The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

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The Tree of Life begins, fittingly enough, with a quote from the Almighty Himself:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

The reason for the quote, which is from the Book of Job, becomes apparent within the opening minutes of The Tree of Life which, like the Book of Job, presents itself as a meditation on, if not an answer to, the problem of evil, one of the great paradoxes of theism: Given the existence of evil, how is it possible that “God is great and God is good?” This is the perplexing question that haunts the film’s protagonist, Jack O’Brien, played as an adult by a very glum looking Sean Penn. He’s haunted most by the tragic death of his younger brother, R.L., and the anguish it has caused his near-angelic mother, known only as Mrs. O’Brien. Why should his beloved mother, a good Christian who lives her life according to the dictates of “Grace”, have to suffer so? Anxious to reconcile his belief in a perfectly good God with the seemingly gratuitous suffering in the world, Jack embarks on a personal, introspective quest for ultimate meaning. The Tree of Life is that quest, a spiritual journey through time that takes Jack from the present to the very origins of the universe, from his formative years growing up in the suburbs of Texas in the 50s to his ultimate destiny on the “shores of eternity.”

Part 1 – The Creation of the Universe

Move aside Science Fiction, Terrence Malick has invented a new cinematic genre: Creation Science Fiction. Just before Malick creates the universe, Mrs. O’Brien, after receiving the devastating news about the death of R.L., whispers to the heavens, “Lord, why? Where were you?”, and He, that is Malick, responds with His celebrated creation sequence, which is nothing less than the cinematic visualization of God’s words to Job:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

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Job is a good man, a righteous man, yet he’s beset by a series of calamities. First, all of his possessions are destroyed. Then his children are killed. Finally, he’s stricken with dreadful boils. He seeks answers from God. Why should such calamity have befallen him? Why does God permit the righteous to suffer? Why does He allow evil to exist? The above quote is God’s answer – which is, of course, no answer at all. Actually, the quote is just the beginning of God’s long-winded, two chapter non-response to Job’s pleadings. For those tormented by “the silence” of God, I would simply point you to chapters 38 & 39 of the Book of Job. True, it takes 37 chapters of Job’s bellyaching to get a word out of Him, but once He deigns to speak to Job, once He gets to talking, there’s just no shutting His all-powerful pie hole.

And yet, for all His omnipotent huffing and omniscient puffing, He never gets around to actually answering Job’s concerns in a meaningful way. Instead, He gets upset at Job for having the temerity to question His ways, telling Job to “man up” (“gird up now thy loins like a man”) and then pointing out, rather petulantly, all the amazing things He can do that Job can’t, all the wondrous things He knows that Job doesn’t. By the time He’s finished boasting the message is clear: Job, from his absurdly limited perspective, can’t possibly comprehend God’s Will. Basically, God says to Job, and I’m paraphrasing The Almighty here: “I shall ask the questions here! Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Thou wast nowhere!! Canst thou send lightning bolts? Thou canst not!! Where is the way where light dwelleth? Huh? Tell Me! Ha! Thou doth not knoweth the way!! Where doth thou get offeth asking Me questions? Thou are too sloweth on the uptaketh to comprehend My greatness, so just shuteth the fuck up!!”

But notice that God doesn’t answer Job’s question: Why? Why does an omnibenevolent God permit evil? The problem is that God, by dint of his omnipotence, is incriminated whenever evil rears its head. All around the world, at this very moment, innocent children are suffering and dying from ghastly diseases. Some may be old enough to send heartfelt prayers to God for deliverance. Perhaps they’re asking only that He help ease their pain a little. But He remains mute and passive, allowing countless children to die in agony each day. I would ask, isn’t this horror gratuitous? What grand plan could possible justify such heartlessness? Would you stand by passively if a suffering child were pleading to you for help? I’m guessing not. And yet our supposedly “perfectly good” God does just that on a daily basis. Why? That is Job’s question to God in the Book of Job, and it is Mrs. O’Brien’s question to God in The Tree of Life.

“Lord, why? Where were you?”

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It’s the same question that theologians have been pondering for centuries. The answer is always the same: God works in mysterious ways. His will is inscrutable to us mere mortals. All we can do is trust in Him that one day it will all make sense. For some of us this answer is woefully inadequate, for it merely hides the problem of evil behind a veil of incomprehensibility. Yet this is God’s non-answer to Job in the Book of Job and, make no mistake, it is also Malick’s non-answer to us in The Tree of Life. In the Book of Job, God talks about when He “laid the foundations of the earth.” In The Tree of Life, Malick does God one better: He shows us the foundations being laid.

