Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Part creation epic and part family drama, The Tree of Life stars Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt as the parents of three boys in the '50s.
Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight Pictures
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the new Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life. If there is a genre of cinema called "metaphysical," this movie would be the perfect example. Some of the deepest questions humanity has grappled with are interwoven with the story of a struggling, middle-class Texan family in the 1950s. As a reminder that the sublime and the tragic can wear many disguises, we witness scenes of awesome beauty — of the beatific kind — set in the very mundane scenery of a suburban street paired with scenes of heart-breaking family grief.
The central theme of the movie is loss and how we relate to it. Malick counterpoints our frail humanity against the dramatic splendor of nature, inserting within the movie a creation narrative that begins with the Big Bang and moves on to show swirling vortexes of exploding gas depicting the birth of stars, unformed planets, the shaping of Earth, the first stirrings of life, the development of multicellular creatures and plants, the age of the dinosaurs — all the way to the birth of a child in a hospital in Waco, Texas.
By doing this, the director wants us to understand that we are part of this creation story, that this cosmic narrative is our own. From the rich imagery and evocative music (Mahler, Brahms, Couperin, Berlioz and the original score by Alexandre Desplat) on, we are induced to see the universe, life and, of course, humanity as a manifestation of God, a kind of Spinoza deity, everywhere and in everyone.
As the narrative progresses, we witness many versions of loss. Mr. O'Brien (a Brad Pitt looking all grown-up and severe with a crew cut and a few extra pounds) and his wife, the Pre-Raphaelite Jessica Chastain, have three sons. Jack, the oldest, is the central presence in the story, played by the impressive Hunter McCracken. He suffers constantly from the anger of a frustrated father who dreamed of being a classical musician (we see Pitt playing the piano and the organ at church, and forcing the family to listen to Brahms during meals) but who, instead, works in some kind of factory. Malick never tells us exactly what the father does, but we infer he is some kind of engineer — at some point, his application for a patent and its sale fails. He can be cold and violent, as when he asks his sons to punch him in the face.
Apart from his angry father, Jack also has to deal with the superior artistic talents of his younger brother, R. L., who could play guitar very well, draw beautifully, and looked nicer than he. (In fact, he looks a lot like a young Brad Pitt, perhaps to suggest that this son was his father's dreams incarnated.) Jack's mixture of jealousy of and adoration for his brother evokes the struggle we all have with our own limitations, not unlike what the character Salieri felt toward Mozart in Amadeus.
To contrast with the heavy father figure, mother is a saint-like, angelic being, a mystic who loves nature with religious fervor: "Love everyone. Love every leaf, every ray of light." Mother and her three sons were the happiest when father had to leave on a business trip for a few days.
The family bliss — even the cinematography implies that their suburban life was a kind of Eden—is destroyed when the second of the three brothers is killed in Vietnam at age 19. The movie cuts backward and forward in time, and we see Jack in the present time, as an adult played by a soulful Sean Penn locked inside a coffin-looking ultramodern building in New York, staring longingly out the window, asking, "Where are you?" to his brother and, it can be safely assumed, to God. Throughout the movie, there is a lot of whispering in voice over, no doubt to create a sense of the sacred, of prayer-like atmosphere. Malick attempts to transform the movie theater into a temple.
Through the struggles of Jack's character, the movie poses us with the choice, repeated by mother and by the ongoing imagery: "We must choose between the way of grace and the way of nature." Grace here means generosity, forgiveness, a form of inner strength that can suffer all sorts of insults and still keep going, resolute and beatific. There are many ways of describing it, but all of them are anchored in our existence, in our humanity. We are the conduits of grace: It would not exist without us. (However, during the cosmic narrative scene, a predator dinosaur spares the life of a docile plant-eater in a seemingly graceful act. Perhaps a suggestion that grace is not only human and that it evolved?) From this perspective, and from what the movie tells us in text and imagery, grace is goodness.
Nature, on the other hand, is indifferent to us; it just keeps on going, doing its thing, creating and destroying, with no deeper sense of purpose or value. If God is in nature or is nature, as the movie seems to suggest, then God is not graceful. Most of us are stuck in the middle of this power struggle, trying to make sense of our brief existence. A premature death has no excuse. It shatters even mother's seemingly inviolable sense of grace.
The movie concludes with an end-of-days sequence, where the living and the dead commingle in a paradisiacal beach. I was moved by the scene but puzzled by its message. Is Malick telling us to believe in the afterlife? Is that how we should cope with loss?
We don't need to choose between grace and nature. There is, I propose, a third way, a middle way, where we find grace in nature, not just through its beauty and every leaf and ray of light, but in our deep connection to it, through gain and loss alike. What killed the father, figuratively speaking, even before the death of his beloved son, was his estrangement from the true meaning of grace, which is to connect deeply with what is around you, living beings and not. Instead, he could only connect with his lost dream.
I hope that of the many messages in Malick's film, one that will endure is that nature and grace are not at war with each other but that they are one and the same: After all, here we are, the creations of eons of cosmic history, able to invent the concept of grace and to be inspired to live by it.