The Tree of Life – Incarnations of Nature and Grace

Posted: September 2, 2011 by jperritt in Drama
Tags: , , , ,

By Brian Godawa

Directed by Terrence Malick

(Fox Searchlight, 2011)

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?” (Job 38:4–7 ESV).

The verse from Job above is the beginning legend for Terrence Malick’s cinematic exploration of the meaning of life, the universe, and suffering as seen through the experience of family and loss. It is the emotional journey of a family in the 1950s struggling with the death of one of three sons, the eldest of which, Jack (played by Sean Penn), grows up and broods over the anniversary of his brother’s death many years later.

The movie includes a fifteen-minute cinematic panorama of the universe from supernovas and condensing star galaxies all the way down to microbial ocean life on earth, up an evolutionary chain of complexity to fish and amphibians, through dinosaurs, and ultimately to the birth of a human baby. All of this is accompanied by a soundtrack that is at times haunting ambience and at times operatic angelic chorus. I would argue that this is not mere aesthetic posturing, but rather an actual rooting of the smaller story of our suffering in the bigger story (metanarrative) of the universe created by God.

The theme of the movie is telegraphed through the thoughts of the family members, mostly the mother, played as a silent longsuffering housewife by Jessica Chastain, as she ponders, “There are two ways in life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have two choices which to follow.” She then describes grace in Christian terms of selflessness and sacrifice, while the way of nature is selfish and concerned with its own survival. She and her husband, played by Brad Pitt, become the symbolic living versions of these worldviews. She incarnates grace with her playful loving acceptance: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good, wonder, hope.”

The father, incarnating the “nature” side of that equation, raises his three boys by being firm to the point of harsh, making rules and punishing with a distantness that even deadens his affection for them. He teaches them how to fight, and how to become strong in life with a survival of the fittest mentality. “You make yourself what you are. You make your own destiny.”

The movie is filled with multiple voiceovers expressing inner emotional questions for God, depicted at times as a flowery ethereal flame: “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate,” “Always you were calling me,” “Lord, where were you? Who are we to you?” These long pondering interior dialogues are the authentic portrayal of a faith in God that honestly struggles with the hard realities of the world’s suffering and pain.

We see Jack’s unflowering of innocence through teasing a girl and peeping Tom antics. His gang of restless, idle boys break windows and tie a frog to a bottle rocket, leading to his disobedience of his mother. In today’s extreme movies about gang rapes, school shootings, and teen sex, this is a refreshingly sensitive portrayal of the essential truth of the loss of innocence and coming of age that youth experience.

The father, though he is a 1950s cliché of the hard-working chauvinistic male who has no intimacy with wife or kids, finds redemption in the end as we hear his own inner journey of repentance after losing everything: “I wanted to be loved because I was great. I’m nothing. I dishonored the glory. I am a foolish man.”

This movie is a profound exploration of a spiritual journey with faith in God and suffering. The movie’s biggest weakness is that it is so interior and isolated in its visual reality and dramatic portrayal that it tends to leave one sadly dissatisfied. It is intellectually spiritual in addressing the human-to-divine connection aesthetically, while lacking the human-to-human connection that is equally necessary to the human condition. It is not enough to experience God as a transcendent, otherworldly reality; we understand His fullness through human connection as well. That is the point of the Incarnation—God and man. After all, it was God who said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” after creating Adam in fellowship with Himself. The Tree of Life illustrates that we need community—and that Terrence Malick needs community to take his storytelling from intellectual aesthetics to interpersonal drama. —Brian Godawa

Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press), and Word Pictures: Knowing God through Story and Imagination (InterVarsity Press). See his website www.godawa.com for free articles on storytelling, movies, worldview, and faith.

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Comments
  1. northneckva says:

    this should be more than a worthy followup of the Grace Card. thoroughly enjoyed the G.C., am sure that movie-goers will enjoy this even more. God bless, Brian! 🙂

  2. […] The Gift of Life by Robert Johnson who teaches about theology and culture at Fuller Seminary and The Tree of Life-Incarnations of Nature and Grace by screenwriter and author Brian Godawa. GA_googleAddAttr(“AdOpt”, “1”); […]

  3. Luke M. says:

    Actually, I felt that Malick’s strength is most seen in his portrayal of human-to-human dynamics, rather than seeing the human interactions as a main weakness of the film. The relationship between the brothers especially touched me much more strongly than the beautiful but intangible visual depictions of the Creator. I think it’s in the infinitesimal of the human interactions that grace is most profoundly depicted (as seen in the forgiveness and acceptance the brothers offer each other after wounds have been made).

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