“I give you my son.”
In terms of theological scope and artistry, The Tree of Life is an essential Christian masterpiece. Like the Sistine Chapel, like Handel’s Messiah – like these two masterworks, Tree of Life spans from creation to new earth. The entirety of our existence. Our place in the created order. Is it esoteric? Yes. But through the mental fog, there are moments of emotional clarity even for Malick’s most uninitiated viewers.
As I have revisited Tree of Life frequently since the first time I saw it seven years ago, the emotional clarity has grown and the fog has just about lifted. Malick here successfully outlines the Christian worldview – creation, fall, grace, and glory – orienting it around what are perhaps the two chief philosophical questions of theology: how do you solve the problem of evil? and what is the nature of free will?
These two questions serve as Malick’s dual thematic threads, driving the narrative of creation, fall, grace, and glory.
I. The Problem of Evil: Mother
Tree of Life’s epigraph, Job 38:4,7, reads:
“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?”
The problem of evil – the question of how we can justify God’s goodness and omnipotence when there is so much suffering and evil in the world – is a question so old, so complicated, that it has been asked for thousands of years by the fresh faces of every generation. While there is value and comfort in many of the proposed solutions, the only truly resonant theodicy is found in the book of Job.
In order to prevent so many words from being necessary for such complicated ideas, Malick often draws in other texts to get the ideas across. Job 38:4,7 begins this pattern of intertextuality. These verses offer the purely biblical theodicy Malick wants to justify over the course of Tree of Life – the divine omnipotence and providence of a good God vindicates the suffering in our world.
Mother (Jessica Chastain) is our Job. “I will be true to you. Whatever comes,” she prays, only to find that her youngest son, a promising musician, has died. I find this to be all the more noteworthy upon learning that Malick’s own younger brother committed an (apparent) suicide following significant pressure in his musical studies. Mother’s friend, much like Job’s friends, offers empty hope to little solace against the problem of her suffering. “The pain will pass in time,” this friend insists. “Life goes on. You still got the other two [sons].” Mother says something like Bertrand Russell (an area of interest in Malick’s own philosophical studies): “No one can believe in a good God if they’ve sat at the bedside of a dying child.” She retreats to a forest, crying to the heavens, not unlike anyone who faces such grief: “Lord, why? Where were you?”
As if to answer, the grandeur of creation fills the void – echoing the epigraph. God lays the foundations of the earth while an affecting choir shouts for joy. We feel small against the monument of creation; our questions, though still significant, quiver below the humbling awe of God’s power. As the epigraph suggested, there is no more satisfying answer to the problem of evil than a humbling before the omnipotence of God.
Malick takes every opportunity to relish in creation as God has sustained it (Hebrews 1:3). As if to answer that aching question – why? – the grandeur and beauty of the world around frequently sees Malick’s camera point us upward. Mother herself, later, points to the sky and says, “That’s where God lives.” Shining above, controlling and sustaining all that thrives around her. “Love is smiling through all things.” The divine omnipotence. The comforting providence. The perpetually good God who justifies the suffering we face in preparation for the glory to come.
II. Free Will: Brother
At the very start of the film following the epigraph, we hear Mother’s grown son, Jack (Sean Penn), retrospectively whisper in prayer: “Brother, Mother, it was they who led me to your door.” Soon after, just outside his workplace, he sees a vision of his deceased brother proclaim, “Find me.” This is to say that while Mother is grieving – recalling the joyous memories of her lost son during his childhood to find God through the suffering – Jack, too, is retrospectively considering his childhood with his lost brother to find God. Sin holds him back.
While Tree of Life begins with an extended prelude and creation sequence, it finds its more traditional narrative feet exploring the Fall through Mother’s family. Where creation was once perfect, Man declared independence in the garden by rejecting God’s authority. This rebellion, this sin, severed human fellowship with God and ensured the inheritance of sin, the guilty verdict before God, in all people. The world and all people were tainted, broken.
Jack’s childhood sees a loss of innocence when he is confronted by the external effects of the Fall. The world, through his eyes, is visibly broken: he sees unfair suffering in an innocent boy with horrific burns, a husband and a wife argue bitterly through their window, police shove an insane man into their car, and a friend drowns in the river. When Jack sees the effects of the Fall, he reacts to them with incredulity. There is, self-evidently, something seriously wrong with the natural order of the world. At the same time, Jack is consumed by his internal temptations. He lusts over a classmate, leads a pack of boys to break windows, steals a gown, and shoots his brother’s finger, only to feel great shame. Like Paul in Romans, he admits, “I do what I hate.” Jack is repulsed by the fallen workings of the world, but also an ashamed victim in its grasp.
