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The Tree of Life: A Son of Tears

God will make man see things, if it is only against the black background of nonentity. God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder.

—G. K. Chesterton, “Introduction to the Book of Job”

White light words press against the darkness of the screen: “Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth . . .When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Job 38:4, 7.”

So begins The Tree of Life.

Terrence Malick both allures and terrifies throughout this stunning film. He portrays the riches of existence, the adamantine concretions of being, and creation’s eclipsing latencies and dissimulations within fractal-like dances of time, light, image, sound, and word. The gift of creation—of existence—is revealed as gloriously there, to be seen and embraced, while also impenetrable in its mysterious distance and frightening hiddenness. Creation groans, weaves, and rolls through Malick’s oceanic waves of emerging life. And the universe is seen as harking back to a forgotten time when the heavens were perceived not as mere mechanical movements but as a divine polyphony—a music of the spheres—despite all their melancholic strains and dissonances. Yet, like J. S. Bach’s great Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which is played by the father, a musician, in the film), Malick’s vision of the universe has an origin of primordial peace and beauty. He composes a world in which the dissonances of creation are not final, but ultimately reconciled by the divine theme of grace.

The film is a poetic prayer. Laconic whispers pervade the film, whispers of confession and lamentation. We hear the sighs of Israel’s sweet psalmist; Saint Paul’s agonizing tensions of flesh and spirit—“For that which I do, I know not. For what I would do, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do”—and Augustine’s searching through all of creation for the vita vitae, the “Life of my life.” We sense the ambience of Martin Heidegger echoing Saint Augustine: “And how can I search for You if I do not somehow have You, if I do not know about You? (Thus, I cannot say at all that I do not have something, and so also ‘have’ God in some way?) What does ‘searching’ mean?” And we learn as we watch that we are, as Heidegger says, beings-toward-death.[1]

But there is a secret in creation, a palimpsest of a mysterious Author. This is subtly hinted at in a scene when the protagonist, an elder brother named Jack (played by Sean Penn), contemplates in a sea of streaming city lights: “How did you come to me, in what shape; what disguise?” Malick paints man as a microcosm, enveloped in the world, in time, in space—ticking, decaying. There is, though, a portent of resurrection—a divine comedy— resplendent throughout the film. Hence, the mother, played by Jessica Chastain, says that “No one who knows the way of grace comes to a bad end.” And rooted as I am in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the mother struck me as a reflection of the “two faces of Sophia,”[2] both divine and creaturely; her amaranthine dances partake in the divine heart of creation. And her mediating song, or presence, is a refrain of both the ineffable God and his divine energies (God’s Sophia), teeming the words of creation with and through the voicing of God the Word.[3] And Jack responds to these “two faces of Sophia”—his God and his mother—with poetically arresting eloquence: “You spoke to me through her / You spoke to me from the sky / before I knew I loved you, believed in you / When did you first touch my heart?”

In an exquisitely sublime symphony of the creation of the world, Malick moves effortlessly from chaotic, thundering explosions, to a peaceful tableaux of galaxies, planets, and nebulae, to the birth of our home, Earth. Perhaps the most mesmerizing of these scenes is when we see the heavenly, iconic gaze of the Eye of God (Helix Nebula) while the music of Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” resounds:

Tearful will be that day
On which from the ashes will rise
The guilty man for judgment.
So have mercy, O Lord, on this man.
Compassionate Lord Jesus,
Grant them rest. Amen.

The “Lacrimosa” can be said to be the aesthetica in nuce—aesthetics in a nutshellspanning the entire film. There is a pervading sense throughout the movie that two economies of creation—one of nature and one of grace—are wrestling with one another. An economy of death turns us to “ashes,” and an economy of life makes us long to be “granted rest” from our inescapable home of a corpse.

The crescendo of Malick’s creation, though, is none other than humanity: a child is born. The span of the cosmos waned to infancy. And it was at this point in The Tree of Life that I couldn’t help but think of a passage from one of my favorite essays by G. K. Chesterton, “In Defense of Baby Worship”:

The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common-sense. The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial.[4]

This allusion to the wonder and astonishment of a child is of utmost importance to the way Malick sequences the film. It isn’t a coincidence that upon the heels of the creation of the world we are brought into a room refulgent with white garments and splendorous light (a spark of human innocence?) as the mother gives birth to her second son—the same son and brother whose death the O’Brien family grapples with throughout their lives. It’s as if Malick is showing precisely what Chesterton meant by “all things remade” and the world being “put again upon its trial,” all within the simple coming-to-be of a child. Here, too, the neoplatonic and medieval Christian notion of humanity as a microcosm is evinced—the creation, form, and movement of the universe are mirrored in the creation and mind of man.

