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Tree of Life: A Review by Nathan Hitchen

July 5th, 2011 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Note from Matt:  I invited Nathan, who is a friend of the blog, to write up his thoughts on Terence Malick's new film Tree of Life.  I'll be posting my own take tomorrow.

 [youtube WXRYA1dxP_0]

My first thought after finishing Terrence Malick’s new film Tree of Life was, “This movie was too beautiful by half.” I came away suspecting the cinematography overwhelmed the message, or that Malick had cloaked some impenetrable idea in gorgeous robes. Over a couple pints with friends, however, I changed my mind.

Approach Tree of Life with the spirit you would bring to an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prepare to pass leisurely, frame by frame, allowing the diverse images to impress and shape your feelings in each moment. A gallery of art doesn’t have an “argument,” and neither does this film. Tree of Life is a deeply metaphysical expression of Christian imagination. Why would you expect a logical, linear plotline when life itself doesn’t feel that way?

The story is itself a string of vignettes stitching together the life of a boy and his family. It’s a mosaic of their memories, centered on the relationship of the eldest boy and his father and mother (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain).  The film’s structure is demanding, but it captures the way we remember our own lives. Rather than a sequential chain of causes and effects, we remember punctuated flashes of the fun, the wrong, the joyful, the sad, the formative, and the epiphanic. But the film’s content, too, is demanding. Any serious meditation on our memories surfaces religious questions.

Jack Cashill highlights the baffled responses critics have for Tree of Life. As he says, they simply do not know enough about our Christian legacy and the Biblical content that have historically sparked artistic imagination. The key to the film is given in the opening epigraph, Job 38:4, 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . And who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” In a story where each character in turn questions God—as in the Book of Job—the only divine response is, “Who are you, oh man?”

The stunning visualization of creation/the Big Bang and evolution is the cinematic expression of God’s response in Job 38 (this is also where a lot of people get lost and walk out). But Malick is artfully channeling Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge.” The dialectic of verbal questioning of God and creation’s non-verbal testimony anchors the substance of Tree of Life.

The film begins with the son (Sean Penn appearing as the adult version of the character) in dialogue partly with God, partly with himself. “Brother, mother. It was they who led me to your door,” he realizes, “before I knew I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?” He settles on his mother: “You spoke to me through her.” The narrative launches from this meditation to the mother’s voice, who speaks the thematic key of the film. “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You must choose which way to follow. Grace doesn’t please itself. It accepts slights, insults, and injuries. Nature likes to have its own way, to lord it over.” The mother—unconditionally loving—represents grace, while the father—competitive and strict—represents nature. The father insists to his sons that “you can’t be too good and succeed” whereas the mother pleads, “love everything, every moment, every ray of light.”

The story’s conflict revolves around these two “ways” that wrestle in the family, but the film clearly treats sin as an alien and self-multiplying force that perpetuates conflict. The son’s first mal-formation is the result of a choice made out of accumulated frustration against his father (nature), and the apparent randomness of calamity.  “Why should I be good, if you aren’t?” he demands of God.   Michael Horton sees as the philosophical backbone of the movie Roman Catholic ontology in the Nature-Grace dualism. I think he is correct: grace and nature are presented as ways of life. In Roman theology nature and grace are both created substances, and the Fall was a fall from (created) grace. Grace therefore completes and perfects nature. Sin recedes and salvation attains through man’s grace-infused collaboration with God’s work of perfecting our nature (potentially for thousands of years in Purgatory). This explains the son’s struggle when he tells his father, “I’m more like you than her,” but agonizes, “Mother, father, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

The ending of the movie is not entirely emotionally satisfying. To my mind while Malick was very good in framing the Christian metaphysical meditation of life, he fails to clinch an unambiguous Christian (that is, Christological) resolution. Perhaps Malick is going for a version of T.S. Eliot’s verse in Little Gidding, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” But there is something missing: real catharsis.

Three interpretations of the ending seem equally plausible to me. 1) “Heaven” or “reconciliation” is attained through the internal meditation Penn’s character completes in some sort of mystical realization that “Love wins out.” And so father and son are inexplicably reconciled, and all characters in our life story meet again. 2) The last words of the film are the mother’s: “I give you my son.” In the context of the film, this is her character reconciling with the situation of Job, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” So, catharsis is returning to a trust in God’s ways. 3) Or, “I give you my son” could be interpreted as not coming from the character of the mother, but from the archetype of the mother, grace (she is certainly presented ethereally, even divine in the scene).

That is, all the questions to God—Who are we to you? Was I false? Where were you?—find their resolution no longer in the non-verbal testimony of creation—general revelation—but in the special revelation of God, the giving of his Son. God’s grace is his response to our condition: the son of the Theotokos, Christ himself.

As much as I like the third interpretation, one wonders: is the Incarnation an adequate resolution to the human condition, or is it the Resurrection?

--Nathan Hitchen, a senior analyst at the Corporate Executive Board, is a 2007 John Jay Institute Fellow.

Matthew Lee Anderson

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.