Terence Malick’s Tree of Life is a profound meditation on the possibility of joy in a world where the brokenness threatens to overwhelm our sense of the presence, power, and fundamental beauty of goodness.
Bold words for an opening sentence. But the film leaves no room to be timid. He has the audacity—and audacity is precisely what it is—to take us to the formation of the universe, patiently reveling in the dramatic grandeur of creation.
Much has been made of this; much less has been said about the music. The Lacrimosa which accompanies the scenes comes close to being a direct contradiction of the words from Job that opened the film: “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?” There is no shouting for joy here—only the mourning of the impending judgment combined with a plea for mercy.
What to make of this? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure. Thomas Hibbs is exactly right that “the opening sequence of creation is so wondrous as to merit the description of grace or gift.” But the music sounds a foreboding note, as though the problem in the universe is built into the structure of the universe—or very much near it. Almost certainly that latter option, as though Malick presupposes you know the story of the Fall in the way he presumes you’ll notice his lifting from Romans 7 later.
As for evidence, we should not expect in a film like this anything more than hints, and that is all we have. In one mildly touching scene, a predatory dinosaur comes upon dinner who happens to lying sick upon the ground. Yet rather than take what the “way of nature” had put before him, he shortly goes his way. A hint, nothing more, of a more compassionate form of nature than that which we were told about. Not long after, a meteor strikes the side of the earth, perhaps one large enough to generate a flood.
Yet, the joy. Most reviewers have treated the second part of the quotation from Job as though it’s accidental to the substance. Malick, though, had lots of other options and yet chose that question which highlights the unequivocal goodness of the created order. No surprise, then, that the supreme challenge comes when the son transposes the declaration into a minor key, and points back at the Creator: “Why should I be good, if you aren’t?”
This is the challenge that Malick gives himself: to demonstrate that goodness, to make us feel its weight and presence. Not to justify the ways of God to man, for they need no justification, but to give us a taste of that which, once known, requires no further justification.
In this, I think Tree of Life succeeds better than any film I have yet seen. Yet others clearly do not. Nathan Hitchen thinks the Christology needs to be explicit, but also thinks the ending lacks “real catharsis.” Hibbs suggests the final scene is “silent and grim, surprisingly lacking in joy or any sense of community beyond the nuclear family.” While I am highly skeptical that the demand for an explicit Christological statement at the end is a good one to make of Christian art, we can set the issue aside for Tree of Life. It’s hard to get more forthright than an Agnus Dei, but Berlioz’s is what makes the final scene go.
At the same time, Hibbs is right that there is no speaking, but wrong that there needs to be. The Agnus Dei transforms into the Lux Aeterna, while the characters greet each other with the sort of restrained smiles of people who worry they may be overwhelmed by the joy bursting from within them. And while the first reunion is with the nuclear family, there are plenty of others around. The Lux Aeterna, after all, is otherwise known as the "communion," and presumably everyone that's arrived are saints.
Adjudicating such arguments is something, well, of an art. The film must be seen and felt, and one fellow might feel catharsis while another feel tedium. But to this viewer, the lightness of the final scene, its luminosity, contained an inexplicable sense of peace, a peace that Charles Williams knew was a “terrible good.” The sort of peace that is the power of rage combined with the harmony of tranquility. This is a peace that costs everything and transforms no less, a peace that is only as boring as Dante’s Paradise.
Catharsis, then? Yes, I think so. Especially if you stay through the credits. The final sequence rolls, while a pianist soberly plays Welcome Happy Morning. The first verse below, but the whole text must be read:
“Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say: “Hell today is vanquished, Heav’n is won today!” Lo! the dead is living, God forevermore! Him, their true Creator, all His works adore!
“Welcome, happy morning!” Age to age shall say.
The lyrics demonstrate the irrelevance of whether the final scene is the afterlife or not. Yes, all things shall “be well, and all manner of thing be well.” But stare at the goodness long enough and eventually you’ll see that, beneath the brokenness and pain, they already are and are only waiting to be revealed as such. The morning that we look for has already broken through.
But the credits continue, and the hymn is followed by a lovely guitar piece, an Etude in B Minor that is just as reflective as the previous. And then, back to Welcome Happy Morning, same piano, same player, only with a bit more life in it and just a bit more cheer—precisely the way the closing hymn at the end of the service should be. And we are returned to the world with an optimistic lightheartedness, and the feeling that somehow the struggle and toil of this life and Malick’s film are both worth it.
You might think I am making just a bit too much of this. Perhaps.
But the evidence: In one scene, the young Jack flirts with a girl before following her on the way home. Malick captures the innocence of those youthful attractions, but pairs it with Welcome Happy Morning floating across the piano. Not the whole thing, but enough of an echo to make the song certain. In that encounter with Beatrice, the love is reawaken in Jack that “moves the heavens and all the other stars.”
This Dantean subtheme is reaffirmed at the end. Just before Jack comes to the door to new Narnia, or whatever we shall call it, he is lead by a woman with brown hair whose face we never see but who does not look like his mother. I could not tell whether it was the same women who shares his bed in normal life, though I for some reason doubt it.
Tree of Life, then, is a meditation on loss and being lost. But just as Malick’s music stands behind and around the imagery, framing them and clarifying their ambiguities, so the goodness and the love that pervades the film will eventually consume the suffering and the pain, transforming them and taking them up into the story of God’s transformative grace. But just as this redemption of the creation is impossible without the Agnus Dei, so also is understanding Tree of Life.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.