A few weeks ago, I watched The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick . The movie is a beautiful film. It is grand in scope, both in terms of its visual production but also with regard to the story it tells. The story is highly evocative, inviting a variety responses and interpretive guesswork. To illustrate, when I walked out of the theater, strangers were stopped on the sidewalk conversing about what they had just watched. One could be heard asking, what was going on with the dinosaurs? Can someone please explain the dinosaurs? How did that fit into the movie? It is the kind of film that requires and rewards multiple viewings to catch all that is going on. Here are some things that have caught my attention.
To begin, much of the film is told from the perspective of a middle-aged man named Jack (played by Sean Penn) who is reflecting upon life in general and his life in particular. Ahead of the movie, we were told by the theater host, “if you are a big Sean Penn fan and wore your Sean Penn shirt to the theater, you may be disappointed. He has a limited role in this film.” And yet, the movie centers on how he sees the world, interprets the meaning of his own life and God’s presence in it. The movie takes us into his head, that rich universe of innumerable things both holy and haunted. Middle-aged Jack first appears to us as quiet and reflective, preoccupied. He works in corporate America, has a swank home and a beautiful wife. But there is little to no dialogue, suggesting that he is lost in thought. Indeed, much of the movie takes place inside his head. We see where this man goes when he gets lost in thought.
The movie reminded me of the song “42” by Coldplay, “those who are dead, they’re not dead, they’re just living in my head.” We hear some of the voices of those living in his head. There is Jack’s father, played by Brad Pitt, a cold, mercurial, stern presence in his life. The father is distant, unfriendly and arbitrary. He wants order and control, greatness, perfection, freedom from shame. And those ambitions are thrust upon Jack. There is also the voice of Jack’s mother which is gentle, lyrical, prayerful. She is the sound of beauty and hope and grace. She is playful throughout the film, blunting the harsher edges of her husband and Jack’s father. And there are all the other ghosts inside Jack’s head as he remembers the various people and scenes from his life: his brothers, the first time he encountered loss, the first time he was captivated by a beautiful girl, the first time he saw the face of death, a drunk, a disabled person, a convict, lives of less privilege. Jack is taking a mid-life walk down memory lane .
The movie is deeply theological. The movie opens up with a quote from Job 38:4,7: Job 38:4-7 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” There are other biblical citations and allusions throughout the film. A friend gives comfort based on a biblical text. Ministers can be heard giving scriptural homilies in two instances. The first words of the father are a prayer asking God’s blessing upon his children.
Genesis and the wisdom literature of the Bible get extended treatment in the film. In fact, much of the movie can be seen as an echo of the cosmogonic myth of Genesis. What happens at the cosmic level or in primeval history becomes archetypically true of the individual, as well. As Henri Nouwen used to say it, “that which is most personal, is most universal.”
The narrative thread of the movie evokes the narrative of Genesis. There is the wonder of creation and the ordering of chaos. There is the naming of the world (mother teaches her young son to name the world he sees in books and toys, “kangaroo”, “alligator”). There is assignment and responsibility (the father and son are shown repeatedly working the earth, trying to get grass to grow in the front yard and the garden to bear fruit in the back). As in the garden of Eden, there are boundaries established and crossed (“Come here. That’s Spencer’s yard. You see this line? Let’s don’t cross it. You see this line? Come back here son.” In the scene that follows, the mother is reading to the children from Peter Rabbit, “Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s yard.”). As in Genesis, there is rebellion and its consequence. In the movie, the boys lose their innocence, destroying life and property, violating the trust of others, betraying the good. There are echoes to the story of Jacob and Esau and the complexities of family life – the sibling rivalry and the competition for parental affection. Even the film title itself, The Tree of Life, comes straight out of Genesis , “out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:9).
The wisdom literature of the Bible also gets considerable attention as the meaning of suffering and the purpose of life is explored. There are references to Job and Ecclesiastes sprinkled throughout the film.
In addition to the more obvious citations of biblical texts, there are less obvious references to biblical imagery. The movie tells is story in an iconic way, making use of a whole cluster of images that are important in biblical symbology. The images are not exclusive to the Bible, to be sure. But they are important threads within the biblical storyline. In The Tree of Life, you see a number of images that repeatedly appear, such as light and water. In fact, you will not go very long at all within the movie without seeing the presence of light in the film. Film sequences will show a window. Or the sun will be shining somewhere nearby. Or a shaft of light will pierce the utter darkness that accompany life’s passages, either as in the mother’s womb at the beginning or in the womb of death that awaits us at the end. Early in the film, Jack lights a candle, a religious act somewhat analogous to the prayer of Mother Teresa, “come be my light”. We see the candle again at the end of the film. What’s the point?
Darkness is around us, yes. Lives are in disarray, true enough. But in the language of the Psalmist, “If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:11,12).
As you watch the film, notice how often the light is made manifest in the film. It comes in many forms and at various times. A few weeks ago I was in a home in Minnesota designed by a couple of artists. The homeowner explained to us how at every place in the home, you are within eyesight of at least three windows. With each step, you can receive the natural light of the sun and moon and have a front row seat to the world of creation. Something similar is going on in The Tree of Life. The light comes into a darkened room by way of a candle or a flashlight. It makes it ways as a beam from the sun, penetrating through a darkened forest. Taken together, these images tell a story through their symbolic resonances. The same could be said about how water is used in the film (streams, ocean waves, a sprinkler in the front yard, etc.), developing the baptismal motif of new life.
