52 Movies: Week 11 - Tree of Life

I have dithered over how best to approach this little introduction to The Tree of Life. My burden is that I've volunteered to write about the film that means more to me than any other. It's a work of art that touches me as Josquin's Ave Maria or van der Weyden's Deposition do: right there in my soft center. How can I do it justice? Shall I take my inspiration from the film itself, embark on a flight of rhapsody, and bear my reader aloft like a feather on the wind? Shall I whisper quietly in his ear the secrets of my heart? Introduce an interlude on natural history? Shall I fragments allow to splinter to my prose? Shall I try to carry it off without using words at all?

The Tree of Life is a rich film, ravishing in its beauty, and resonating internally with profound ideas, but it is also a very tangible film, grounded in a particular time and place. There are sequences in which I feel I could almost reach out and touch it, breathe it in, or which set me back on my heels with a shock of recognition: I remember that. Indeed, the whole film can be (and has been) interpreted as a sustained descent into memory, a reverie in which experience is pondered, turned this way and that, sifted, shot through with longing. Like St Augustine's Confessions, it is a work in which mystery and memory intertwine, in which the inscrutable majesty of the Divine and the inscrutable mystery of one man's life meet.


But I am getting ahead of myself. The Tree of Life is the work of Terrence Malick, a filmmaker almost as famous for not making films as for making them. His first two films, Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978, had earned him critical plaudits and a place at the table with the new generation of American filmmakers then coming to prominence. But following Days of Heaven he went quiet for twenty years (though not so quiet as is sometimes thought, for during that long period he worked on a number of scripts and projects that never came to fruition, including an adaptation of Percy's The Moviegoer). When he re-emerged in the late 1990s with The Thin Red Line he might as well have been a different filmmaker. True, there were some similarities between the earlier period and the later, but the differences were more than a matter of degree. He had found a way to invest the very grammar of film -- sound, editing, and camera movement -- with his own personal vision, a style distinctly his own. Malick has been compared to Tarkovsky, or to Kubrick at his most ambitious, but really there's nobody like him.

The very title of this film is an evocative one. We think of the scriptural Tree of Life which stood in the midst of the garden, and again of the Tree of Life which appears on the last page of the Revelation to St John, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations. I myself think of Christ's words: "I am the vine, and you are the branches... Abide in me, as I abide in you." But the Tree of Life also appears in On the Origin of Species, where it covers the earth with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications, and so we might justly call to mind the tumbling and twisting genealogical tree of life on earth, being reminded of that deep history, of that litany of forms, of strange beauties and violent deaths, and of the fact that sons are descended from mothers and fathers.


The O'Briens have three sons. They live in a quiet neighbourhood of a small town in Texas in the 1950s. It is a time and place where boys roam until dusk, chasing one another, wandering through fields and forests, breaking windows in abandoned buildings. The yards have no fences. Mr O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is a responsible and hard-working man, but is not rewarded as he thinks he should be, and he lives, it seems, with some regrets over the path he has chosen in life. He teaches his sons that life is a struggle, and that they must be strong. He loves his boys, but he is hard on them, and perhaps he does not know how to be otherwise. Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) is the heart of the family, and she takes her boys gently under her wing; she teaches them that they must love.

For most of the film we are in and around the O'Brien's home, floating down its hallways and drifting from room to room as though gently nudged by a gust from an open window. (One of the joys of The Tree of Life is that the camera, wielded by Emmanuel Lubezki, almost never stops moving.) We watch the children as they grow, ponder the sometimes tender and sometimes troubled relationship of the parents, and see the common joys and perils of family life unfold before us, vividly realized, and in the shade of the great tree that lifts its lofty, spreading branches over the home.


Suffering visits the O'Briens, as it visits us all. "There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you," says their priest from his pulpit. The boys witness disease and deformity. We are not five minutes into the film before death visits them. And the darkness does not just encroach from without, but emerges from within: Jack (Hunter McCracken), the boy whose story the film is, must contend against the lust and anger of his own heart, forces that he himself hardly understands.

The Tree of Life can be seen as a great wrestling with evil: where does it come from? why does God permit it? what does it mean? The book of Job is the film's Biblical touchstone: we meet Job's friends, we ask Job's questions, and, in one of the film's most thrilling and audacious sequences, we witness God's reply to Job: Where were you when I laid the foundations? This reply of God's has been the occasion for much baffled commentary. We're unaccustomed to a filmmaker who departs from his story to show us how the world came to be. Except of course it is not really a departure, but character development. The O'Briens are not the only characters with leading roles in The Tree of Life.