But Malick’s “creation of the universe” sequence seems wrongheaded from the beginning. We don’t know yet if the world will end with a bang or a whimper, but thanks to the world according to Terry Malick, we now know that it began with both a bang and a whimper – a Big Bang and maudlin whimper, that is. The Almighty tells us that “all the sons of God shouted for joy” when He created the universe, but when Malick re-creates the universe He commits a blatant act of sacrilege by completely changing the tone of the miraculous event: instead of a hymn of joy Malick gives us a sad lament, piping in Zbigniew Preisner’s Lacrimosa, whose bewailing soprano seems to be shedding tears on behalf of all humanity. This mournful music seems oddly out of place accompanying the Big Bang. Isn’t it a bit premature to be weeping already?

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Presumably, for Malick, human suffering – Jack’s, Mrs. O’Brien’s, yours, mine – resonates back to the beginning of time, and so He, that is Malick, invites us to cry with Him in our collective beer. Now, this is Malick’s alternative creation myth and He can cry if He wants to, but this is my review and I can roll my eyes if I want to. Frankly, all this mawkish carrying on ruins, for this viewer at least, what should be a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring spectacle. To make matters worse, Mrs. O’Brien keeps interjecting whispered pleadings to God throughout the sequence – “Who are we to you? Answer me. We cry to you. Hear us”. How can one enjoy watching the spectacle when you’ve got some overwrought soprano wailing in one ear and grief-stricken Mrs. O’Brien whispering in the other? It was difficult keeping my eyes on the screen because they kept rolling.

Personally, I wouldn’t start shedding tears until billions of years after the Big Bang when complex life forms appeared and evolution by natural selection turned the earth into a killing ground. That’s when the unimaginable suffering began (ages before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, by the way). Yeah, that I can weep over. But what does Malick do when life on earth appears? Once again he imposes his religious view of life on the audience by filling the soundtrack with sacred choral music, a trite, superfluous device intended to pump exaltation into the viewer, as if the sights and sounds of the formation of life alone weren’t sufficient to do that already.

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But it’s the lamentable dinosaur sequence that exposes just how far out of touch with reality Malick’s vision is. I refer, of course, to the scene where a large dinosaur, the recently discovered Malickosaurus, appears to take mercy on a smaller, helpless dinosaur. What is Malick thinking? One can only assume that this fleeting moment of pity is supposed to be an early example of “Grace” on earth, a foreshadowing, perhaps, of compassionate things to come. Nature red in tooth and claw is thus reduced to touchy-feely Disneyesque anthropomorphism, with the dinosaurs defanged and replaced with Mrs. O’Brien. It is, simply, a mind-bogglingly naïve scene that whitewashes the horrific reality and thus trivializes an eon’s worth of animal suffering.

“We think back with repugnance to that ancient biological prehuman scene whence we came; there no life was a sacred thing. There millions of years of pain went by without one moment of pity, not to speak of mercy”

Sir Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature, 1940.

The asteroid strike that extinguishes the dinosaurs is presented matter-of-factly, from a distance, with little religious significance and not a hint of sadness. An entire species that ruled the earth for 160 million years is wiped out in one fell swoop and Malick isn’t moved to shed even a single tear for these doomed creatures. Why should he? After all, the extinction of the dinosaurs set the stage for the emergence of Homo sapiens, which according to Malick’s script is “the triumph of the earth, paragon of creatures, miracle of miracles, the crown and glory of creation.” Thus, Malick succumbs to the arrogant fantasy that God superintended the process of evolution with the ultimate purpose of producing Man.

Here, then, is the creation story Malick is proposing: God created the universe about 13.7 billion years ago with the Big Bang, and then He let it simmer and stew for a few billion years, allowing time for the formation of galaxies, one of which, the Milky Way galaxy, ultimately gave birth to our sun about 5 billion years ago and the earth roughly 4.6 billion years ago.

Question: Why did it take this omnipotent God billions of years to make the earth?
Answer: I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure He rested on Sundays.