One reoccurring image that I noticed throughout the film was the presence of a screen or some sort of see-through fabric. The movie plays with this icon of light and the shadows that are created as a result. The light is filtered by such things as a window curtain, lingerie, a bed sheet, a screen door , a cloud or a window. The meaning I took from this is that you and I live in “the shadowlands” (C.S. Lewis). There is some larger reality that impinges on our experience of reality. There is another Story that is unfolding in connection with our own particular stories.
It brought to mind when Shakespeare says in Hamlet:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
And again, this idea is picked up in Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”:
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all
that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.
The Tree of Life continually suggests that there is something more going on. More in heaven and earth than we dream of and much unseen that is also here. (The television series LOST also developed this notion in its various plotlines.) The idea is that we all have moments in our lives when we have an apprehension that there is Something More happening than what we presently see. To use a familiar idiom, there is “more than meets the eyes”. The Irish used to call these places of manifestation, “thin places”. An event or conversation, a sighting or memory, conjures up an awareness that God is somehow present right now, right here in some important way connected to my personal history. Think back to the image of a sheet or a curtain. In this kind of cinematic cosmology, what separates heaven and earth, the cosmic and the personal is thin enough to make “the other side” perceptible.
The movie then, keeps giving witness to that unseen reality. Call it what you will: God, Mystery, Grace, Light, Beauty. The story is about human life in all of its complexity but a human life in connection with the Mystery that is at the heart of all things. It is about finding the (Divine) “hero with a thousand faces” (Joseph Campbell) and how that Divine Hero finds us. This is why there are so many prayers uttered throughout the film. The middle aged man is taking inventory of his life and noting God’s felt presence at various critical junctures. His journey has been guided by this hallowed presence and throughout it all he has prayed, whether he knew the words or not or even whom to address. As a boy he prays:
Help me not get into fights. Help me be thankful
Where do u live?
Help me not tell lies
Are you watching/guarding me?
I want to know what you are
I want to see what you see
As a grown up man, he is still seeking and being sought:
What was it you showed me?….
but I see it was you. Always you were calling me.
At an earlier place he asks, “How did you come to me? In what shape? What disguise?” and finds an answer when he says, “You spoke to me through her. You spoke to me through the sky, the trees. Before I knew you, I loved you. I believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?” When in trouble, he asks, “How did I lose you, wander away from you, forget you” and later prays, “How do I get back to where they are?”
This approach — life as prayer, biography as spirituality — seems to influence the cinematography as well. The camera gives us a variety of perspectives with regards to the camera lens and trying to locate the human person within the vast stretches of the cosmos. There are telescopic views that pay attention to distant galaxies. There are microscopic views that note the intimacies of cellular biology. And throughout it all, the personal stories, the natural wonder, the dysfunctional families all fit within this larger view of the world that might be called theoscopic: God’s view.
Terrence Malick weaves this unseen reality around the life of a main character to suggest that the two worlds – the seen and unseen – are connected like two strands of the double helix. It is also why we have that opening voiceover describing the two different ways of life. There is the way of nature and the way of grace and you have to choose which one you will follow. Nature only wants to please itself. Grace accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. That twofold path continues throughout the film in the voice of two parents who represent the mouth of wisdom in young Jack’s life. Jack’s father wants his boys to be tough and get ahead. He teaches them to fight: “hit me. The moment you see them crackin’ hit them. Jack, hit me. Come on son! Hit me!” He teaches his boys, “it takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. Don’t let people take advantage of you.”
The mother, on the other hand, gives us Mother Wisdom. She can be heard advising her boys in a different path. Like an opening and closing parenthesis to a pilgrim life, she can be heard at the beginning and end of the film counseling those who will listen:
The only way to be happy is to love.
Unless you love your life will flash by
Do good to them
These two ways of life open us to as every turn. Do I follow the way of nature or the way of grace? What fundamental approach do I take to living my life well? Coincidentally, on the day I watched The Tree of Life I was speaking at a church in the morning and recited these lines from the poet, William Stafford:
Such times abide for a pilgrim, who all through
a story or a life may live in grace, that blind
benevolent side of even the fiercest world,
and might – even in oppression or neglect –
not care if it’s friend or enemy, caught up
in a dance where no one feels need or fear:
In the movie, grace, personified in the character of Jack’s mother and his brother (symbolizing Madonna and child, perhaps?), becomes the “benevolent side of even the fiercest world”. The choral music throughout the film reminds us that this is the dominant theme of our lives, that a symphony is being produced out of the great cacophony of noise that is our hurt and disappointment and shame and guilt. When we get to the end of the film, we find our way back home. A doorway on the beach represents a conversion to a fuller reality. Jack, our main character, finds his way to the shore of what is to come – a joyful reunion, the world put to rights, the world as it should be.
One is reminded of another poet, T.S. Eliot, who famously said in “The Waste Land”:
And the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”
What then is the movie about? So many things. It is an ode to the fullness of life, both the wonderful and the tragic. It’s about our images of God, both troubling and comforting. At times God is conceived as something repulsive, repressive and arbitrary (notice in the film how an earthly parent often shapes our conception of a heavenly parent). At other times, God is the gift of light that lightens our darkness. The movie is about regret. Family matters. The voices that live in our head. Loss and redemption. The transformative possibilities that come our way. Making peace with one’s past. How the boy is in the man and the man is in the boy. The movie is about how we imitate the divine, for better or worse, in the creation of culture, whether we are growing a garden, building a business, maintaining a friendship, raising a family. It is about growing up and becoming human and the people and events that shape our maturation.