If we think of this film as a symphony -- and this is a remarkably fruitful way to think of it -- we are right to identify suffering as a recurring motif. But the principal themes are wonder and love. The spirit of Mrs O'Brien -- or, rather, the spirit of which she is a lowly handmaid -- pervades the film, setting the screen aglow. The sheer beauty of the world, the wonder of being, the shining glory of what is, unaccountably, not nothing -- these are the film's deep sources, and they seep into our hearts as the images wash over us until, at its best, and for those attuned to its vision, the film becomes an occasion for prayer.

So, at least, has been my experience. Not everyone, I know, has responded to it in this way. Sometimes seed falls on rocky ground, or among thorns. Bewilderment and exasperation were not uncommon responses when it played in theatres. Some couldn't keep straight who was who. Some didn't like the dinosaurs, or the splashes of surrealism. Some found the narrative thread too thin and allusive. Some found it pretentious, or were confused by its theological vision. Well, we shouldn't expect the greatest films to satisfy conventional expectations. And, as even I will admit, the film does have its weak points. (The last quarter-hour, a much-discussed excursion into Jack's soul, or into the afterlife, or into some abstract psychic space, is suggestive and subtle and grows more so with each viewing, but is still, I think, a failure.)

But, my friends, few films come our way with this much feeling, with this ecstatic power, with this determination to pursue that which is always only seen from the corner of the eye, and with such an abundance of beauty as to make the heart tremble. Love every frame.


—Craig Burrell is a longtime reader of Light on Dark Water, and blogs at All Manner of Thing.


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Thank you, Craig. You have indeed given us the essence of this wonderful film. I will need to revisit it soon, since I have a copy at home. It is an amazing film just to view! Worrying yourself about any possible plot is quite secondary; and this is what made it frustrating for so many. Usually a film this audacious doesn't get so much critical acclaim which in turn drives more folks to the theater. I remember when all this was going on. I have an excellent essay printed out at home about the film and its relation to God. If I can get myself to remember I will scan for the group. Great review, great movie, to be watched and enjoyed over and over again!

I saw this in a theater when it came out, or soon after. A smallish independent theater (the Crescent, Stu), but still a theater. My wife and I were literally speechless afterward. I do think it's great, but I haven't seen it again, because the idea of watching it on our old glass-tube TV just seemed like it wouldn't be anything like the same experience. Actually now that I think about it, getting the DVD and watching it on my computer would probably be better. Not a big screen, but it's flat and of the correct proportions, with better color and focus. I'd also have top-notch sound (computer is hooked up to my stereo).

Well done, Craig.

Upon my first viewing of ToL it sprang immediately into my shortlist of all time favorite films. But from another angle it stands absolutely alone, for many of the reasons you mention, and ultimately for its resulting utter uniqueness as a spiritual work. It's like Gorecki's 3rd symphony -- one of my favorite symphonies, yes, but also something immeasurably more.

Not much left to say, except I agree with all of the above.

I love it's uniqueness, especially surprising from an American director.

That was beautiful, Craig.


"My wife and I were literally speechless afterward."

That was exactly my experience as well.

Mac, I saw it on the big screen when it was first out, and naturally I'm grateful for that, but I've re-watched it numerous times on a computer and my experience has been good. You just have to sit really close.

Week 11. This is going fast. Speaking of which, I need some people to volunteer for April and May.


Janet, I'm working on one for you (Fra Angelico), but it's going to be at least a few more weeks before I get it done. I don't seem to have much time to work on it.

A question about The Tree of Life for those who have seen it: do you think I am right to interpret the "natural history" section of the film in the way I do? I've described it as (part of) God's reply to the questioning heart, but other interpretations are possible. For instance, there's a macrocosm / microcosm contrast at play, where setting the humble story of this family against the vastness of cosmic space and time, yet still obviously investing this domestic story with great significance, makes a kind of humanistic point about the value of human life. I think that could be a legitimate reading too, although I don't think it fits as well as the one I've included in the post.

I do think it's God's answer, but that doesn't mean it isn't also the other. Frequently when I'm writing, I will just realize that something I've just written dovetails perfectly with something I've written a paragraph back. I love it when I see that in other things.


Thanks for the review! A friend of my loved the movie, but I never got around to seeing it. Now I have renewed impetus to view it.

You definitely should. In my opinion Craig hasn't over-praised it. I don't know of anything like it. But more than most movies it will really shine with high-quality video and audio. If I remember correctly there is a fair amount of very good classical music in it...maybe only in the opening creation-evolution sequence?

There is a lot of great music in the film, and not just in the creation sequence. Some music was composed especially for the film (by Alexandre Desplat), but Malick also leans heavily on Mahler, Berlioz, Couperin, Brahms, Bach, and others.

Here's a wonderful sequence with Smetena's Ma Vlast providing the music (I'm not sure if the video can be made to appear right here or not):


"For instance, there's a macrocosm / microcosm contrast at play, where setting the humble story of this family against the vastness of cosmic space and time, yet still obviously investing this domestic story with great significance..."