A few million years later, the first simple, single-celled organisms appeared out of the primordial soup, setting in motion evolution by natural selection, which produced ever more complex creatures. Natural selection is, as far as one can tell, an utterly blind, uncomprehending process, whose pitiless “survival of the fittest” mechanism is responsible for hundreds of millions of years of inconceivable horror and violence, spilling the earth with blood and dispensing terror, pain, disease and death to its inhabitants.

Question: Why would an all-loving, perfectly good God superintend a process as seemingly cruel and merciless as natural selection? Why would He let the earth, His earth, degenerate into a slaughterhouse?
Answer: I don’t know. He just did. Maybe He’s a butcher by trade.

Dinosaurs eventually appeared and ruled the earth for 160 million years. But God was displeased with dinosaurs and did smite them with an asteroid.

Question: Why would God let dinosaurs rule the earth for millions of years just to kill them off? What was the point of the Jurassic period? What the hell was God thinking?
Answer: I don’t know. The Mind of God is incomprehensible to us. Maybe he allowed the Jurassic period so that Spielberg could make another exciting blockbuster.

Strangely, Malick doesn’t show any early hominids (unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which this film is often glibly compared). No depiction of human evolution at all. No Homo erectus. No Neanderthal. Perhaps it’s best to forget that Neanderthals, those subhuman carnivorous brutes, interbred with “the paragon of creatures.” Perhaps it’s best to forget that Neanderthals were likely wiped off the face of the earth in a genocidal fury by “the crown and glory of creation.” Of course, it would be thousands of years before the one true God finally got around to letting us know He frowned on such behavior. Up to that time God, in His infinite wisdom, was apparently content to allow the human race to grope in the darkness and worship false gods. One wonders what happened to the souls of those poor benighted prehistoric humans. In any case, Neanderthals went extinct, like the dinosaurs before them, about 30,000 years ago.

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The poor dumb clod. He just missed being the crown and glory of Creation.

Question: Why did God create early hominids like Homo erectus and Neanderthal just to kill them off? Was he tinkering around, testing prototypes, before finally perfecting the design?
Answer: Not sure, maybe they were too hairy for his liking.

Question: Did the design process have to be so violent and deadly? What kind of God would conceive, engineer and implement such a scheme?
Answer: All I know is that God is perfectly good.

About 150,000-200,000 years ago it finally happened. God, at long last, perfected his design and Homo sapiens, the modern human, the crown and glory of creation appeared! This means that modern humans have existed for about .001% of the universe’s history, and that they’ve roamed the earth for about .004% of the earth’s history. The Almighty sure did take His time about it.

Question: What took so long for “the crown and glory of creation” to appear? What was the point of those first 13,699,850,000 years of nonsense before we, the “miracle of miracles,” finally arrived on the scene to worship and adore the Creator?
Answer: Just shut up.

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In The Tree of Life, the crown and glory of creation is represented by…Sean Penn. But he’s not a happy man. He is, in fact, consumed with existential angst. You can tell that from the glum look on his face. Also from the things he says. Jack, you see, has inherited his mother’s penchant for whispering embarrassingly insipid platitudes, offering such scintillating insights into the human condition as, “The world’s gone to the dogs. Everyone’s greedy.”

According to Malick’s script:

The buildings hem him round like the trees of a wild forest. A false nature, a universe of death. A sightless world, roofed over, shut off from things above. A world that would exclude the transcendent, that says: I am, and there is nothing else. A world without love. This is a new death, death of spirit, extinction of the soul. Man has shut himself in. He must find a way out. He must journey through time, from the outward and external to the heart of creation.

This key passage reveals much about Malick’s vision for The Tree of Life. It tells us that Man, that paragon of creatures, has lost his way. He has erected a false world and closed himself off from The Truth. More specifically, it tells us that although Jack is materially rich (he’s evidently a successful architect in Houston), he’s also spiritually bankrupt, a tortured, lost soul adrift in an impersonal modern world, detached from his sterile environment and the alienating people in it, dwarfed and, ahem, penned in, so to speak, by the soulless manmade skyscrapers surrounding him. Above all, it tells us that The Tree of Life concerns itself with Jack’s spiritual “journey through time.” We’ve already traveled all the way back to the birth of the universe with Jack. What we learned there, I do not know. Next stop: the birth of Jack. (After that, it’s on to the “shores of eternity”).