Sin’s grasp is unavoidable, inherited. This is made more clear where Mother is made to be an image of grace – loving, forgiving, and truthful – while Father (Brad Pitt) represents her antithesis: nature – one who only wants to please himself, unconcerned with the “triviality” of others. Jack, as their son, inherits and is torn between both – veering toward the latter. “Mother,” Jack concedes, “Father, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Malick continues his pattern of intertextuality, saving words by inviting an exact theme of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, going so far as to have Jack quote the text directly in an argument between him and his brother. “Do you want to call me a liar? / No. I don’t want to fight. / Afraid to fight? / No. I just don’t want to.” While this exchange seems insignificant, it illuminates the broader themes around it. Both works explore this question of inherited sin, of a wrestle between two contradictory natures, of whether free will is compatible with God’s providence. They both land in the same place: Free will necessitates the possibility of evil but ensures the authenticity of goodness. The Fall is essential if there is to be grace. As Steinbeck put it (quoting a Hebrew term in Genesis): Timshel – thou mayest conquer sin. In a great paradox, providence does not negate responsible agency. Where Jack falls and falls and falls again, experiencing defeat in his sinful shame, his Father’s redemption confirms the potential for its defeat.
Although the Fall necessitates the inheritance of sin, not all hope is lost. Even before the foundation of the world, God knew the eventual sinfulness of man would require a penal substitute – someone equipped to take our place for the justice of our sins – through the life and death and resurrection of his son Jesus. There is grace freely offered to us, unmerited love from God.
As adult Jack continues to recall his childhood, he discovers the might of grace in his Father’s redemption. If his Father, an archetype of nature, can be saved, anyone can. He returns from a business trip a changed man. In a conversation between him and Jack, Malick again draws from another text – in this case, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The quote is from the brother of a highly revered Monk (Father Zosima) who shares his life story before his final breath. Although Malick has Father paraphrase, this Monk recounts his brother saying, “There was such a glory of God all about me; birds, trees meadows, sky, only I lived in shame and dishonored it all and did not notice the beauty and glory.” After an apology, Jack, too, comes to terms with his struggle. He realizes sin can be defeated as the film moves into its final act.
III. The End of All Things: Son
Brother and Mother have finished looking to the past. We return to Mother in the woods where we left her considering the problem of evil and we return to Jack, fresh off the vision of his brother who told him to “find me.” Suddenly, Jack follows an angelic host into a doorway. With this step of faith, there is no turning back. God’s irresistible grace has firmly taken hold.
A vision of the end of all things. The sun becomes a red giant, consuming the Earth, leaving it unrecognizably desolate. Destroyed. Jack’s brother whispers – “follow me.” Images of death. Resurrection. Angelic beings. Wandering souls on a newly restored earth. Jack falls to his knees. Mother arrives and they embrace. Brother appears and Jack and Mother impart their love, saying their goodbye with great joy. Mother opens a door, leads her boy outside and sends him beyond as Jack comforts her.
Mother, with the guidance of angelic beings, raises her hands to the sky, proclaiming what the whole film has been leading to: “I give him to you. I give you my son.” A cathartic trilemma of meaning ties the thematic threads into a beautiful tapestry – Mother accepts the death of her son, resolving the grief and the problem of suffering; she gives Jack, who has finally found (paradoxically through his own accord and God’s working) who his brother led him to, over to the Lord; and she offers Jesus, the son of God, whose open arms await anyone who embraces the way of grace.
We return to an image of sunflowers – a bookend to an image with the way of grace established in the opening sequence. Grace triumphs, sprouting formidably tall and strong against the wind. The vision of the end ends. Adult Jack smiles slightly. An image of a bridge invites us to cross to the way of grace, to the promise of glory on the other side. When it cuts to black, we are reacquainted with a mysterious flame that has been intercut throughout the whole film. A representation of God himself. As the final shot in the film, there is a difference in this flame. It does not fade out.
“No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” The Christian faith awaits the reconciliation of the whole, deeply fallen, world to grace and glory. Until that time, the Fall will remain difficult to swallow. There is so much grief. But if God is all-powerful, then our suffering always has meaning. Mother and Jack find God through their frailty. In the same passage of The Brothers Karamazov where Malick drew inspiration, there remains a quote that could not be a better marriage between the two thematic threads in Tree of Life. Where free will allows for evil, the inevitable grief it produces certainly points us upward.
“It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quite tender joy.”