The movement of time, of history, is the birth of a child. And as the child, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken), becomes a man, the modern malaise of disenchantment threatens to obscure this microcosm. The Heideggerian critique of the technologization of being, with its tendency to choke and forget the mystery of being at all, is profoundly divulged here in the massive man-made “towers of Babel” that appear so powerful yet are unable to completely snuff out the brushes of birds painting the blushing, polluted sky, nor the flame that still burns in the drag weariness of modern architecture. And Jack’s tired, downcast countenance is clear as he roams—quite Cain-like—through the giant, translucent box buildings of glass. The heavens, and the awe and wonder they evoke, are being threatened by iron and glass that attempt to transform the human being into a mere brain which, like the chthonic creature in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, does nothing more than pulse “in a dull glass bell.”[5] Yet there is an energy of resistance within Jack that parallels the biblical allusions we find in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s response to the Crystal Palace that was built for the 1851 World’s Fair in London (and the erecting of which was supposed to symbolize modern man’s progressive power):

It is a kind of biblical scene, something about Babylon, a kind of prophecy from the Apocalypse fulfilled before your very eyes. You feel that it would require a great deal of eternal spiritual resistance and denial not to succumb, not to surrender to the impression, not to bow down to fact, and not to idolize Baal, that is, not to accept what exists as your ideal.[6]

This critique becomes even more apparent in a passage from Malick’s novelesque script:

The buildings hem him around like the trees of a wild forest. A false nature; a universe of death. A sightless world, roofed over, shut off from things above. Here one must stoop to walk. A world that would exclude the transcendent, that says: I am, and there is nothing else. A world without love.

At another point, Jack, while staring out the window of a Texas skyscraper remarks, “The world has gone to the dogs, people are greedy—keeps gettin’ worse.”

But despite the pathos of modern, capitalistic greed, the mother’s prayerful wisdom—“There are two ways through life, the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow”—remains etched in her son’s memory. These “ways” should not be mistaken for a malign dualism between the world and God, nor should they be taken to mean an opposition between material and immaterial. What is meant by “way” is the metaphysical place from which one chooses to see and to be in the world, and this “place from is beautifully and symbolically rendered when the adult Jack, toward the end of the film, hesitantly walks through a free-standing doorway in an exodus-like desert. In one aspect, nothing has changed—he is still in the desert—yet in another aspect, everything has changed. As Augustine put it, “The very fellowship which ought to hold between ourselves and God is violated when our nature is defiled by perverted lust, since our nature is his creation.”[7] The way of nature, then, as Malick portrays, is the privation of our original nature as always and already graced. We await recapitulation of the imago Dei, the image of God, when grace upon grace is manifested in its fullness.

And as we follow Jack’s wayfaring through the corridors of time, we are caught in an Augustinian quest, one in which Jack says, “ Mother, brother, it was they that led me to your door,” and “ I didn’t know how to name you then, but I’m going say it was you. Always you were calling me.” We feel as if we are listening to the great bishop of Hippo himself, as he swims in the memory of his life, as he begins to see the fugue of his conversion within time’s aporias. We hear the various echoes of Augustine’s confessional whisper:

What does anyone who speaks of you really say? [. . . .] But what do I love when I love you? [. . .] A light, voice, fragrance, food and embrace for my inmost self, where something limited to no place shines into my mind, where something not snatched away by passing time sings for me, where something no breath blows away yields to me its scent, where there is savor undiminished by famished eating, and where I am clasped in a union from which no satiety can tear me away. This is what I love when I love my God.[8]

This is what The Tree of Life is about, all things shining insofar as they are things at all, disrobing and clothing themselves in what Augustine called the “queen of colors.” It is about Light (and one will notice the strange and graceful movements of light taken from Thomas Wilfred’s “lumia compositions” which open and close the film). We cannot afford, as the father (played by Brad Pitt) says, “to forget the glory around us.” We must learn not to be foolish in our ways of being, but learn Heidegger’s Gelassenheit—the kneeling of the will, and of our finite becoming, before the mystery of God—which the mother so beautifully portrays. We must relearn the habitus of letting the world, existence, show itself in a chiaroscuro of strangeness, wonder, and familiarity. Indeed, this Gelassenheit of being could be summed up in the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Don’t you know that my prayer is growing ripe / upon your vision, as upon a tree?”[9]