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Part 2 – Jack’s Childhood

The film segues from the birth of the universe to the birth of Jack with a whisper. Jack’s whisper, that is:

“You spoke to me through her. You spoke to me through the sky, the trees. Before I knew I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”

With these words the film transitions to Jack’s childhood years in the 50s, charting his development from the early years frolicking in Edenic splendor with his nurturing mother to his eventual, inevitable loss of innocence in his teens. Malick’s elliptical style in this section suggests that he’s trying to capture the process of remembering on film. The images, many of which are repeated, such as a recurring shot of his mother washing her feet off with a hose, are presented in fragments, like the fleeting remnants of some hazy, half-forgotten dream, and assembled in nonlinear fashion, not unlike the way the mind tends to jump from one memory to the next. What we’re seeing is a remembrance of things past occurring in the landscape of the mind’s eye, flickering recollections from the deepest recesses of consciousness projected onto the screen. As the 50s section progresses you get the sense of having a privileged glimpse inside the mind of a man – be it Jack or Malick; let’s call him Jalick- trying to reassemble the bits and pieces of his past in a way that might reveal the meaning of his existence.

If Jack could just find the missing pieces to his existential jigsaw puzzle, perhaps the answers to his most pressing concerns would be revealed to him: why was evil allowed to enter his Garden of Eden? The tragic drowning death of a young boy at a local community pool seems to have had a profound effect on young Jack’s spiritual convictions. “Where were you?” he asks God. “You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?” Such uncertainties culminated with the death of his younger brother, resulting in Jack’s complete loss of innocence, if not his loss of faith.

The story of paradise lost Malick tells is at once universal and deeply personal. By fixing his camera at a child’s eye level, Malick invites us to relive our own childhood vicariously through his. As the gliding stedicam follows the children from place to place, we become an intimate companion to the characters, especially Jack, not only seeing what he sees but feeling what he feels: the elation of running free around the yard with his family and friends; the simple pleasure of drinking from a hose on a hot summer day; the apprehension of trying to maintain table manners at dinner in the presence of his domineering father; the sense of guilt when his actions, such as killing a frog, disappoint his mother.

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Malick writes in the preface of his script:

“The “I” who speaks in this story is not the author. Rather, he hopes that you might see yourself in this “I” and understand this story as your own.”

To an extent Malick succeeds, I think. I found my eyes welling up with tears of recognition at times, seeing in young Jack something of myself, and experiencing a poignant tenderness for the child I once was, mourning my own loss of innocence, I suppose. (When I returned from the film I saw my neighbor from across the street getting angry at his kid for cutting the lawn too low, reminiscent of the way Mr. O’Brien treats Jack, and I was tempted to yell out, “go see The Tree of Life, you douche bag!”).

But, alas, Malick is not content simply to make a story about one boy’s loss of innocence. That’s too mundane, too commonplace for Malick. So he attempts to endow his story of growing up in the 50s with cosmic significance. Thus, I found that those same eyes of mine that welled up with tears just as often narrowed with suspicion. Not only does Malick place his personal story within the context of the universe as a whole, he projects his highly dubious vision of existence up into the heavens, imagining that his fairly ordinary childhood experiences were nothing less than a spiritual battle for his very soul, waged on a metaphysical battleground between his intuitive, beatific mother and his worldly, pragmatic father.

The film’s opening montage lays out the basic dichotomy that will inform Jack’s view of the world and of himself. It comes courtesy of one of Mrs. O’Brien’s whispered voiceovers:

“There are two ways through life: the way of Nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

This anachronistic, pre-Darwinian philosophy of life is cribbed, almost verbatim, from Chapter LIV of Thomas à Kempis’s 1441 The Imitation of Christ. Here’s a sampling:

“Nature laboureth for her own advantage, and considereth what profit she may gain from another; but Grace considereth more, not what may be useful and convenient to self, but what may be profitable to the many.”

