A Welcome Reformation: In Praise of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”
A whistle cracks, lashing the air. Forty young statues burst forward. Pound hard, arms pumping. Feet in burning black rubber punch into burning black rubber. “GO GO GO GO GO!” Pound hard, arms pumping. (Elbows at right angles! Loose hands!) Helmet squeezing, aching crown: heavy sauna and shadelessness. White line closer, white line closer, white line closer: “Faster Dodd!” Horse breath, touch the line, taste of sweat—turn! “GO GO GO!” Pound hard, arms pumping. White line closer, white line closer—“Come on Yates! You can do better than that!” “Dammit: touch the line!” Horse breath, touch the line, taste of sweat—turn! [Repeat nine times] Crossing—lungs like stretched fabric, horse breath: froth. Crossing. Crossing. Crossing—Big Mike peels off his helmet and stoops to vomit. Clapping for the kid in last place. A whistle cracks.
I spent my high school summers at football practice under the oppressive San Diego sun. For three and a half years, I—the guy they called “Four Point-O” because of my GPA— worked my tail off balancing academic and athletic excellence. During the fall of my junior year, I slept three to six hours a night while burning upwards of 4,000 Calories a day juggling homework, football, and leisure. It was not fun. So what drove me to work so hard?
When I look back on my football days, despite the great camaraderie my teammates and I shared, I cannot forget the shadows that loomed over us: lifting 365 lbs in the weight room because I was afraid to seem weak; coaches screaming at us for the mistakes we made; watching the ambulance carry my friend away; the pervasive social pressure that led many of us, myself included, to continue playing after suffering a concussion. Experiences like these are commonplace for many American football players. Though they often meant well, my coaches created a garden of performance-based fear and pride, planting seeds of unspoken shame deep in our minds. They aggravated my fear of failure, and taught me to obey it with all my strength.
When I became a Christian during the eleventh grade, I assumed God’s moral expectations spoke with the voice of my coaches: exacting, astringent, and narrow-minded. As I became immersed in Christian culture, the words and attitudes of inconsiderate radio preachers, overzealous Christian music, presumptuous church culture, and strict biblical commands reinforced my bondage. I struggled to understand how Jesus Christ could offer rest when so much of Christianity seemed only to add weight onto my guilt-racked life.
An ongoing exodus from perfectionism has defined much of my time at Cal Poly. Through my journey, I have come to believe that the same empire of fear that drives millions of football players to unnecessarily run the risk of traumatic brain injury also drives innumerable religious devotees into a wall of shame. Despite significant healing, I still live with an inner football coach who incessantly looks over my shoulder. For years, my heart’s cry has been: “Where is relief from this weight? How can I escape?”
Terrence Malick’s deeply contemplative film The Tree of Life (2011) steps into this space and offers a path for healing by contrasting “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” Although adequately explaining this almost ineffably multifaceted dichotomy is a task well beyond the scope of this article, a brief introduction should help make sense of the argument that follows. One might say that the way of nature is the competitive streak in the cosmos, the tendency to control and limit others in self-preservation. It is characterized by combativeness, self-assertion, destructiveness, and greed. The way of grace, on the other hand, points to the free-flowing, expansive, and interconnected dimension of existence. It embraces joy, patience, forgiveness, and peace.
It is worth mentioning that although such a dichotomy may suggest some kind of spiritualistic antagonism toward nature—a belief that physicality and goodness are somehow fundamentally opposed to one another—this does not appear to be Malick’s intent. Please do not mistake “the way of nature” for nature itself. Neither should “the way of grace” be seen as divorced from physical reality. The word “way” here suggests there is a seat of authority over one’s life, and that either nature or grace can occupy this position. Adherence to one narrative or the other does not preclude interaction with the alternative sphere of existence; i.e. the way of nature is not utterly devoid of goodness or grace, nor does the way of grace remove a person from the natural world. Interpreting the duality with this in mind allows one to notice a great irony in the film: the way of nature, by itself, does not produce a natural life. Rather, it is the way of grace that brings a person into harmony with the organic world. Having viewed The Tree of Life many times, I am struck by its accurate portrayal of the human condition. If my sufferings under perfectionism have taught me anything, it is that the way of grace is lifegiving.
The main character, Jack O’Brien, is a middle-aged, well-to-do architect who enters an existential crisis. Amid an environment of shimmering skyscrapers and soaring industry, Jack finds that he has grown out of touch with the quiet places of his heart, that he has “gained the whole world but lost his soul.” To answer Jack’s chasm of need, Malick turns the story back to the genesis of the universe, portraying eons of macrocosmic development that crescendo upon Jack’s childhood in 1950’s Texas. Most of the film follows as a study of the dynamics between the steely Mr. O’Brien, his tenderhearted wife, and their children.