If I remember correctly the creation sequence comes to a close with Mr. O'Brien looking at his newborn's tiny foot in wonder. I think one could read that sequence as a poetic dramatization of the idea that in a sense all of creation has been directed, as it were, to conclude in the creation of that foot, i.e., the child.

Thus from the foundation of the world, that child, and thus every child, is known and ordained. In a very real sense God has done all this "for me."

I once heard Fr. Tom Hopko say that from a certain angle the entire history of Old Covenant Israel had as its point the birth of the Theotokos. Everything that happened under the Old Covenant was mystically "funneled" towards the fulfillment of that event, the reality of a young woman who would say 'yes' to God. I guess I see the sequence in ToL as sort of the same thing with regards to the uniqueness of every human being.

I believe something like that was what I thought at the time.

I was not aware of Fr. Hopko until a few months ago when Touchstone ran a tribute to him. Very impressive man.

In his retirement he served as priest at a monastery not far from me, and he would show up at our parish every once in awhile and concelebrate the Liturgy with our priest. He was very learned, but wore his learning rather lightly, which is something I always appreciated about him.

There's what looks like a nice essay on Malick's most recent film, Knight of Cups, up today at First Things. I've only skimmed it because I want to see the film without reading too much in advance.

I want to see the film, which opens in Canada tomorrow, but apparently in this city of 5 million it is showing in just one theatre. Far from me.

Yeah, it opened in the States on March 4, but hasn't made its way to Pittsburgh yet. When we get it it will probably be only for a week, maybe two, and on one screen.

Unlikely to appear here at all, I imagine, but I should keep an eye out for it.

Our local theatre chain says it's coming here April 1, but doesn't say where. I'm glad you mentioned it so I won't miss it.



This is the article I mentioned the other day. There are actually three essays.

Oops, I'm sorry, it looks like you have to be a subscriber to read all of this. I have it photocopied from Commonweal at home and was just looking for an easier way to share. Drat!

It looks like you can register and read without subscribing: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/user/register

Thanks for those essays, Stu! I've read a lot of reviews and essays about the film, but I haven't seen those ones yet.

Great! Mac has more patience than I do with computers and the internet, which is a good thing.

This blog and its commenters are a godsend. How else would I ever have heard of Father Hopko and then found his 55 Maxims of the Christian Life? Wish I'd been consulting them daily for the last half century or so.

Excellent maxims. And here's the Touchstone piece.

Btw Stu I didn't actually try to register, so I don't know if there are requirements beyond entering an email address and a password.

I'm pretty sure that Mary sent me a book by Fr. Hopko when we first met online however many years ago that was.


On a couple different occasions I heard Fr. Tom recommend that everyone should read Lewis's The Abolition of Man once a year, "just to help us keep in mind what we're up against." I've not followed it, alas, but it seems like good advice.

I haven't tried registering at Commonweal yet, but even without registering you can read the first of those three essays (and it's a good one).

I've put a couple of Fr Hopko's podcasts on my phone and am looking forward to listening to them.

Yes, excellent maxims. Thanks Marianne!

I saw this quote from a First Things article on Facebook: Critics are wrong to suggest that Terence Malick is wandering into abstraction with 'Tree of Life' and 'Knight of Cups.' In fact, "these are films with a point: Man must be willing to commit to love and open himself to new life. More specifically, he must cleave to a woman and be ready to have a child."

Now I can't wait for April 1.


Being at rather a loose end yesterday, with classes cancelled and little inclination to work, I finally got round to watching this film (which my wife had got out on DVD and had watched without me over the weekend).

Without an introduction like Craig's it might be hard to make a lot of sense of it, as in terms of plot it is very oblique, almost cryptic. (Perhaps I missed some really obvious clue, but how does one know that the small town is in Texas?)

The camerawork certainly is beautiful, and the "cosmic" bits were fantastic. (I thought the family conflict dragged a bit before the end.) In a sense it was just the film I needed (although my teenage daughter got Four Lions out of the library that evening, which would perhaps also have been appropriate).

I think a bunch of people on a beach is the strangest vision of heaven I've come across.

I seem to recall some discussion of that "heaven" vision, maybe here or maybe somewhere else, in which it was suggested that it isn't meant to be heaven, but either some sort of waystation or purgatory, or else a deep region of the soul or psyche where the elemental struggles play out. Both seem plausible to me.

About Texas, I don't recall how I knew, but I did know. If Texas wasn't explicitly mentioned, maybe it was one or more cities in Texas.

I've wondered if it's not so much heaven, as it is a visual depiction of what Sean Penn's character is experiencing interiorly as he comes to his spiritual realization. Perhaps a visualization of his "cloud of witnesses," so to speak?