“Nature is covetous, and receiveth more willingly than she giveth, loveth things that are personal and private to herself; while Grace is kind and generous, avoideth selfishness, is contented with a little, believeth that it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

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Mrs. O’Brien, of course, represents Grace. She’s kind, generous, selfless, forgiving and loving. In a word, spiritualistic. She comes across as the embodiment of Pure Grace, a luminous, ethereal presence gliding across the screen like a radiant angel. She’s the Judeo-Christian ideal of womanhood and motherhood incarnate – chaste, nurturing, devoted, compassionate. She only speaks in simple, heartfelt (and mind-bogglingly naïve) platitudes, like “the only way to be happy is to love” and “Help each other. Love everyone, every leaf, every ray of light. Forgive.” and “no one who loves the way of Grace ever comes to a bad end” and perhaps my favorite, “love is smiling through all things.” (Oddly, smiling on the good as well as the evil, at both joy and suffering, sounds more like the twisted, manufactured smile of emotionally deluded stoics, i.e. Eastern mystics…but never mind). The sun, meanwhile, is forever shining radiantly through her flowing red hair (careful Mrs. O’B -you’re a prime candidate for skin cancer with that light complexion of yours). Beautiful fluttering butterflies magically alight on her outstretched arm. No doubt celestial choirs rejoice when Mrs. O’Brien takes a dump.

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One could say that Jack is only remembering an idealized version of the real Mrs. O’Brien, but I don’t think this is Malick’s intention at all. It’s clear that she’s meant to be a genuine agent of Grace. After all, Jack’s ultimate religious epiphany, which takes him to the shores of eternity, hinges, in part at least, on the revelation that “You spoke to me through her.” The “you” is God and the “her” is Mom, meaning that Malick, a devout Christian, is positing Mrs. O’Brien as a sort of metaphysical conduit between the physical and spiritual realms, through whom God speaks to Jack and brings him closer to that which is eternal.

The script removes any doubt about Malick’s intentions:

As Jack watches, his mother spreads her arms towards her children, restored to faith and happiness, reconciled to life. Now he sees that it was she – his mysterious guide, the guardian of his heart, the source of his moral being. She is the mother of all creation. All flows out of her; she is the gateway, the door. She smiles through all things. Through her the eternal sought him. From out of her mouth it spoke. Through her life and actions she brought them near it.

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Mr. O’Brien, on the other hand, represents Nature. He’s stern, ambitious, competitive, uncompromising and selfish. In a word, materialistic. He plays the disciplinarian to Mrs. O’Brien’s nurturer, demanding, for example, that the children call him “father” instead of dad. He tries to toughen them up, prepare them for the real world, even telling Jack, “Your mother’s naïve. If you want to succeed you can’t be too good. Be your own man.”

Malick’s simplistic, overly schematic approach reduces Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien to mere theological conceits. To be fair, they’re not completely one-dimensional (Mrs. O’B’s suffering gives her otherwise angelic aura a recognizably human dimension, while Mr. O’B does have his compassionate side), but they do seem to exist only to cause conflict within Jack’s soul. Jack explicitly refers to this raging conflict in one of his own highfalutin whisperings: “Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Indeed, part of Jack’s unhappiness, even in adulthood, is his acknowledgement to his father that “I’m as bad as you are. I’m more like you than her.” In other words, Jack has chosen the way of Nature over Grace. (Apparently, it never occurs to anyone that a combination of the two might actually be the best way to go).

But, I’m sorry, this Grace/Nature dichotomy is just so much nonsense. The basic idea, according to Mrs. O’Brien, is that “Grace doesn’t try to please itself”, whereas “Nature only wants to please itself.” I would ask, in what way does Mrs. O’Brien not try to please herself? Presumably, we’re meant to see Mrs. O’Brien’s alleged selflessness manifested in her nurturing behavior toward her children, her tender, unconditional love, her displays of compassion and empathy, etc. Malick perceives something “transcendent”, something “spiritual”, something “supernatural” in her behavior. This is, supposedly, what distinguishes Grace from Nature. But tenderly caring for one’s children, nurturing them, making sacrifices for them, showing them compassion, and so on couldn’t be more…well, natural.

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Mrs. O’Brien, to state the cold, hard facts, is, quite simply, genetically predisposed to love, nurture and make sacrifices for her children because, speaking in terms of final cause, loving, nurturing and making sacrifices for one’s offspring tends to increase the frequency of shared genes in the gene pool. What’s non-natural about that?

Of course, Mrs. O’Brien is not consciously aware of what her “selfish genes” are up to; all she knows is that caring for her children fills her with sublime feelings of love and joy. These immediate feelings, the efficient cause, are the goads that move her. Mrs. O’Brien loves her children, shows compassion, follows the way of “Grace”, precisely because doing so feels good. And what’s selfless about that?