Overflowing with multisensory glimpses of rapturous beauty, The Tree of Life has been aptly described as an impressionistic masterpiece. Sunflowers reposing beneath a twilit sky, a young woman silently leading Jack through a desert, underwater grass ebbing as waves ripple, boys running after their mother in a park—hundreds of images like these can make it look like some ostentatious and pretentious art project. On the contrary, The Tree of Life is deeply rooted in both the human experience and the mechanisms of the universe, and does so as an openly spiritual and Christian film. The movie begins with a quote from the biblical story of Job—an innocent man who inexplicably suffered the spontaneous loss of his loved ones, wealth, and health—theatrically spotlighting the transience of earthly existence as a main thematic thread. Furthermore, in place of dialogue and a sequential plot, a web of meditative and prayerful overtones traces out the storyline, an element that has led many to disdain The Tree of Life for being too veiled and labyrinthine—but therein lies its treasure.
Malick’s impressionism reflects the kindness of God. In its entirety, the film embodies the way of grace, suggesting the presence of a loving-kindness underpinning all things: photography that is gentle on the eyes; a nonlinear plot that calls the mind out of rigidity and into curiosity and wonder; a feast of intricately layered, highly symbolic images that invite the viewer to explore rather than barricade their meanings; and a narrative that overtly surveys the tragedy of gentleness squandered by avarice. The film especially reflects the way of grace in that through such impressionism it emulates an “endless hermeneutic,” to quote the French phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion. By this, I mean that the film approaches irreducibility on every level, that the experience it gives to the viewer is so transcendently beyond what one’s limited perception, interpretation, meta-perception, meta-interpretation, etc. can fully apprehend that there is possibly no end to uncovering the film’s meaning, a meaning that is, in my study, elegantly cohesive across layers. For every layer of meaning I unpack, The Tree of Life, in its motherly, impressionistic mysteriousness, reveals yet another layer of grace. The ongoing experience of an endlessly impressionistic mystery is itself the way of grace.
I find The Tree of Life profoundly compelling because it calls me into an experience of grace beyond mere words. For instance, Malick’s depiction of Jack’s prelapsarian toddlerhood flies me back to the days of my early youth: when there were no GPA’s, no “football coach” yelling inside my head, no legalistic church culture burdening me with guilt—when the world was a tub of LEGO bricks, an open backyard with dinosaurs, and endless imagination waiting to be mapped in colored pencil. Through witnessing Jack’s infancy, I have felt the textures of Eden, a sensory experience that sermons cannot easily match.
In the way of grace, this Eden is not lost, but hidden. In Malick’s film, nature is not the dominant pattern in the universe: grace is. Underneath all the clamor and competition of the world, something else is stirring: something quiet, mysterious, gentle, motherly, wise. Patiently, the Spirit of Grace hovers over the world, wooing it with love, like tendrils slowly reaching up through the soil of nature. In the economy of grace, nature’s control does not have the final word. Indeed, it was grace that unclenched football’s grip of fear on my life. It was grace that lifted perfectionism’s weight off my life. It was grace that overturned religious dogmatism in my life. And grace will not stop until the whole world is transformed, until every fallen tear is raised in victory, until nature’s discord has been completely restored. Grace is unstoppable. The tree of life is growing in every corner of heaven and earth, a great webwork reaching out, even into the joy of eternal life.
The Tree of Life is a flower of endlessly opening petals, a phenomenology of grace. The impressionism at play within the film unveils the seductive mask of perfectionism and can lift our numbness toward nature’s darker side. In this manner, the film is a threshold from the desert of nature to the fields of grace, a haven from racehorse expectations and intellectual grabbiness, a place where motherly affection shines on all things with her smile. For those dehydrated by the way of nature’s demands—overworked athletes and worshipers alike—it effuses refreshing mountain springwater: the water of a Messiah whose aura is tender, nonlinear, and mysterious. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life announces a timely and transfigurative paradigm shift for the world: a light whose graces both enrapture and confound.
Do not tread gruffly on the daisies
Lest bees change into crazies,
Nor snatch one rudely in your palm
And rob the secret meadows’ calm;
For every tender blossom weeps
When you soil grace’s deeps.
- Terrence Malick. The Tree of Life (2011: Twentieth Century Fox) Film.
- Matthew 16:26, paraphrased.
- Todd Long. “Art Criticism’s Theological Poverty: The Tree of Life as a Case in Point,” n.p., (2015).
- Phenomenology is a field of philosophy Terrence Malick has spent much of his academic life studying. Thus, the topic of endless hermeneutic is relevant for understanding the film. Quote from: Jean-Luc Marion, Givenness & Hermeneutics, trans. Jean-Pierre Lafouge (Marquette University Press, 2013), 59.