That's the sort of thing I had in mind with my second conjecture.

That makes more sense.

Came across this line this morning about Flannery O'Connor by Marion Montgomery: "She would insist that only when one has come to terms with death is he prepared to value the world..."

I think that someone like this may be going on at the end of ToL. Penn's character has been brought to the point where he comes to terms with the deaths in his life, and he "comes back" from that vision with a new ability to value the world. That, I'd say, is the meaning of the little smile he gives as he looks around the city in his last scene in the film.

And odd as it may sound, I think something similar is at work at the end of a lesser, more problematic film, American Beauty, although I can't say that either the writer or director consciously intended it so. When Lester chooses not to have sex with his daughter's underage friend, in a way he has confronted death, even if it is only the potential death of his own ideals. He walks to the kitchen, sits down, looks at a family photo and smiles. Having come to terms what might be considered his own spiritual death, he now is able to value his family and his life, i.e., "the world."

Of course, Malick's vision of this is much more overtly spiritual, nevermind more subtle and more accomplished in its handling, than Mendes' in AB. But perhaps the latter should be given a bit of credit for being in the right neighborhood, if not at the exact correct address.

(Of course I realize that there is other far more problematic material in AB, but I'm thinking here primarily of the ending.)

I agree completely about AB. I really didn't think very highly of it overall, but that statement, if you want to call it that, did go a pretty good distance toward redeeming it.

On Friday night i watched Terrence Malick's recent film Song to Song and found it very interesting. It's billed as a "romantic drama" set in the music scene of Austin, Texas, and while that's true at some level, I think that ultimately it's more than that.

Like Malick's other recent films the story is told mostly visually, with voiceovers and scanty dialogue, but in this one the narrative is stronger and less impressionistic. The viewer doesn't have to work so much to piece things together. For me, this made it easier to follow, but at the cost of some of the emotional depth of the previous couple films. YMMV. Lubezki shot it, so the cinematography is beautiful. It runs just a bit over two hours, and it probably could have been 15 minutes shorter, but that's a small complaint.

There's a lot of "eros" in the film, but only a small amount of nudity, and no actual "sex scenes." At times some of the eroticism seems a bit much, but in retrospect, given the way the plot goes and what seems to be the film's point, it makes sense, although to my mind some of it could have been toned down. As with To the Wonder, at times I found myself wondering it all was heading, and although the "turn" in Song to Song isn't quite as striking as the one in TTW, it's still sort of a small marvel. I would share what I think Malick's saying here, but I think it would be better not to bias a potential viewer in a certain direction, as I think the movie would lose some of its power.

Btw, there's a lot of music in the film, but other than some of the classical excerpts and the ambient stuff I didn't really care for much of it. Again, YMMV.

I've continued to hold out against seeing Malick's recent films at home. I want to see them in the theater, with the big screen and big sound. But that is extremely unlikely to happen, and I need to just get over it. I haven't seen any of them since Tree of Life.

btw, to my surprise Blade Runner 2049 is still showing, so I'm probably going to go see it tomorrow.

Speaking of movies, by the way: somebody here must have recommended to me a movie called The Fall, which floated to the top of my Netflix list a few weeks ago. It's an odd film, set in 1920s Los Angeles, involving a movie stuntman who's been partially paralyzed in a stunt gone wrong. He's hospitalized along with a young girl with a broken arm. He starts telling her a wild story, and when he's telling it the movie switches to it. It's quite good.

I'm really glad you liked it. I've tried to push it several times. ;-)

It isn't the story so much as the images. That little girl spoke no English.


Really?!? Wow. Yes, it is very impressive visually.

Was hoping to see BR2049 last night but the local start times didn't work out with other stuff I had scheduled.

I tried to watch The Fall a couple years ago but just couldn't get into it. I did enjoy the visuals though.

I do think there are places where it falls apart a bit, but I love it that what she sees while listening to the story is so different and exciting than the story really is.


If this is just going to turn into movies we have seen lately and liked ... right before my trip I watched A Late Quartet with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Christopher Walken and I enjoyed it quite a bit. While I was watching, I thought, "Janet has probably seen this."

No, I haven't. At first I thought it might be another movie I've seen, but then I remembered that was about aging opera singers. It has famous people in it, but I can't remember who. I wish I could. Maybe Maggie Smith.


That one is just called Quartet, and I need to see it. A Late Quartet was quite good, especially Christopher Walken's role.

It was just called Quartet.



Speaking of Maggie Smith, has anyone seen The Lady in the Van?


I did, and I enjoyed it but it did not bowl me over or anything. I suppose I was expecting more, but it is quietly very nice and I would recommend it. There was something about it interesting and unexpected, which I will not give away.

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