“Emotions are evolution’s executioners. Beneath all the feelings are the stratagems of the genes”

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, 1994

Mrs. O’Brien is merely the locus through which nature, not grace, plays its tricks. Just as “a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg”, so Mrs. O’Brien is only a fetus’ way of making another fetus. These so-called “transcendent” emotions of love and purpose exist in Mrs. O’Brien, just as they exist in everyone else who tenderly care for their children, as mere tricks of nature designed to generate behavior that will, in turn, preserve the survival of a species of mammal known as Homo sapiens. Given the choice between transcendent emotions sent from heaven by a benevolent deity, on the one hand, and strictly earthly emotions that function in a drearily pragmatic, coldly Darwinian manner, on the other, the typical human being, such as Mrs. O’Brien, will choose the former, i.e., the fairy tale, because the fairy tale provides solace, hope and the promise of eternal life with your loved ones, whereas the latter, freezing Darwinism, which leads to the inescapable conclusion that we are just extremely complex lumps of matter, promises, in the end, only death.

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It is, of course, this touchy feely fairy tale to which Mrs. O’Brien subscribes. When she’s tormented by grief over the tragic death of her son, what does she do? She seeks solace from God. She wants answers to assuage her pain. She desperately yearns to be reunited with her dearly departed child. What’s selfless about that? To the end, Mrs. O’Brien, no less than Mr. O’Brien, no less than any of us, is engaged in the pursuit of the satisfaction of her own wants and desires. Her way is no less selfish than Mr. O’Brien’s way. Her selfishness merely takes a different form. But Grace, as characterized by Thomas à Kempis, Mr. Malick and Mrs. O’Brien, it is not.

Ultimately, Jack too, for all his existential doubts, succumbs to the fairy tale. It is, after all, his epiphany that his mother’s way, Grace’s way, is The Way, God’s Way, which sends him, at long last, on the final leg of his spiritual journey to the shores of eternity.

Part 3 – The Shores of Eternity

The momentous breakthrough, the one that ultimately resolves Jack’s inner conflict, is triggered not by anything his mother does specifically but by Jack’s recollection of the humbling of his prideful father. After crushing professional failures cut him down to size, Mr. O’Brien, now reduced to sentimental mush, realizes that the really important thing in life is family, the family he’s always taken for granted, which leads to a heart to heart talk with Jack in which the suddenly vulnerable and repentant Mr. O’Brien bares his soul and asks Jack for forgiveness, confiding in the boy that he “dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”

Here’s Malick’s description of the scene:

Jack throws himself into his father’s arms. Light spreads through his soul, the spirit which moved over the chaos; the first light of creation. He hugs his father close. He has learned to love and be loved. In forgiving, he receives forgiveness too. Forgiveness has given him the key to reality. He sees it now: love is the answer to evil and sorrow. He will love every leaf and every stone, every ray of light! This is the way to the lost kingdom. This is what life will be: drawing closer and closer to the eternal.

In the film Mrs. O’Brien gives voice to these sentiments: “Help each other. Love everyone, every leaf, every ray of light. Forgive.” The deep-rooted conflict within Jack’s soul is thus patly resolved in the hokiest of ways: he comes to terms with his oedipal daddy issues. Jack loves daddy. Jack forgives daddy. Suddenly Jack realizes that his father’s way is not, after all, The Way. And if his father’s way is not The Way then it follows ipso facto that his mother’s way therefore must be The Way. Because, you know, there are no other Ways. Therefore, if Mrs. O’Brien’s way is The Way, then it necessarily follows that God exists, love is the answer, and everything is just peachy. It is this, ahem, flawless reasoning that carries Jack to the shores of eternity for the feel good reunion with his loved ones.

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“Love unites what death and suffering have put asunder,” says Malick’s script. And so, after all is said and done, after covering the entire history of the universe from beginning to end, Malick and His tree of life leave us with but one simplistic, treacly, embarrassingly naïve platitude: Love, by God, is the answer!

