Eden’s Other Tree

There’s really nothing else like it, at least in a very long time, if ever. The audaciousness, even presumption, is already there quite plainly in the title. After all, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life leaps and stretches, always gorgeously, to show and tell (with too much telling, according to some) the ungraspable, quite illogical prospect that this ever-so-mangled world was formed and persists in Love, no matter how dire or pervasive its woundedness.

Think Hopkins the Jesuit: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Or in America, Edwards, Dickinson, and especially Melville. In Russia, Tolstoy and, surely, Dostoevsky in the person of mystic Father Zossima: “Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things” (The Brothers Karamazov). And better still, recently, Iowan Marilynne Robinson’s prairie Calvinist minister, John Ames: “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor grey matter of Creation and turns it into radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration” (Gilead). And now, Malick’s Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), caught in a rapture: “Love everyone, every leaf, every ray of light.” Bravo.

Easy enough perhaps, at least till the Reaper comes by: what counts and means all that gorgeousness when the eye’s adored apple far too soon rots dead on the ground (read Anne Bradstreet’s poems on the deaths of her grandchildren)? That is the old theodicy question, the one question that never goes away, the selfsame one that flays the heart and cleaves the soul (“turned like a fishhook in the human heart,” wrote Peter De Vries). Obviously, this unceasing cruelty bangs hard against claims, blithe and otherwise, of “shining” and “glory,” Malick’s two favorite words, and can anyone then ever again, after too many wakes, dance in glee, as does the beauty-smitten Mrs. O’Brien? “And so it goes, and so it goes,” chants the narrator beginning and end in P. T. Anderson’s excoriating Magnolia.

In short, in this intrepid film, as risky in style as in thematic, Malick lets these domains of experience, ecstasy and mourning, smash up against one another to test riddles and palliatives that very likely exceed everyone’s grasp. Welcome to the land of imponderables and the dark glass. And here pictures might be worth a thousand words, though that for sure is rarely the case. The result is downright remarkable, though viewers will likely disagree on the effectiveness of different aspects of the film, specifically its cosmic history and closing segments, two places where Malick undertakes very risky narrative leaps. The problem, of course, is how any artist transposes that sort of thing to screen, stage, poem, sonata, or, for that matter, chapel ceiling. Dauntless Malick makes his venture an aural-visual saga that searches the limits and meanings of time itself (and of cinema’s ability to represent such mysteries). In the case of The Tree of Life, think cantata or a requiem mass, where voice and music adorn the both glad and grave mysteries of being alive.

Clearly, this is not an ordinary film, and many viewers walk out in the absence of the bang-crash “thrills” in what these days passes for movies. Indeed, Malick’s film is not the usual movie, nor does it intend to be. Unfortunately, the reception of Malick’s testament has not been helped by the dreadful condition of Hollywood product and the inescapable “dumbing down” of audiences. To be sure, in the last glory days of Hollywood, the 1970s, a very large audience would have greeted Malick’s film with loud hosannas, both for what he ventures and for how much of that he actually pulls off. Now, not so much, to say the least.

I.

So in The Tree of Life Malick attends to that other tree in Eden, the one that has received so very little attention in the long history of Judaism and Christianity. How might one show the same long history of the lush, transfixing gift of being as contained in Eden and abiding still thereafter? Malick frames it all in terms of light or, more accurately, Light, the vast splendorous mystery of Love-fired beauty that generally exceeds the capacity of language to encompass or convey its ineffable whatever. In this instance, then, pictures sometimes help, as do music and stories, and Malick strives mightily with all these to convey wonder, awe-fullness, and exultant relish for all the exquisite simple stuff of being alive, like seeing and breathing, going after it with a rhapsodic stream of images, music, and words (and lots of his characteristic voiceover interpolation, just in case the images don’t “bite” as he hopes).

