When Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life premiered at Cannes in 2011, the film was called out for its Christian sensibilities, as if it was a near-three-hour stint of religious propaganda. “People would repeatedly reproach me for my own laudatory notice; this film, they said, was pretentious, boring and — most culpably of all — Christian,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian a couple of months later while also predicting that “The Tree of Life may well come to be seen as this decade’s great Christian artwork.”
Bradshaw was correct, though not merely because The Tree of Life is a great Christian artwork. Rather, it is because the film approaches its subject in a nuanced and often self-critical manner. History has no shortage of great Christian artworks, but the most memorable among them make us question our values. Theological authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Søren Kierkegaard offer a multitude of succinct atheistic perspectives, for example, while Renaissance painters, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Caravaggio, set Christological scenes in their own era to confuse our concept of the biblical timeline.
The Tree of Life also disrupts our sense of time while questioning the Christian viewpoint. The film follows architect Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) in the present, on the anniversary of his brother’s death, as he recalls his upbringing in a Texas suburb in the 1950s. In flashbacks, Jack is depicted as an adolescent boy (played by Hunter McCracken), reared alongside his two brothers by the stubbornly conservative and religious Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). Moving seamlessly between the narrative sequences and abstract shots of nature and the flickering cosmos, the film’s unconventional structure conveys Jack’s conflicting feelings as he recalls both his traumatic childhood and the death of his brother.
The bigger issue for Jack, though, is the tension between nature and grace. At the beginning of The Tree of Life, Mrs. O’Brien tells Jack and his brothers that there are two ways to go through life: the way of nature; and the way of grace. And that they must choose one or the other. But how can Jack follow the latter path and believe in God when he suffered traumatic abuse during his childhood, at the hands of his cruel father, and when he lost someone dear to him seemingly at random?
This conflict is rooted in Jack’s fundamental lack of understanding. Children are expected to accept everything without question. This is especially the case for a child such as Jack, who grew up in an authoritarian household. When Mr. O’Brien has violent outbursts at the dinner table, for example, the consensus is that Jack and his brothers should accept this treatment. They are children, and he is an adult. That’s just the way things are.
And the same goes for Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s hopes that Jack and his brothers will succumb to blind faith in God — even in the wake of torment and tragedy. But how does one understand God without first understanding creation? The Tree of Life opens with this quote from the Book of Job: “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?” (38:4-7). This is God’s response when Job wonders why he is treated unfairly, despite his faith, and it implies that Job should not question something he does not understand.
But older Jack rejects that notion. He wants to understand, and he will not be satisfied until he does. He starts his process by imagining the beginning: the Big Bang and the inception of the Milky Way and the formation of the solar system. Then, he moves to the construction of life on Earth. First, the fish appear, then the plants, then the dinosaurs. And then Jack himself.
Perhaps most notable in Jack’s reimagining of Genesis is its profound scientific accuracy. In Jack’s visions, he does not assume that the creations of the Earth merely materialized at God’s command. Rather, he envisions the forming of molecules and the magnificent twisting of the cosmos. He does not deny science, but rather embraces it. Perhaps in order to properly walk on the path of grace, one must first understand why things are the way they are. Mrs. O’Brien was right when she said there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace, but rather than choose one or the other, you must take both, together.
Jack’s scientific understanding of the world does not dissuade him from a Christian perspective. In fact, it helps him embrace it for the first time in his life. This makes sense, as the titular biblical reference reads, “In the middle of the garden [God] placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9). Ultimately, it is knowledge that ensnares us, knowledge that frees us, and knowledge that makes us human. For Jack, it is knowledge that allows him to fully understand the Christian perspective.
In the final sequence of The Tree of Life, Jack winds up on a surreal sandbar that represents Heaven. There, he sees his family and loved ones, including, most significantly, the brother who died. A serene-looking Mrs. O’Brien gazes into the sky and whispers, “I give him to you. I give you my son.” Jack finally has a vision of Heaven — the ultimate Christian symbol — because he endeavored to understand creation. On the sandbar, he greets his father lovingly. He also is able to say a proper goodbye to his brother. His inner turmoil is finally resolved.
But The Tree of Life doesn’t end there. A final shot, which acts almost as a coda, reprises the flickering, mysterious light of the cosmos as if to say: you have found the way of grace. Just don’t forget how you found it.