Peter J. Leithart. Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013.
It’s not your average big-budget, Brad Pitt–starring movie that receives a book response from a systematic theologian. But Peter Leithart is not your average systematic theologian. And Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is not your average movie.
Movie seems too small a word, in fact, for what The Tree of Life is. The film and its filmmaker explode the categories and conventions of cinema. Malick’s Life—increasingly regarded as the auteur’s magnum opus or even, as Leithart claims, “one of the great films ever made” (8)—feels like it would be more at home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art than the mall metroplex. But what makes Life so great? Why are theologians writing books about it? Why are there academic philosophy conferences about it? (I attended one at Gonzaga University in 2012, for example.) Why is this journal publishing yet another essay about a relatively little-seen film that only screened on 237 of America’s more than 40,000 movie screens and made less money at the US box office than Shark Night 3D?
Where do I begin?
One of the difficulties of writing about Life is also one of its potential weaknesses: it’s simply too sprawling, too ambitious, and too overstuffed with weighty ideas. It’s a film that is literally about everything. One can approach Life from a thousand different analytical directions and still not exhaust the sense of discovery it brings. Indeed, Leithart’s theological reflections on the film—ranging from close readings of motifs (e.g., water, flames, trees, hands) to discussions of Job, Gnosticism, and Christology—comprise 86 pages but could easily have filled 400. As it is, his volume is a helpful theological and semiotic study guide on the film with lots of great insights and arcana (like the fact that the initials of the only named character in the film, the protagonist Jack O’Brien, happen to be JOB) that grasp the film’s many moving pieces.
But what about the whole? Is there a single about to which all of Life’s meanings point? I’m not sure, but I have a theory, and Leithart’s book has helped me think through that theory in various ways. I believe Life is above all a film about humility. It’s about adopting a humble posture in how we see ourselves, how we see the world around us, and how we respond to that vision of ourselves in the world. This theme manifests itself both thematically and stylistically, and it is consistent with Malick’s five other films since 1972.
Life begins with a humbling epigraph from Job 38:4: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (AKJV). The film ends with the line (spoken by Jessica Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien), “I give him to you; I give you my son.” A nod, perhaps, to the greatest act of humility in history: God sending his son to die a criminal’s death on the cross.
Indeed, the chief conflict of Life reflects the arc of the Bible itself: from tree of life (Genesis) to tree of life (Revelation), paradise lost to paradise regained. As Leithart points out, the tree of life “is precisely what man has lost: the available abundance of Eden, harmony between God and humanity and between man and woman, life abundant and rich” (50).
It’s a conflict that is at least implicit in all of Malick’s films, perhaps most directly in the similarly treecentric The New World (2005) and The Thin Red Line (1998). These are films that reflect our alienation from God and our fellow humans as a result of sin. They viscerally communicate the groaning of all creation to be made whole and of all humankind to find those “days of heaven” once again: the peace and presence of God, the Creator, and as we hear in The New World, the “great river that never runs dry.”
How does this recovery take place? How are we reconciled to the God who laid the foundations of the earth? What is the bridge (Life’s closing shot) that helps us cross the great gap? Humility. The humility of a man, Jesus Christ, who took on bodily form and died on a cross for our redemption; the humility of a man who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (Phil. 2:6); and also our humility, as pride-prone sinners who must humbly accept the gift of grace and adopt the mind of Christ described in Philippians 2. This is our way back home.
One of the key scenes of humility in The Tree of Life comes late in the film when Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) recognizes his pride for the shameful and debilitating thing that it is: “I wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” To “notice the glory” all around is to combat the pride that keeps us from paradise and alienated from God. It’s notable that Mr. O’Brien’s “I’m nothing” monologue comes after a wordless reconciliation scene that happens between him and his son Jack (Hunter McCracken) in—where else?—the family garden. A close listen to this sequence reveals that the quiet piano score we hear by Hanan Townshend is actually a melodic quotation of the Respighi excerpt we hear playing earlier in the film during the sequence of Jack’s birth. We should note the aural parallel here between that early sequence, Edenic in its beauty and innocence, and this sequence of Jack and his father recognizing their flawed nature—“I’m as bad as you are,” Jack says elsewhere in the film—and reconciling in the garden.