“The love of man is just one more stupidity and brutishness if there is no ulterior intent to sanctify it”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886

The Tree of Life is nothing if not an attempt to sanctify love. Malick characterizes the emotion as some transcendent, divine force sent down from on high. But is it any such thing? The physiological roots of the tree of love lie not in the cortex, but deep within the primitive limbic system, along with other primitive emotions like lust, jealousy, anger, sadness, fear and hate. Love is not, biologically speaking, a “higher” emotion, and to suggest otherwise, to suggest that it is somehow transcendently sublime is mere speculative fancy. Love is an emotion, no more or no less, which was deposited in us by Mother Nature, that old whore up to her tricks again, to serve an evolutionary function. A spiritual phenomenon it is not. Love is a biochemical phenomenon, oxytocin pooling in the emotional centers of the brain, set in motion by an object/stimulus, just as is the case with other emotions, such as fear.

Of course, reducing this most cherished of emotions to mere biochemistry takes the sacredness out of it, not to mention the romance and poetry. Most of us, including Mr. Malick, are not content with such mundane explanations. The prospect that there is nothing, after all, beyond a perfectly self-contained emotional system, one that functions in a dreadfully practical Darwinian manner, is enough to instill in us a terrible sense of weariness. We need desperately to believe that our rapturous feelings for our loved ones defy mere naturalistic interpretation. Alas, the facts have not afforded us this luxury. But who needs facts when we can indulge in intoxicating fantasies?

Speaking of intoxicating fantasies, Malick’s religioverbose description of the “shores of eternity” sequence is a veritable cornucopia of comforting falsehoods and self-satisfying delusions. Malick’s limbic system must have been overdosing on oxytocin when he wrote it:

Jack, an adult now, wakes up from his reverie. His soul has come to life. He sees the order of all things, the sanity of the creative scheme; a moral purpose underlying all. Now, before his eyes, the future unfolds. Evil is overcome, wrong is set right. Men lay down their arms. Manacles are undone. Bolts and locks fly open. Black embraces white, Muslim, Jew. Man recovers his lost inheritance. The soul is reconciled with nature. We have traveled up the river of time – ascended, from nature to the soul. Paradise is not a place here or there. The soul is paradise; it opens before us; here, today. Men and women embrace in the dawn, reunited at last. The shore teems with people now. It is as though they were coming together in one great chorus. This is the end of the voyage of life. The music sings: all came from love, to love all shall return.

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Excuse me for a moment while I grab a bib to stop all this syrup from spilling on me. …Okay, I’m back, with bib firmly in place. Lost in all this touchy-feely, dewy-eyed sentimentality is that the problem of evil, which is what haunted Jack in the first place, has by no means been resolved. Earlier Jack forgave his daddy with a small d, but what about his Daddy with a capital D? It seems to me He still has a lot to answer for. How does this cloying love fest absolve God of the responsibility of permitting billions of years of suffering? What was the point, in the end, of allowing untold numbers of innocent children to die miserable, excruciating deaths? Alas, an answer isn’t forthcoming. The problem merely remains safely hidden behind God’s incomprehensibility.

Okay, please continue, Mr. Malick:

 Jack has crossed over death’s threshold, gone beyond space and time.

Isn’t saying that Jack is “beyond space and time” tantamount to saying that he’s nowhere and no-when, i.e. nonexistent? Can Malick, can anyone, provide a description of “beyond space and time” without making reference to space-time concepts? Jack is supposedly occupying some spaceless and timeless realm. But as far as I can tell, one cannot describe where “beyond space” is because, by definition, it is nowhere. If somehow it is not nowhere, then it must be somewhere, in which case it would occupy space, since a spaceless somewhere is a contradiction in terms. Similarly, one cannot describe when “beyond time” is because, by definition, it is no-when. If somehow it is not no-when, then it must be sometime, in which case it would occur in time, since a timeless sometime is a contradiction in terms. The very concept of “beyond space and time”, it seems to me, is incoherent, just like the concept of God itself. What does it really mean, after all, to say that God is beyond space and time? Does it mean anything more than that He’s unimaginable?

I’m afraid that Malick, like, I think, all theists, rigorously avoids the full implications of such an attribute. An eternal, infinite God beyond space and time must have existed before the beginning of the universe and after the end of it, simultaneously, and so how could such an all-knowing God be pleased or displeased with anything the crown and glory of creation does? How could He be angered by sinful behavior one minute and then turn around the next and be overjoyed with the repentance of lost sinners like, say, the Ninevites or, for that matter, Mr. O’Brien? He must have seen it coming. After all, to an omniscient God, it had already happened. However God feels about his creation, He must have felt that way always, because, after all, to Him there is no beginning or end. Yet Malick’s personal God, the God of the Bible, is highly emotional. He rages and laughs and weeps and, above all, loves, but it’s extremely difficult to understand how an all-knowing God could possibly muster so much all-too-human emotion over any single event considering that He knew in advance what was going to happen.