All of that appears straightaway in the compact opening history of the staunchly Roman Catholic O’Brien family, circa 1950, in small town Texas, father (Brad Pitt in a sterling performance), an engineer of some sort, and mother and housewife (Jessica Chastain), and their offspring of three boys. Until, that is, years later, now in another home, a telegram announces the death of the middle son at age nineteen (how he dies is never revealed). And then come those torturous Job questions about God’s care and justice (the epigraph to the film is Job 38:4, 7). And so emerges the confrontation between the beauty and horror of the world, one that sorely tests the grieving mother and, still, decades later, elder brother Jack (Sean Penn), worn and haunted, who cannot make his peace with either his brother’s death or his lasting alienation from most everything—work, father, and spouse.

Then comes, surprise, a galactic break, fifteen minutes of cosmic history, from the Big Bang and deep space to fauna and dinosaurs, all accompanied by achingly gorgeous classical music (a musical and video compendium of much of the film’s music is available at a wonderful site: AbstractCathedral.com). The sweeping history stunningly pictured leads to and frames the third and longest section, young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) coming of age with his brother in rural Texas, an idyllic time and place, to be sure, but one that is increasingly disrupted by a volatile father who wants his boys to be tough enough to prosper in a hard world, one in which he himself seems to fail, though not for want of trying. Here evil takes another form; instead of the indifference of a world of accident that will later randomly kill his younger brother, evil comes up close, constant, and very intimate—namely, the wrong-headed and hypocritical regime enacted by his father.

It’s a good thing something radically “other” goes on with the other parent. She of “the way of grace” savors, exults, and forgives, all in adoration and gratitude for the magnificence of being alive (see the wordless trailer on YouTube). Again, images count more than words, and Malick supplies lovely glimpses of Mrs. O’Brien alone and within her family, and after awhile, better yet, the audience too begins to relish as she does. That is no small accomplishment, given the goop that Hollywood and TV pander as “nice.” To all of that, just in case not everyone gets it, her voiceover comments abound in biblical allusion, especially to Jesus and Paul, though most critics do not hear the echo (something that has contributed to some remarkably skewed readings and judgments of the film). And we repeatedly see her do distinctly Christ-like things, such as bringing water to prisoners.

This longest section of the film dramatizes in remarkably powerful ways intense and steady family conflict, something that pushes Jack toward “the way of nature,” meaning toward animus, enmity, and revenge. It is in this, as much as in the mysterious death of his younger brother, that a Fall, ’50s Texas version, slowly encroaches upon the Edenic, manifest in the skewing of relationships between father and son and brother and brother. Throughout, Malick’s remarkably intimate film style, borrowing much from the late Kieslowski and Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, places viewers within the physical space of the story itself—breathing, seeing, and even touching. All of this has the destination already made clear in the first section of the film, the death years later of the loving and seemingly charmed middle brother (an echo, surely, of Cain and Abel).

And the controversial end comes (SPOILER ALERT!), on which some critics, again largely uncomprehending of what Malick shows them, have heaped some derision. Rather suddenly we see the middle-aged Jack, a successful urban architect who now works in a wholly artificial, hard-surfaced, human-made world of glass, angles, and corners, and now lives as well—chillily, it seems— in a similar space with his wife. Throughout, Penn’s brooding, sorrowful face speaks volumes of his remorse, grieving still for his brother and his family, and his essential lostness in general, something Malick envisions in wordless images of Jack silently wandering assorted desolate landscapes (Death Valley, among other locations). The film culminates with Jack climbing over a hill to find a broad sun-drenched sea, though the light here is not golden, which indeed would have made the whole thing very soupy. There, backlit, he falls on his knees, his face toward the sea and light. And there among wandering crowds he meets again, in warm welcome, his family, including his father, his parents middle-aged still, and his still-young dead brother. And there mother surrenders her son to death. Or is it to the Light? For there is, in any case, no death and all is Light—if indeed Jack’s vision is correct. After all this dreaming from his perch high in a glassy tower, the film’s last shot watches Jack emerge into the plaza outside as if newly awakened, and, ever so briefly, a faint smile visits his face. He has returned, the film makes clear, to the place where he started, meaning Light itself, and he has known it, as if for the first time (Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope have happened, part and parcel of the fabric of Love that brought the world forth in abundant splendor in the first place back whenever. Love has happened and, apparently, still does.

