I’ve tried to stay away from talking about really recent movies on “Reel Christianity” for the past few months, but since I got to see this recently and I bet most of you are wondering what this is, I’ll go ahead and talk about this movie. “The Tree of Life” is a film written and directed by Terrence Malick, who may well be a Christian director. The only two films of his that I’ve seen are this and his 1998 war film “The Thin Red Line”, both of which are very unique and excellent films. He also produced “Amazing Grace”, the movie about William Wilberforce and the slave trade, which is one of the “talkiest” “Christian movies” I’ve ever seen in my life. (I may have made that word up. But yeah, I don’t like it.) Anyway, Malick’s latest effort is a period film about a family in the mid-20th century that was recently named Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival in France, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. When it won, it was apparently booed by some of the audience, probably because it was loaded with spiritual content. That’s ironic, because that’s the reason why I praise “The Tree of Life”.
Right from the beginning of the film, there is a sense of spirituality in the film. It opens with the words from Job 38:4 and 38:7. I’ll reference that in a minute; for now, look it up. But most of the first half of the movie won’t make sense if you forget those verses. Anyway, the movie for the most part switches back and forth between storylines, between a family with three young boys in the 1960s and the eldest son’s adult line in the present day. But the movie starts in the middle, I guess the 1970s or 1980s, where the mother of that family, the O’Brien’s (Mrs. O’Brien played beautifully by Jessica Chastain), receives a telegram that one of her sons, the middle child Steve (Tye Sheridan), was killed at the age of nineteen. Her neighbors, who we see later in flashbacks befriended her and her family through the sons’ childhoods, try to give her and her husband (Brad Pitt) comforting words, but nothing seems to calm Mrs. O’Brien’s heavy heart.
And this is the point in the movie when I saw a couple walk out of the theater. For the next twenty minutes, we hear Mrs. O’Brien’s thoughts directed to God as she asks: Where were You? Did You know what happened? Do you care? And as she speaks, all we see are images. And they may seem like random images (outer space, a volcano eruption, a beating heart, even dinosaurs—not kidding, there are dinosaurs in this movie), but not when you remember what God told Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? …While the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy?” (38:4, 7) After seeing this sequence and thinking about it… for a few days… I came to realize that maybe this sequence is showing God. And it shows that God made the universe in all its intricacies, and He was there from the very beginning of time. And from the beginning of time, he was in everything—even in the dinosaurs. There’s one part of this sequence where a raptor has a chance to feed on a weaker one, but as the raptor looks at its prey, it decides to show it compassion and walks away. This, to me, is an example from the beginning of time between the duality between nature and grace.
And you’re probably wondering, the duality between nature and grace? What? Well, the movie really opens with a narration from Mrs. O’Brien, comparing nature and grace, or the ideas of “might makes right” versus the Golden Rule:
MRS. O’BRIEN: [There are] two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. …Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. …Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way.
And you can see this duality in the parenting of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien (I call them these titles because their names are not mentioned) represents the way of nature: he is very strict with his sons, correcting them in their manners and telling them that force is required to get ahead in the world. And even though his sons tell him they love him, it sounds as if they don’t mean it: for one thing, they feel forced to obey him and follow all his rules, and for another thing, they see in him a sense of hypocrisy. In one scene, we see his eldest son Jack (played as a child by Hunter McCracken) thinking about his father, and we hear his voice-over of his thoughts (yeah, Terrence Malick uses voice-overs a lot in his movies), where he says that his father always jokes with people, pokes fun at them, and he doesn’t even seem to care. And eventually, Jack builds up what seems like a hatred towards his father.
Mrs. O’Brien, on the other hand, represents the way of grace: she is not as forceful as Mr. O’Brien and kinder in the way she asks her sons what to do and what not to do. This makes all three sons love their mother more than their father, and it also makes them feel like they have more freedom. But this leads to trouble when Mr. O’Brien goes on a business trip, and Jack has friends over their house to play. One of his friends encourages Jack to play dangerously and throw a baseball into a neighbor’s house, telling him that his parents surely try new things, so why shouldn’t Jack? This is, I think, the reason why the film is called “The Tree of Life”: it’s very similar to the serpent’s tempting of Eve, telling her that there was nothing wrong with eating the fruit from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. This, of course, led to sin, and Jack’s decision leads to punishment from his mother and father.
So basically, the film focuses on two ideas of spirituality: the duality between a forced love and free will to love, and the idea of suffering. And suffering isn’t just saved for Steve’s death: the family sees this throughout the sons’ childhoods. One of their friends drowns in a pool and dies. Another friend’s house burns down, and the back of his head is scarred. Mr. O’Brien, who works at some kind of manufacturing company, sues over one of his patents being stolen and loses, and he eventually loses his job, and the family has to move away. Jack sees all this and, having gone to church through childhood, can’t understand why God would let this happen. He whispers this to God after his friend’s death:
JACK: Was he bad? Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good… when You aren't?
And Jack carries these thoughts with him into his adulthood (where he is now played by Sean Penn), where he goes through his workday thinking about his brother’s death, his father’s love, and his own life. But the ending of the movie tries to resolve this in the subtlest way possible—and it’s probably going to be confusing to most of you. It definitely was to me. See, at the end of the movie, the adult Jack finds himself on a beach, walking with his younger self. Whether this is a dream or something, or whether this is reality and this is just what Jack’s thinking, is up to you. But Jack goes to a beach where he finds many of the people in his past life—including the child Steve and his young parents. This is the place where Mrs. O’Brien finally whispers the film’s last lines:
MRS. O’BRIEN: I give him to You. I give You my son.
The way I see this, it takes the beauty of nature and the grace of the God who created it for the O’Brien’s to realize that God was with them through their whole lives. And it’s on that beach seeing God’s creation that they are able to let go of the pain and suffering that they’ve gone through. Now, that’s just my interpretation, but I encourage you to see the movie for yourself and decide what this all means. Seriously, I dare you to watch this movie. It’ll be hard for a lot of people, because the pacing is pretty slow, and the whole dinosaur thing is pretty unexpected. But if you’re looking for God in “The Tree of Life”, you’ll find Him.
After all, the idea that God is evidenced in nature is something that I’ve read in the Bible more than once—not only does God say it in the Book of Job, but Paul writes about it in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” I know that it took me to realize how big our universe was to realize that God was real, and none of my problems are too big for him to handle. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will simply find an opportunity to see God today, and that you will learn to love and trust Him freely and even through suffering.