Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life manages to achieve something nearly impossible: it transcends the rational mind.
How often do we only talk about the very thing we wish to experience directly? I am acutely aware of participating in so many conversations, reading so many articles, and listening to so many ramblings of my own thought process that do just that. Stories can’t help but work this way; we digest the plot as we read, constantly assimilating each new datum into our mental framework.
The Tree of Life abandons this traditional framework and attempts to grant the viewer an immediate experience of a theme near and dear to the heart of many an alchemist: the union of opposites as a path to transcendence. It comes closer to succeeding at this than any other film that I can remember.
The plot of The Tree of Life is profoundly simple. A middle-aged man, Jack, explores his memories of childhood in 1950s Texas. Much of this introspection is infused with pain over the death of his brother, the violence of his overbearing father, and the flurry of mixed emotions that life triggers in a child.
What makes the film difficult to watch is how this story is told. The storytelling is mostly non-linear-a loose collection of intensely personal memories, seen so close up that we can’t perceive the framework of a larger context.
The first few minutes come the closest to telling a conventional story. The mother, Mrs. O’Brien, receives a telegram informing her of the death of her middle son, RL. This death prompts her to ask questions about meaning and existence, and launches the film into a nearly 20-minute montage of the origin of the universe, and the evolution of life.
The appearance of this portion of the film probably seems a little random for most viewers. However, referencing the Biblical quotation at the very beginning of the film, this segment can be understood to be based on the story of Job. In the book of Job, the eponymous character has everything taken away from him-including his children-when God agrees to let Satan test Job’s faith. Job begins to question the meaning of life in a series of dialogues with his friends. The similarity between the emotional state of Job and the grieving Mrs. O’Brien is obvious.
God’s challenging response to Job opens the film: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4).
The film depicts an amazing summation of the Big Bang and the origin of life on earth. This long segment of the film is interesting for several reasons. For one, in spite of the fact that the sequence shows no supernatural deity creating earth, the events are profoundly spiritual and awe-inspiring. Seeing such immense grandeur gave me a profound sense of my own insignificance.
More than this though, this portion of the film serves to introduce the central theme of The Tree of Life:
A single life force flows through the heart of all existence.
A patient viewer that is already familiar with the themes explored by Malick’s films might grasp this, while another viewer might easily miss it. After all, the film is not obvious and literal about making its points. But after much googling, I found an early draft of the script that provides many more verbal clues about the message Malick is trying to convey. This script confirmed the impressions I got from the film.
During the creation sequence, the script reads, “all is growth and ceaseless unfolding. One force works in all . . .” (Malick, 2007, p.16). At the same time, the surface of reality seems to speak of dualism-a never-ending struggle between chaos and order. Also from the script:
Nature seems everywhere to be leading toward something. Why this delay at arriving at its ends? Why does it feel its way along-wander, dawdle, delay? Why twist and turn and backtrack, as though it were finding its way through a maze? Why establish hindrances and obstacles only to put itself to the trouble of devising stratagems for overcoming them? (p. 17)
As we watch the evolution of increasingly conscious life forms, we can see this apparent duality. In one scene a dinosaur demonstrates a new-founded ability to make a conscious choice not to kill a wounded dinosaur. But this advance is seemingly thwarted by the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
In the film, Mrs. O’Brien brings this duality up when she says, “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life-the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” From our human perspective, we might be tempted to classify one event as “good” and the other as “bad”. But this is to fall victim to the illusion of duality.
It would be equally easy to mistake the religious tone of the film as meaning more than it does. The characters direct their questions at God, the Big Bang sequence is called “The Creation” in the script, and the soundtrack is filled with religious songs. But nowhere do we see even an implication of the existence of God.
I would suggest that the religious imagery serves two purposes. The first is that it is simply the context these characters grew up in. The second is the deeper meaning that religious stories and teachings may carry. For example, when Job says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away” (Job 1:21), it conjures up an image of a capricious, anthropomorphic God. But on another level, it is a profound recognition that existence has two sides that often appear to be contradictory. An atheist might express a similar sentiment, when noting that the same universe that allowed the dinosaurs to evolve destroyed them with the asteroid.
