Film Commentary

Terrence Malick's Tree of Life: A Commentary on the Film's Christian Themes

June 17, 2011

The cinematic experience offered by Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life slowly evolves from an aesthetic curiosity into a tumultuous wave of emotion—unrestricted and undefined. Few films are able to stretch outside of the real estate provided by the screen and dig into the metaphysical, into our own memories and experiences, and further yet into the soul.

I’m sure not everyone will feel the same way, for whatever subjective and critical reasons that there may be. Yet, it is without doubt that Malick’s film is supremely important when juxtaposed against the grain of Hollywood’s most celebrated (and most financially successful) films of the current age.

I can understand and even appreciate the cinematic conventions that have evolved over time. People value entertainment and rely on the common tropes of storytelling. Some of these include a strong protagonist, a devious antagonist, and elements of love, jealousy, justice, and revenge (among other common story elements). Sometimes, filmmakers surprise us with mysterious twists, leading us to a satisfying and eventual denouement.

I don’t feel these conventions are bad or unnecessary.  Malick’s film provides a much different and much more enduring experience than the average film.  And to be fair, it is probably because The Tree of Life exists in contrast to these conventions that it stands out with such luminous beauty.

The story is told as if it is a montage of memories, juxtaposed against images of the cosmos and representation of scientific theories on how life began, and in how it will end. Added into this are expositions of such existential significance that it is easy to forget that one is merely watching a screen.

There are many reasons why I enjoyed this film, but I find it difficult to put my experience in words. I could spend thousands of words on just one scene, or on the beauty of the musical pieces, on the images of the universe, or on the parallels between the children portrayed in the film and that of my own childhood (my family also consisted of 3 boys, and the parents are portrayed as hyperbolic representations of how I saw my own parents at an early age).

However, for the sake of this meditation on the film I did want to address a thematic element in the film which some critics are finding as problematic. Namely, it is the infusion of Christian elements that weave in and out of the film’s narrative, knitting theme, story, emotion, philosophy, and spirituality with great ambition, but also with utmost care.

In a wider, social context, Biblical themes tend to create very polarizing opinions on both sides of the argument in regards to the implications provided by stories/myths/fables/legends written in ancient texts.

Some critics are left a bit bewildered by some of the themes examined by Malick. Others actually see the Christian elements as weak points in an otherwise masterful piece of cinema. Michael Ryan from Hammer to Nail writes, “The Tree of Life is an American masterwork, despite its simplistic, cowardly embrace of Christian meaning as an answer to the inciting incident /question: “How do we justify the death of a child? What meaning is there in death and loss?”

Although Ryan goes on to acclaim the other aspects of the film, particularly noting the strength of the family drama which is at the core of the movie, he states that this film is “pure cinema.”

While I agree with his accolades, I have to dispute that Malick’s treatment of Christian themes is simplistic or cowardly. If anything, I believe it to be a bold move against the grain of what has been taken for granted in other forms of cinema. Culturally, we don’t even know how to ask questions about death, about our origins, and the value of love in a planet full of contradictions and enigmas.

Our sense of justice, of freedom, of meaning, of value—what do these things mean to us as a culture? Are they merely socio-political entities which are guaranteed by “self-evident truths?” Are they a result of a messy history of political-religious movements that have existed in our history, responsible for great things, as well as heinous acts? I believe these questions are taken for granted in most films, and primarily in the most popular ones, merely adding to the general disinterest the public has to existentialism and spirituality.

I’m not saying that a Christian perspective is the one a person must use when examining meaning and everything in between. But it is a perspective that deserves more than a simplified approach. Malick illustrates that even within the context of Biblical interpretation, there are still some very sharp contradictions.

Contrary to what Ryan writes in his editorial, I do not believe Malick is embracing “Christian meaning as an answer” to the questions that he poses. I believe he embraces ancient vehicles to examine the questions that are posed, without really giving us any answers.

In my experience, the Bible has never been a book with answers. Rather, it raises more questions, and provides difficult but salient topics to deal with, which are still relevant today. At most, it is a compilation of experiences that people have had (or claim to have had) with the divine, or with metaphysical elements that even modern Science can’t contain. Although Science can help us answer how the world began, it has no clue as why it did.

There are several Christian themes that are explored in this film. While at first it seems like the a major concept is grief and dying, it actually becomes a contemplation on the meaning of life itself, in contrast to the vast and harsh universe. Nature is brutal and uncaring. The existential questions that are raised are never resolved.

A second theme that appears is the nature of evil, as portrayed through the eyes of the oldest son, Jack, played by Hunter McCracken. As Jack starts noticing some of the hypocrisies that he perceives in his own family, dark and conflicting emotions seem to develop from within. Where does guilt come from, and what is the value of love?

Another major theme that appears at the end of the movie is the concept of redemption, and what may appear to be a depiction of an afterlife. However, I do not believe that Malick is professing a belief in the afterlife in and of itself. Rather, it is more a meditation on reconciling the past with the present… on finding comfort by the means of hope, instead of through an actual physical representation of heaven.

