grow more pointed: “Was he bad? Where were you? You let a boy die. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”
These are the questions sometimes only children dare ask. And this film doesn’t try to answer them. But it does tell us that to follow grace is the best way to go through life. And we hear Jack’s mother finally submit to the mysterious will of God as she relinquishes the pain of her loss and says, “I give him to you. I give you my son.”
Elsewhere, Father says a rich man thinks of himself as “the fourth person of the Holy Trinity.” We see Jesus in stained glass. A sequence depicting the dawn of time presents an old-Earth, evolutionary outlook.
The version of Jack we spend the most time with is perhaps 12 years old, on the cusp of adolescence, and we see in him new desires beginning to stir. He flirts with a girl in his class. He takes notice of an exposed knee or swish of skirt. One day, when he sees an attractive girl leave her house, he “breaks in” (the door’s unlocked) and goes through her drawers. A silky, diaphanous nightgown catches his eye, and he spreads it over her bed to stare at it, blood thumping in his ears. The next we see, he’s running away with the nightgown in his hands, eventually tossing it in the river and letting it float away.
He’s ashamed when he comes home. “I can’t talk to you,” he tells his mother. “Don’t look at me.” And later he wallows in incredible guilt. “What have I started? What have I done?”
For a time it appears as if these sexual inclinations turn to his own mother. He watches her wash her feet in a sprinkler, sees her wear the same sort of silky nightgown he threw in the river. The camera work makes it clear that he’s eyeing her not as a mother, but as a sexual object. And so it becomes clear that he’s found for himself a Freudian Oedipus, and that his father has become a rival for his mother’s affections. “She only loves me!” the boy shouts at the man.
We see Jack’s father and mother lie on the grass together, affectionately embracing. Father presses his ear to Mother’s exposed, pregnant belly.
Malick’s natural world is a violent one. Rarely do we see it explicitly played out, but it seems to hang in the air—a menace, a coming storm. And it’s embodied in the film’s turbulent father figure.
The father teaches his boys how to fight. “The minute you see ’em blink, crack ’em,” he tells Jack. During this training, he asks both Jack and his middle son to punch him in the face. Jack tries. The younger boy refuses. When the middle boy talks back to Father at the dinner table, Father reaches across the table, grabs the kid by the shirt and lifts him out of his chair. When Jack tries to make him stop, Father half throws Jack into his bedroom and slams the door, and we hear yelling and fighting outside. Later that night, Mother—furious with Father over the scene at the dinner table—lunges at the man; he restrains her, wrapping her arms tightly in his. “Stop!” he shouts.
Through a window Jack sees another couple arguing—the man yelling abusively at the woman. Convicts struggle against law officers and kick inside police cruisers. Jack shoots someone else’s finger with a BB gun and encourages that boy to stick his finger in a lamp socket. (The lamp turns out to be unplugged.) In a sequence set in the distant past, a seagoing dinosaur appears to be beached, nursing a gaping wound.
Father says “h‑‑‑” once.
Jack and his brothers are disrespectful to both of their parents. And they often treat their mother more as a fellow child than a mother. The brothers also mock others for the way they walk or look.
In 1859, Charles Darwin introduced his concept of “The Tree of Life,” an abstract structure showing how all life was (according to his theory of evolution) intertwined and interrelated, sprouting from the same trunk. Darwin’s tree changed the world of science and still challenges many a faith. Some atheists see Darwin’s theory as the death knell of religion, and would argue that Darwin’s tree changed the way we see nature: Instead of being given carte blanche by God to dominate it, to subjugate it to our will, we were suddenly shown to be one small part of it—a part of a greater whole.
The Tree of Life might be interpreted in different ways. It’s a film designed to provide impressions, not details. For me, it seems as if Terrence Malick uses it as a rebuttal, suggesting that Darwin’s tree is far from life-giving. He rips the veil away from nature’s holy of holies to show us that it is nature, not God, that demands subjugation; it is God, not nature, who inspires grace.
It’s not a simple case, though. The film doesn’t quibble with evolution. Nor does it embrace the fullness of the Christian God. Malick suggests that we are creatures of both nature and grace—animal and angel. Malick’s sometimes small-g god is inscrutable, unknowable. We can’t understand him. We can’t hope to. And for all of these reasons, The Tree of Life can be a deeply challenging film.
And yet it breathes deeply of the ethical (if not literal and historical) oxygen of Christianity as it speaks to submission, forgiveness, sacrifice and grace.
“I didn’t know how to name you then,” Jack says, his disembodied words trickling past as a light swirls onscreen. “But I see it was you. Always you were calling me.”
God is calling us. Whispering to us. And in the midst of The Tree of Life’s inconsistencies and irregularities, I believe it may help some try to hear.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.