Film The Tree of Life: Spiritual and Cosmic Paintings in Motion

Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life sweeps the film-goer into the universe and the life of Jack O’Brien, the character at the center of the film, along with his family. The cyclical and arcing non-linear narratives of universe and daily human life overlap one another with metaphors galore. The film is a complex masterpiece; it is a series of paintings on celluloid.

The film’s title, The Tree of Life, is significant as it points to everlasting life in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. The counterpoint to this tree is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God instructs Adam and Eve to stay away from the tree of knowledge. As is human, both were tempted to eat from the tree knowledge, and God cursed them with death rather than everlasting life on earth. Good and evil are central to Jack and his family lives, a dot really in biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the origins of the universe and life.

The film opens with passages from Job 38:4, 8 which frames the film:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding . . . Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”

If you missed these first words in the film, then you missed critical themes of the origins of life–foundation of the earth, water–H20 as life-giving and -altering, revelation–a door as transition and change, and the womb–birth as part of the meaning of human life irrevocably tied to death.

Malik’s overarching themes of religion, based in part on the Bible’s book of Job as a signpost, are origins of all kinds including the universe and Jack’s birth are traced throughout the film, well is actually the film.

The seemingly simple lives of the O’Brien’s are embedded in the Big Bang and religion. Jack’s birth is paralleled with the first spark that becomes the universe transitioning to simple and later complex forms of life-anemone to dinosaur–on earth.  Jack and Mrs. O’Brien, his mother, narrate the entire film with whispered phrases filled with cosmological and theological meaning set against the backdrop of an expanding universe and evolution:

  • Death of one of the middle O’Brien children at 19: “He’s in God’s hands now.”
  • As the universe becomes . . . : “Who are we to you? Answer me.”
  • In the midst of crashing water and moving clouds: “We cry to you . . . Hear us.”
  • A meteor hits the earth slamming earth into an ice age: “You spoke to me through her . . .I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
  • A boy drowns in a swimming pool: “Was he bad? Will you die too? You’re not that old yet, Mom. Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”

The last words intertwine with recurring themes of good versus evil–consider the Garden of Eden once again–central to Jack as he grows up. He’s born as raw material like the universe. Jack grows into evil; does the universe move along the same path? He vents his frustration when another brother, ultimately the middle child, is born. Jack’s anger expands and pulses like the universe as he bristles under the control and abuse by his father, and becomes his father full of anger and resentment. Both son and father’s ethics are skewed as Jack breaks a neighbor’s window and his father tells his children you have to look out for yourself. Is the universe, is God free of these ethical dilemmas? It seems Malik asks these and other question through the images and words in the film As is true of life in which we ask the big questions of who is God and how did the cosmos come into being, questions often remain unanswered.

Middle-aged Jack contemplates his life, the painful death of his brother, his damaged relationship with his father and mother, the meaning of the universe and life; it is all revelatory and cosmic. The towering trees and skyscrapers (spiraling urban trees)–reaching up to God vertically for comfort and answers; the water–a source of life, the skies–celestial heavens where God prevails are all part of a visual symphony that brings Jack around full circle from birth to death to after-life. His life parallels the universe which ignites with the Big Bang and closes with a supernova leading to a black hole, perhaps where the universe first begins again.

Another layer of the many narratives is religion paralleling in many ways the expansion of the universe, evolution, and human life. Jack’s experience is salvific. He is born unaware of sin, clay to be molded into good or evil. Ultimately, his father’s oppression turns in on Jack reinforcing evil. Jack does bad things like breaking into a neighbor’s, a woman’s, house stealing her underwear. He feels guilt even as a boy growing into adolescence. At the end of the film, Jack revisits his life through memories walking through a door, representing transition, to meet his family as if re-experiencing childhood. The family forgives the father with loving gestures. The 19-year-old son who died also appears as a child signifying reconciliation of past hurts. Perhaps Jack has died and is in heaven on the beach, experiencing a reinvention, redemption, happy times with his childhood family, much different from reality of his childhood.

At the end of the film, Malik shifts to scenes of a dying universe that parallels Jack’s experience of salvation–original sin, grace, repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and perfection–coming around full circle. Interestingly, the last scene mirrors the second scene of the origins of the universe as flame-like. I saw the bosom of a woman in the flame at the end of the film. Perhaps the woman was Jack’s mother, reflecting grace through her gentleness and kindness toward her children. Malik closes the film with by returning to the beginning echoing words from earlier in the film by Mrs. O’Brien: “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” 

Like a Picasso, a cubist painter, The Tree of Life is what you make of it. And it changes with every frame and every viewing. The universe. Evolution. Humanity. Salvation.

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