Later in the film—in its final seconds, actually—adult Jack (Sean Penn) has his own awakening to “the glory around us, the trees, the birds.” We see him descending in a skyscraper elevator and then walking in wonder outside, observing the trees, the sky. In our last glimpse of him, his mouth starts to form a smile as he looks heavenward. He’s noticing the glory.
It’s interesting that in a film so full of grandiose showcases of the natural world—waterfalls, volcanoes, rivers, lush grass—the final images are man-made structures of steel and glass in an unnamed American city. Yet notice the skyscraper exteriors in the film’s penultimate shot: they reflect the natural beauty of the sky and clouds. And then the last shot of the film: a massive bridge crossing a vast body of water. What do we see in that shot? Are we most taken by the beauty of the bridge as a testament to man’s engineering brilliance? Or by the body of water and the sky and the bird that flies at us before the screen goes black? Truly, they are all wonders. The point is that we see them as such.
The humble posture Malick advocates comes in part by seeing rightly—by both seeing ourselves rightly, as sinners in need of grace, and by seeing the world rightly, by noticing the glory. One way the theme of seeing is manifests in the film is in its use of windows. Life begins with a young Mrs. O’Brien looking out a window; adult Jack peers out the windows of his high-rise office building. Both Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and Jack Fisk’s production design foreground windows and glass. Windows show up periodically throughout the film and, as Leithart points out, they symbolize “the receptivity of a graced person to the glory that shines through everything” (44). Two moments in Jack’s journey highlight the receiving of grace. In one of his lowest moments, during his adolescent rebellion sequence, he actively destroys a neighbor’s window by throwing a rock through it. Later, we notice that Jack’s memorable reconciliation scene with his brother R. L. takes place in front of the bedroom window. This beautiful scene ends with the camera outside, pulling upwards in a godlike point of view as it zooms down on a majestic tree. “What was it that you showed me?” Jack prays, as the camera moves to a shot of another Edenic symbol: a river. “I didn’t know how to name you then. But I see it was you. Always you were calling me.” Jack sees more clearly than he did before that the beauty around him, the pangs of his heart, and the call of his conscience are all grace; all of them are from God. His spiritual awakening is a result of seeing rightly what God has been showing him all along.
Rightly ordered seeing is both a thematic lynchpin and a stylistic trademark of Malick’s filmography. All six of his films are supremely attentive to the beauty we often miss. They are films about sensory awakening and perceptual epiphany. As Leithart notes, “One of the purposes of art is to enhance our attention to the world around us, and by this standard Malick’s film is art of the highest order” (9). Where other filmmakers and their editors would cut lovely-but-superfluous shots to make room for essential plot points, dialogue, or character moments, Malick does the opposite. He privileges whatever beautiful happening his cameras capture, and if it’s between a gorgeous shot of a summer thunderstorm and some A-list actor’s bravura scene, Malick will almost always go with the thunderstorm. As Malick’s producer Sarah Green told me at The New World press junket, “Terry is not big on convention; he’s big on what has an impact on him in the moment.”
This can, of course, be immensely frustrating for the actors who work with him. But I suspect that’s part of the point Malick is making. He’s notorious for hiring A-list stars, shooting tons of footage of them, and then leaving them largely or entirely out of the final cut. Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, and Barry Pepper are among the actors cut out completely from To the Wonder (2013). Adrien Brody famously thought his three months of intense shooting on The Thin Red Line would result in a starring role, only to find out at the premiere that his part had been reduced to a single line of dialogue. It may be a somewhat cruel trademark (from an actor’s point of view), but this method is fundamental to Malick’s vision of man’s place in the cosmos.