The Unique Nature of Human Consciousness
The creation sequence reminds us of our individual insignificance in the face of the vast ages of evolution. But we are also reminded that we are the product of all that evolution. Being at the pinnacle of the evolution of consciousness does have its disadvantages. As the script states:
Everything sings in the great chorus; each knows its place and is happy. Man alone does not. Why? Even now we live in the first day. The splendor of nature’s distant beginning shines within us. Yet somehow we have lost our way. (p. 18)
This sense of loss comes from an awareness of the apparent duality of the universe. As life evolved, the capacity for consciousness within a single life form kept increasing. The result is that, while plants and animals seem content to occupy a niche in their environment, and generally act with single-mindedness, we humans are capable of more. Our pervading self-awareness causes us to grasp the duality. We struggle to force ourselves to choose a place, when the very magic of our existence is our ability to contain both sides within us.
We are, after all, a microcosm. Our bodies go through every stage of evolution in the womb, and we are made up of all the life forms that we evolved from. In the film, we can see the echoes of plant tendrils in the circulatory system developing in the fetus that will become Jack.
The Themes Made Personal
After the creation sequence, the scope becomes so personal and up close that it’s as if we see through Jack’s eyes as he experiences all the stages of life. A life that seems so mundane to our grown up eyes now feels so big and new from this perspective. While earlier in the film Jack’s mother and father seem like ordinary people, now, through Jack’s young eyes, we see them as the very embodiment of the two sides of a dualistic universe.
Jack’s father is rigid and logical. He is the first to point out to Jack the imaginary lines that divide his property from the neighbors. He is stuck in a one-sided pursuit of the individual good, and this zero-sum perspective means that he will not hesitate to use violence or cruelty in response to any perceived slight to his authority as a father.
Jack’s mother is the archetypal feminine. She barely even speaks, and mostly serves as a constant, all-loving, all-accepting force in the boys’ lives.
Jack is keenly aware that he is an amalgam of these two opposites. He says “Mother, Father. Always you wrestle inside me.” He spends his childhood torn between two opposite perspectives. As the script elaborates:
Mother and father live inside him. They wrestle for his soul. He strives to reconcile them, but they refuse to be reconciled. Why can he not find the harmony between them? Which party is he of? Let it be one or the other: not the chaos of their blind struggle. (p. 72)
At times, Jack prays to be good, like his mother, but finds it impossible. He says, “What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.” This echoes the sentiment of St. Paul’s words, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).
So he rebels, and does things he knows are not acceptable. He fights with and hurts his brother. He sneaks into a neighbor’s home and rummages through her private things, stealing a nightgown. But after every act of rebellion, he experiences remorse, and the opposite drive. For example, he tells his brother that he’s sorry and that he loves him.
Increasingly, we see snippets of the now middle-aged Jack. He has achieved much that his father would have defined as success. He lives in beautiful house, and works as an architect in a large firm, molding the physical world to his will. But he is troubled. It is the anniversary of his brother’s death, and his mind is still filled with the same conflict that troubled his young soul.
“Brother. Keep us. Guide us. To the end of time.” These are the first words spoken in the film. Early in the film, a voice asks: “Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?”
The death of Jack’s brother, RL, made Jack’s memories of his brother all the more symbolic and poignant for him. These memories, and in turn RL himself, become Jack’s personal path to seeing the universe differently. Late in the film, Jack is seen at a threshold hesitating, and he finally musters the courage to step across. On the other side, he sees his family-his mother, his father, his brother. As the script explains:
“Jack has crossed over death’s threshold, gone beyond space and time, to some greater life which includes death within it.” But this isn’t a literal heaven. After all, “paradise is not a place here or there. The soul is a paradise; it opens before us; here, today.” (p. 123)
Jack has transcended the illusion of duality. He has experienced a glimpse of eternity.
While the form that Jack’s story takes is unique to him, the underlying struggle is something that most people are profoundly aware of. Our culture reveals how we are constantly pulled in opposite directions. We enjoy the comforts and technologies that a world of science has brought us, but mourn the loss of our connection to nature. In our movies, TV shows, and even our political races, we pit the “man of science” against the “man of faith.” When we’re feeling extra cruel, we create characters who hear a devil whispering in one ear, and an angel whispering in the other. On a personal level, we struggle to navigate the opposite pulls of our nature and personalities. We choose one side, only to find ourselves pulled in the opposite direction.
Sometimes, especially when we face profound tragedy or beauty, we glimpse beyond the divide, and see something that can’t be communicated with words. Malick’s The Tree of Life doesn’t just tell us this; it shows us directly.
Malick, T. (2007). The Tree of Life. Unpublished screenplay. 2007.
Oliver Gifford is the writer behind Sooth and Lies, a blog filled with short stories, poetry, essays, how-to-articles and more–all with a Jungian, alchemical flavor.Oliver lives with his wife, Daena, and his two cats, Adam and Momo, in the lovely city of Portland.