The Theology Behind “The Tree of Life”

At the end of 2011, Terrence Malick’s new film “The Tree of Life” was voted the best film of the year by the Sight & Sound critic’s poll, the indieWire critic’s survey and a similar poll of critics by LA Weekly. Despite this fact, and its impressive score on the critics aggregate website rottentomatoes, one could still make the claim that Malick’s film was the most divisive of the last year. Those who admire the film adore it wholeheartedly. Roger Ebert even went as far to include it on his ballot for the ten greatest films ever made. But there are many who were alienated and befuddled by Malick’s ambitious vision. Like the four other films on Malick’s resume, “The Tree of Life” strays far away from Hollywood conventions. His rampant use of non-diegetic dialogue, his lingering shots of nature and his integration of philosophy and theology are just some components of what make a Malick film, well, Malickian. His films are certainly more geared for those who would rather be in an art house as opposed to a multiplex. Per that, there are those who find his films to be meandering and pretentious. Never did one of his films inspire these claims more than his bold 2011 work. Certainly, never has he been more inclined to incorporate theological aspects into a film.

While previous films, particularly “The Thin Red Line,” have indeed featured drawn out ruminations on the nature and existence of a deity, “The Tree of Life” is his most dogmatic film yet. Just look at the title. Malick is, as always, tightlipped on the matter of the themes of his film. The notorious recluse has not given a single interview about his films in his entire career, which dates back to 1973. Yet many critics and film enthusiasts have agreed that “The Tree of Life” represents Malick’s interpretation of the Book of Job. Indeed, the film opens with a quote from the book: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth… when the morning stars sang together?” It seems as though this biblical chapter is “in,” if you will, for cinematic interpretations, as the Coen brothers created their own allegory in 2009 with “A Serious Man.”

Like Job, the film start off with, what is in the eyes of the protagonist anyway, a senseless tragedy. The film’s lead character, Jack, experiences the death of his brother. His family is shaken, and the death haunts Jack into his adulthood. Jack is tested throughout the film. His parents represent two separate forces: Grace and nature. Jack’s mother, is ethereal, kind and nurturing. Malick shoots her with infinite light to illuminate her angelic presence. Jack’s father, on the other hand, is bitter, strict and occasionally pugilistic. Malick deliberately sets these characters up as opposing forces, and tests his young protagonist. In his preadolescence, Jack is more drawn to his graceful mother. But as he gets older, he transforms into a mischievous and rebellious child, trying to survive his dysfunctional family. We see Jack in his 40s or 50s at the bookends of the film, angry at God for the way his life turned out and the tragedies that begat his family.

One of the most peculiar things about Malick’s approach with this project is his choice to subvert his own predominant narrative. 90% of the film focuses on the storyline I have laid out, yet it is interspersed with seemingly random segments that display the creation of the universe. These segments are slow, contemplative yet beautiful and exhilarating. Set against the backdrop of thrilling crescendos and utilizing the extraordinary special effects of Hollywood legend Douglas Trumbull, Malick creates sequences that are operatic and cinematically grandiose. It’s as if Malick uses these sequences as God’s response: This is the magic that I can conjure, and you are infinitesimal to rest of the wonders that surround you. While some conservative audience members may object to Malick’s insinuations about the relationship between religion and science, this is undoubtedly Malick’s representation of the deity as he sees it.
While I’m quite positive that Malick will never break his vow of silence and we will never know quite for sure, this film feels far and away his most personal. This is the work of an artist pouring his heart about and using all the wondrous tricks up that extended sleeve of his. Malick has provided a window into his life, the life one of the most essential and enigmatic artists since the movie camera was invented. “The Tree of Life” is trying to be sure, and demands your close attention. But the viewers who dedicate themselves will be rewarded with a unique spiritual and personal journey worthy of its exalted status.

by Zack Mandell

Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast and owner of and writer of movie reviews about movies such as The Tree of Life. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites such as Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.

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