If there ever was a man, though, whose prayer was a slow ripening and waiting upon a vision—like Christ’s prayer from a sorrowing tree, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46)—it was that mysterious man from the land of Uz: Job. The Archimedean point of the entire film is this famous Hebrew book that bears his name; and the movie shows and says in a myriad of subtle ways the predicaments and questions of that great man’s torment and the ultimate, inconceivable peace bestowed by a Voice that simply asks more questions. In fact, to my memory, the longest unbroken narrative of the movie is a poignant homily on Job by a Catholic priest. He asks, “Is there nothing that is deathless?” And in a figurative scene, one of the brothers, after attending the funeral of a young boy who drowned, is lying wedged within an earthen cache in a cemetery, and he whispers, “Was he bad?” Here we are reminded of the palavers of Job’s friends as they each tried their hand at explaining the tragedies befalling their friend; for they thought that Job must have done something bad in order to incur such wretchedness. If Job was not the blatant recipient of divine retribution, then, the entire economy of good and evil, and the justice and goodness of God himself, must be thrown into a nebulous gyre of answerless questions. Thus, we hear the young Jack in the wake of the child’s death: “Why? Where were you? You let a boy die. You let everything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?” But what Chesterton wrote in his “Introduction to the Book of Job” can also appertain to Malick’s film:

He remonstrates with his Maker because he is proud of his Maker. He even speaks of the Almighty as his enemy, but he never doubts, at the back of his mind, that his enemy has some kind of a case which he does not understand. In a fine and famous blasphemy he says, “Oh, that mine adversary had written a book!” It never really occurs to him that it could possibly be a bad book. [. . .] He shakes the pillars of the world and strikes insanely at the heavens; he lashes the stars, but it is not to silence them; it is to make them speak.[10]

The book of creation for Malick is ultimately good. And his theme—“Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”—is the leitmotif question for the counterpoints of light and darkness, life and death, joy and despair, and good and evil as they chase his theme not only through the elements of the natural world, but also through the intervals of dissonance and peace within every soul that is in search for God.

The skillful interplay of narrative, music, and image at both the cosmic and mundane levels of existence, while simultaneously and seamlessly working in and out of the two grammars of creation—nature and grace—is what makes Malick the Bach of film. But like Bach, Malick’s deep art may take time to blossom. His bent toward the Wittgensteinian aphorism that “What can be shown cannot be said” and his Heideggerian obsession with manifesting the “mood”—the “what mood discloses and the how it discloses”—of being-in-the-world may require great attention, reflection, and repetitions in viewing. And one’s situation in life—or “mood”—will have a lot to do with how one sees this film.[11]

Nevertheless, Malick has given us a gift that we are free to receive or reject, but with Marilynne Robinson, “I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it.”[12] Malick leaves me astonished. And he does so in a way that is, as theologian David Bentley Hart recently noted in First Things, “brilliant, mesmerizingly lovely, and almost alarmingly biblical” (July 2011). It is also, perhaps, Malick’s most personal film to date, and anyone who has felt the same pangs of life that the movie evokes may find it solacing or cathartic. I’ll admit, I wept as the mother, in a transfiguring parallax of time and light, offers her humble, Marian ave—“I give him to you. I give you my son”—because I too recall having held the breathless flesh of a child. I too trembled in anger as I signed that godforsaken death certificate. I too felt the diremption of the cosmos in the heart of my being as I gave my son away. I too have my being in groaning time, in a peaceful kingdom that is already but not yet. But the Agnus Dei of Hector Berlioz is proclaimed in the end—an end that is also a beginning—of Malick’s magnum opus. You just have to listen. Because as Chesterton saw, there is someone who “is prefigured in the wounds of Job.” Who else but the Lamb of God could be the Tree of Life?

Editor’s Note: This is the third review of The Tree of Life featured on our site. For more see Ben Bishop’s review, “Nature, Grace, and the Siren Song of Nostalgia”; and Peter Candler’s review, “The Tree of Life and the Lamb of God.” The Filmwell blog has also posted an excellent entry here (“What Malick Teaches Us about Cinema”).


[1] Romans 7:15; Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Sister Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001), 116; and Heidegger, The Phenomenology of the Religious Life Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), 139.