These are only a few of the major themes, but by no means an exhaustive list. Furthermore, the film does not separate them into easily decipherable elements, but rather keeps them connected, in plot, characters, narration, cinematography, score, and so on.

I’ve highlighted these elements to illustrate that Malick’s film is not proselytizing or “holding the hand” of the viewer by using Christianity as a lazy convention. Instead, I believe he is challenging our own understanding of what we are, who we are, and why we are.

If our life is insignificant, is there any reason to love? Do we love because—as the law of nature shows (according to the film)—we merely want to please ourselves and to be pleased? Or is it because of grace—a concept that exists far outside the scope of scientific inquiry? We grapple with these things just as the ancients did, forming our own ideas about what to believe.

Malick himself was born into a Christian family, and he studied Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger during his time at Oxford. He does not shy away from Christianity, Spirituality, and Existentialism, but neither does he make things easy for the viewer.

I don’t think one needs to be a Christian or even have an understanding or appreciation of Christianity to fully experience this film. I suspect that people’s bias against Christianity could in fact diminish the value of this film, which is unfortunate, because it is my opinion that Malick has chosen a wise and accessible vehicle toward examining some important questions about humanity and of the universe. Sure, there are other ways to inspect human nature, grief, death, evil, and so on. But Christianity is very recognizable and, despite the varying degrees of how it is expressed and/or perceived, contains principles that are not as apparent in nature (such as forgiveness and grace), but are still interwoven into the fabric of human consciousness.

I’m not trying to be an apologist. I do not doubt that some people may be unable to connect with this film because of certain perceptions of what to expect. This is not a regular, plot driven movie. It is not a unified expression of Christian belief, but neither is it scared of being up front and bold. My advice, if one does choose to watch the film, is to be patient, open, and perceptive.

The Tree of Life is currently in limited release and will open nationwide on July 8. If you can, catch it on the big screen.

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  • Reply Stephen C June 30, 2011 at 6:31 am

    The Christian element is certainly the most polarizing! You have a devoutly Christian-speaking father (Brad Pitt) who argues, ruins the supper table accord, holds his wife in the kitchen against her will and bullies his eldest son. The son displaces his aggression by breaking into houses and stealing a woman’s under garments (whom he is precociously stalking/lurking around). There is one scene where Brad Pitt is acting out like Stanley Kowalksi and then it is followed by… Biblical voice-over! The bell goes *ting*–the dog salivates.

    There is a beautiful visual retelling of the evolution theory, organic and cosmic. Impressionistic, laid out with care. This is put with a visit to the church where religiosity and boredom of the child is showcased. Boy, did this movie annoy me. It was like having to sit through ‘Birth of a Nation’ for a school report on propaganda. So why aren’t I surprised mystified critics are attempting to find some meaning in this obscure film of hidden knowledge?

  • Reply Anonymous July 1, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    This is a film I would like to see again. I must admit that I have a certain bias, as I am sympathetic to the Christian worldview, but that’s not discounting many existential and agnostic perceptions I often entertain.

    The Pavolovian reference you make is what I think makes this movie so fascinating (to me), wherein Christian themes often evoke (for better or worse) very passionate feelings, on one side or another.

    What I think Malick has done with this movie is present the mysterious and unexplainable elements of birth, death, and pain (among other things) which are usually inspected through (at best) Humanism, but are often taken for granted by most media sources.

    Perhaps Malick was seeking to evoke the turbulence caused by Christian themes, but I hardly saw it as propaganda. If anything, it seems to me like he presented a lot of the paradoxes that exist within Christianity, often seen as a form of hypocrisy. But I’d be hard pressed to find -any- system of belief that doesn’t come with its paradoxes. As a matter of fact, contradictions are usually the most fertile ground for enlightenment and/or learning. It doesn’t seem like Malick was giving an exposition, but rather, asking questions. The answers are our own.

  • Reply Mario A. Munoz July 1, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    I left that anonymous comment up above, but forgot to log in. My bad.

  • Reply Film Review // The Descendants « In Harsh Light December 14, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    […] some of the finer films of our time in the last couple of years. Because of them, we've gotten The Tree of Life, Black Swan, 127 Hours, Never Let Me Go, The Wrestler, and many more. Kudos to them!] […]

  • Reply Film Review // The Descendants « In Harsh Light December 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    […] some of the finer films of our time in the last couple of years. Because of them, we've gotten The Tree of Life, Black Swan, 127 Hours, Never Let Me Go, The Wrestler, and many more. Kudos to […]

  • Reply Charles February 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Oh my God. While I have gotten and somewhat enjoyed Malick films in the past, this self-indulgent nightmare put me to sleep several times despite my hope that the symbolism (Christian and otherwise) would weave itself into something resembling a pretentious storyline (even by Malick’s standards). What happened though is that I lost 2 hours and 15 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. It rates right up there with Mr. Bean’s Holiday for my biggest waste of time in front of a screen, ever. Maybe I should break out my turtleneck sweater and Briar pipe and watch it again. No one that I know who has seen this (I encouraged people to watch it to see if it was just “me”) travesty has walked away from it feeling enlightened or entertained on any level. Reign it in, Terence.

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