As RL approaches, Jack reaches out and takes his hand. They melt into each other’s arms. Here, in the eternal, they have not been apart. The walls of the world fly open away. It can hold them no longer. They know each other in that which is without end. Turning, Jack sees his mother, father and Steve. He leads RL towards them. She embraces her lost son. She touches his hands, his face, ecstatic. Wonder! Unspeakable joy!

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And now we see the full flowering of Mrs. O’Brien’s selfishness. This is what she’s been yearning for all along – eternal ecstasy. Her selfishness knows no bounds. It is, quite literally, infinite.

We pass beyond death. We arrive at the eternal, the real – at that which neither flowers nor fades, which neither comes into being nor passes away – that in which we might live forever. Hitherto all has been mere image; all that we think solid and permanent. Space, time, evanescent all; images only, the purpose and last end elsewhere; the life of life. You separate the true from the false. You, to whom all things return, from whom all proceed; in whom they are; the beginning of things and their last end; the goal of each and all.

Here we learn that we all proceeded from God, and that the goal of each and all of us is to return to Him. The Gospel according to Terry has thus revealed the meaning of existence. But the question of ultimate meaning has, once again, merely been hidden in God. If the alleged purpose of our lives is to return to Him, to “glorify God and to fully enjoy him forever”, this merely begs the question: what is God’s purpose? The problem of ultimate meaning isn’t resolved; it’s just transferred to God, incomprehensible God. Okay, we’re in eternity. Now what? What makes God’s existence meaningful to God?

The Tree of Life provides a perfect example of how the concept of God works. God functions, first of all, like ether, as a mysterious force which provides a neat and tidy explanation for the things we are unable to understand. Even more than that, He functions like a celestial placebo, as a comforting delusion which provides false hope, assuages fears, and magically endows the universe with meaning and purpose.

Eternity – that realm of pure and endless light – how shall we represent it? A ladder leading up into a tree. Sparks flying up from a fire. A bridge. A kiss. A solitary island.

How shall we represent eternity? Good question. It’s probably best that you not try. Attempting to represent something as highly abstract as eternity with existing, tangible everyday objects is a tricky business. Kubrick pulled it off brilliantly in the climax to 2001. But that was Kubrick. Malick, on the other hand, fails miserably, I think. One of the major weaknesses of the “shores of eternity” sequence is that it reduces the concept of eternity to a thudding banality. Whereas Kubrick managed to convey a sense of mysterious timelessness in 2001, Malick just presents a fairly straightforward account of a bunch of people congregating on a beach. There’s very little sense of the cosmic at work, except, of course, for the sacred choral music that’s dutifully trotted out and overlaid on the proceedings.

The screenplay makes clear that Malick wanted to inspire awe and reverence in his viewers with his emotionally devastating vision of loved ones reunited in eternity. The resulting scene, however, shows just how far his ambition exceeds his ability. What we get instead is a Beach Party Rapture set to the strains of cosmic hosannas, a mind-numbingly hokey spectacle possessing all the philosophical heft and emotional resonance of a maudlin greeting card.

The final shot of Jalick, back in space and time following his religious epiphany, shows a slight smile cross his face as he looks up at the sun reflecting off the surrounding skyscrapers, now secure in the knowledge that, however soulless and impersonal the modern world may be, the eternal still shines through it all. It is the smile of someone who has managed to thoroughly delude himself, which is a perfectly fitting way to conclude this big, long, woolly-headed, pseudo-profound cinematic monument to wishful thinking.

2 Responses to “The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)”

  1. A good review, but you should work on that bridge we see in the end of the movie. It is not there for nothing.

    Compare your review with this one:

    http://reviewingtreeoflife.blogspot.com/

  2. Thanks, Sanchez. I think the script might provide a clue to the meaning of that final image:

    “Eternity – that realm of pure and endless light – how shall we represent it? A ladder leading up into a tree. Sparks flying up from a fire. A bridge. A kiss. A solitary island.”

    Mat