[2] Sergei Bulgakov, Sophia The Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology (New York, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1993), 127. Sophia names the interval between God and his creation—its “two faces.” It is the mediating principal between God’s presence (Glory) and absence (kenosis), wherein creation is seen as truly the speech and word of God, yet not univocal, or identical, with God. Thus, creation is to be seen as having its life in God while not being God himself. The incarnation of the Word (Logos), though, is the uniting of the Divine (uncreated) aspect of Sophia (that uncreated aspect of creation that is truly from God as God, that is, as the Nicene Creed says, “true God from true God”) with the creaturely Sophia (as truly other than God but still really from God). Creation, then, has as its heart (that which gives it its life) the Divine Life of life in which we, as Saint Paul says, “live move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And we have been called to put on this Christ and to participate, and even mediate, this eschatological kingdom of God. For more on this, see Bulgakov’s The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), which is the first volume in his so-called “big” trilogy.

[3] See John 1:1-5 and Genesis 1. In the same sense that the life of God is “the light of men,” so to is the voice of God (here, of the Word) the “word” or “language” of humanity (of course, this should be interpreted as analogical). J. G. Hamann, an eighteenth-century Lutheran philosopher, says it beautifully: “Every phenomenon of nature was a word—the sign, symbol, and pledge of a new, secret, inexpressible, but at the same time all the more intimate union, communication, and communion of divine energies and ideas. In the beginning everything that the man heard, saw with his eyes, looked upon, and touched with his hands was a living word; for God was the Word.” Quoted in John Betz’s After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 162–63.

[5] McCarthy, The Road (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 3.

[6] Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), xi.

[7] Augustine, Confessions, 86. Italics mine.

[8] Ibid., 41 and 242.

[9] Ibid., 271; Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1969), 54; and Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York, NY: Vintage International, 1989), 3.

[10] Chesterton, “Introduction to the Book of Job,” http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/job.html.

[11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Major Works, Tractatus, 4.1212 (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 29; and Heidegger, Being and Time (New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 1962, reprint edition 2008), 175.

[12] Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York, NY: Picador, 2005).

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Trevor Logan :
Trevor Logan is a postgraduate student in theology, philosophy, and literature at the University of Nottingham, England. He has also written for First Things.
  • Chad H. Pichet

    I was deeply moved by this film. Your insights, both personal and transcendent, brought the truths of the film even more deeply into my heart. Seeing this film again with be all the more ineffable in light of your powerful essay.

  • Philodude

    Wow. I missed all of that in the film, but I see it now. LOL. Thanks. This review makes me want to get out my classical music again.

  • J. N.

    The Tree of Life is Malick’s “heterotopia”, the cinema theatre the place where he can suspend normality, that belly you see O’Brien putting his ear to listen what’s inside, the place where he can play God and make all of you his sons: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together… and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” – weren’t you seated at the cinema’s chair? I was. It is Malick asking. He’s God in this movie. Nothing but a riddle, like the Sacro Bosco ones, from wich he takes the “Mouth of Hell” shot.

    I advise you to be cautious. You’ll get hurt when you understand what’s the Tree of Life about.

    If you want to know:

    http://reviewingtreeoflife.blogspot.com/

    You will find here the source for that final shot of the bridge with the bird. It is not so obvious as you may think. It is a poem by Hölderlin called Heidelberg.

    • Trevor

      J.N.,

      Thanks for commenting on my review. Keep in mind that an entire book could probably be written on the influences on Malick for this film. A small review like mine simply can’t do it justice.

      However, you say that if I’m not cautious I’ll get hurt trying to understand what the Tree of Life is about.

      Well…Flannery O’Connor will hurt you even more: ‘All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.’I appreciate the insights on your blog review. They have that Nietzsche and Zizek flavor of madness in them. Not to mention a bit of Chestertonian madness, too. I’ll admit that I like this tremendously. Oh yeah, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man pokes his hellish head up throughout the film, too. And Dante……..read Dante’s Inferno and then interpret the mouth of hell… read the rest and then think about the mask (masquerade) falling in the water at the end of the film. What does the mask falling at the end mean?…There are so many ?s. I think Dante is resplendent in the film. Hence the “nobody who knows the way of grace comes to a bad end” is the definition of Christian comedy in a nutshell. And of course Wittgenstein said that “For the truly religious man nothing is tragic”. And Holderlin (Hegel’s roomie)…of course!! Reading Rilke and Celan (who both influenced Heidegger would also be beneficial) But make no mistake, Augustine looms large for Heidegger, too. PER ME SI VA NELLA CITTA DOLENTE,PER ME SI VA NELL’ ETERNO DOLORE,PER ME SI VA TRA LA PERDUTA GENTE…LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA VOI CH’ENTRATE! – Dante
      Back to reading the Magus of the North (talk about inducing madness!),

      TJL