Faith & Film: Faith and Film: The Tree of Life

It’s extremely rare to find a movie that has spirituality as its central theme. So I welcome Terrence Malick’s new film “The Tree of Life” for its unique vision. The movie takes us from the dawn of creation (including dinosaurs!) to the afterlife, with the story of a 1950s Texas family at the center. God is portrayed as creative genius of the universe, but also intimate enough to be a part of the O’Briens’ family life.

Malick begins his film with a quote from the Book of Job, “Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?” Malick also poses a dichotomy between grace and nature. As a good Dominican, I found that odd, since I learned from Aquinas that grace builds upon nature. In Malick’s understanding, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) represents nature. He tells his son, Jack, that you have to work for everything in life. You can’t expect life to give you anything. Mr. O’Brien is a frustrated musician who works as an engineer to provide for his family. He is a disciplinarian who loves his family, but can be overly strict with his wife and three sons. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) represents the unconditional love of grace. She loves her children deeply, but can be overly permissive with them, especially in her husband’s absence.

Early in the film, we learn that the second oldest boy dies at the age of 18. The circumstances of his death are unexplained. All we know is that Mrs. O’Brien receives a telegram announcing the tragic news. A sense of loss and grief haunts the film, much of which is shown in flashback to the days when the boys are young. Malick shows us Jack’s birth and baptism. A priest (Epsicopal, I think) later preaches on Job during a service. The other two unnamed sons grow and live a relatively normal life in Waco, Texas. There are many scenes of the family eating supper together or playing in the yard.

Malick’s films (perhaps his best known film is his 1978 masterpiece “Days of Heaven”) are known for their great visual images and sparseness of dialogue. “The Tree of Life” is no exception. There are beautiful images of the O’Brien family throughout the movie, from Jack’s baptism to later jumping over the pews in the church. Malick captures the gentle breeze blowing the curtains over his crib, and boys swinging in the front yard. The frustrating thing about Malick’s style is that the audience is kept at a distance from the lives of the family members. In the best of family dramas (e.g. “Ordinary People”), I was drawn into the family struggles and knew the characters. I never felt like I knew the O’Briens. We don’t even know the first names of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien. They are like a family in the neighborhood who you know casually from seeing them in school, church and the grocery store, but don’t know who they really are. We’re like outsiders looking into their lives.

Of course, Malick is interested in much more than an ordinary family drama, but I wasn’t sure what. There are frequent quotes from the Psalms and others, and a lot more God talk than probably in all other summer movies combined. Malick frequently uses voice-over narration in hushed tones. For example, Jack says that “My father and mother will always be fighting inside of me,” as a reminder that the struggle between grace and nature (as Malik defines them) is always present.
Sean Penn plays Jack as an adult. He becomes a successful architect, but is still haunted by his parents and the loss of his brother. He wanders through high rise building in Dallas, searching for something.

That something may be heaven, which we glimpse. Many of the characters from the film wander around a beautiful, rugged shoreline, looking peaceful.

“The Tree of Life” has been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s great “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its transcendent vision of life, and the omniscient presence of God. “2001” was much more engaging, both visually and dramatically (who can forget the evil computer HAL) than “Tree.” A fellow friar suggested that “Tree” is like one of those really nice coffee table books, with inspiring Scripture quotes accompanied by beautiful photographs. I think this is a good metaphor for the film. As much as I enjoy leafing through books like these, they’re easily forgotten.

I salute Terrence Malick for daring to make a spiritual movie. I wish it had drawn me in more and been more cohesive, so I would have a better sense of what spiritual insight Malick is attempting to communicate.

Tom Condon, OP