Here we detect some of Malick’s affinity for Martin Heidegger, who he studied at Oxford and whose “The Essence of Reasons” he translated into English. The phenomenology of Heidegger and his focus on Dasein and man’s being-in-the-world comes through in Malick’s films, where man is a thing among things, as glorious and contingent in his humanness as the wheat field is in its wheat-fieldness (see 1978’s Days of Heaven). Malick wants to reenchant us with the beauty of being-in-the-world, which the visceral power of cinema can uniquely disclose.
In his analysis of Life, Leithart ties Heidegger’s question of being to Malick’s focus on having eyes to see and ears to hear the glory all around us:
We are ontological amnesiacs, and what we have forgotten is the wonder of Being. Sometimes Being breaks in on us: A stunning sunset, an eagle in the sky or a snake upon a rock, a soul-stretching movement of a Beethoven Quartet, and at those moments the glory of Being breaks into our black-and-white lives in bright colors. In Heideggerian terms, the way of grace is the way of remembrance. Those who live by the way of grace live always with the remembrance of Being. (39)
Leithart goes on to observe that the sunflower—which appears in the first and last minutes of Life—is “the perfect Heideggerian flower that never forgets Being” (87). These flowers follow the sun all day, receiving the glory. We too were created to follow the sun and receive the glory, but we’ve distracted ourselves and, like Mr. O’Brien, we “dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.” We flourish, Malick suggests, when we look away from ourselves and instead toward our life-giving Creator and the beauty that testifies to his majesty.
This is what Malick himself seems to be doing. I’ve long wondered about his recluse ways: Why does he so ardently avoid the spotlight, never appearing on camera and going out of his way to avoid press junkets, awards shows, paparazzi, and the like? Is he just a really shy person? Probably. But I also think Malick is intentionally practicing what he preaches about humility. He wants the spotlight to be on the work itself, for the work to be a reflection not of his own creative brilliance but rather that of the Brilliant Creator. In an industry that elevates celebrity and makes a fetish of awards and recognition, Malick goes against the grain and actively deconstructs the notion that a film should be fodder for the egos of actors and filmmakers. Rather, a film should be a testament to God’s creation—the “all things shining” beauty that throbs with more drama than the most intense of all method actors. I’m thankful to Leithart for spelling out so eloquently how The Tree of Life is exactly this sort of film.
When I watch Life I think of Psalm 8, when David ponders the glory of the universe and wonders how such a majestic God could also care about insignificant little us:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor. (Ps. 8:3–5 ESV)
It’s an astonishing paradox that the God who laid the foundations of the universe—so beautifully depicted in Life—also laid himself down for us, wayward little rebel humans, and extended to us a measure of his own glory and honor. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, so that we might regain the gift of his presence that we abandoned in the Garden. Eden regained.
May we respond not in self-righteousness but in humility, adopting the mind of Christ and putting aside our pride, opening our hands in “I give him to you” surrender like Mrs. O’Brien in the film’s “Amen” climax. May we—like the curious, beauty-seeking camera in Life—tune our eyes and ears to the vestiges of paradise all around us.
 See Dana Harris, “The Tree of Life Press Conference and the Man Who Wasn’t There,” Indiewire, May 16, 2011, http://www.indiewire.com/article/the_tree_of_life_press_conference_and_the_man_who_wasnt_there; Steven Zeitchik, “Oscars 2012: Terrence Malick Not There to See Cinematography Snub,” LA Times Blog, February 26, 2012, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2012/02/oscars-2012-terrence-malick-not-at-show-to-witness-cinematography-snub.html; “Terrence Malick: TMZ Captures a Hollywood Bigfoot!,” TMZ, June 13, 2012, http://www.tmz.com/2012/06/13/terrence-malick-benicio-del-toro-video-director/, respectively.