II.

All of this distillation ends up putting The Tree of Life in propositional terms, which is just about the last way in which it should be considered. It is, after all, a film and is meant to be “known,” experienced and understood, as experience and as film. And Malick, perhaps more than any other living filmmaker, save perhaps for the Dardenne brothers, tries to stretch the medium to go beyond words, lest all that babble bleed the juice from the medium and reduce the way we absorb Malick’s world (and, more so, individual experience in one’s own world). Instead, Malick in The Tree of Life pushes toward a transrational, embodied apprehension of the splendor of being alive and within it, amid tears, the toil of meaning-making. In that, clearly, words and logic play a crucial role, for has there ever been a script with so many questions, and enormous metaphysical ones at that? Rather, Malick attempts to convey, with the unique fullness of means film provides, a radiant, effulgent world, albeit one wherein radical evil nonetheless wrecks families and randomly kills lovely young men. Indeed, for all of the exultant savor of the mother, there is also the emphatic, withering dominion of an angry, self-deluded father. The most effective parts of the film drop us into the perceptual worlds of Mrs. O’Brien and young Jack, whose perceptual prisms largely comprise the film. Malick brings us near and inside, achieving a kind of novelistic omniscience inside feeling and thought. All of this attests to Malick’s intent, first and last, to render palpable, pressing and perhaps inescapable, a sort of a holy, sacred “presence,” whether in characters’ lives in the 1950s or, better yet, on a cosmic scale where, for Malick, light and living both proceed from one Light, the same to which everything goes. Indeed, “shining” abounds, Light of Light, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “shining from shook foil,” flaming, burning, all illumining matter and soul.

From this intense, perduring Light emerges humankind’s signal yearning for a sort of fierce intimacy—with one another and other creatures, the natural world, and the source of it all. We see this purely and fully in the O’Brien family, not simply in separate characters, such as the mother who fully knows and embodies this, but also in its absence, namely, that conflict between father and son, for what haunts the angry, troubled Jack is the lack of the paternal affirmation he deeply craves. Here Malick’s effort to dramatize and to be present within the perpetual wrestle shapes a good deal of his cinematic style, employing a gymnastic handheld camera, abundant close-ups, break-neck editing, natural lighting, relatively little script, and exultant scoring—all of which seems, in the peculiar alchemy of film, to thrust viewers smack into the same physical space inhabited by the ’50s Texas family, a space that is dense with living but is no less charged or revelatory than the stunning cosmic history Malick provides. The same Light fosters and infuses both macro and microcosmic realms of being, whether intergalactic cataclysms of cosmic birth or the innumerable small, purely sensuous “presences” that fill ordinary daily life. Indeed, the effort is to know and feel the “glory” all about, as father O’Brien belatedly recognizes when, for a moment at least, the hard knocks knock some sense in him. At times, viewers feel like they have landed amid a mural of Low Country realism, a perceptual style that summons sustained, quiet relish and veneration. Indeed, with this tact, Malick seems to argue for viewing the world and natural science itself aesthetically rather than with the glib reductionism of contemporary scientism.

III.

What holds the film together, then, and life itself, for that matter, first and last, is Light—irrepressible, effulgent Light, elusive because so present—and this Malick strives to make the film’s central visual motif. Indeed, how to make visible the invisible? Fire pierces darkness to ignite cosmic birth in the Big Bang, and tens of thousands of millennia later holiday sparklers bless the Texas dusk, and all is of one Light. This notion pervades film style but flares prominently in the markers that separate each of its sections. On a black screen appears what looks like a small candle flame dead center amid the enveloping pitch darkness. Literally, here, light shines in the darkness, and the immensity of the dark dwarfs it but does not snuff it out. That visual representation not only responds in multiple ways to God’s query to Job, which is the film’s epigraph (“Where were you when the morning stars sang for joy”), but distills, quietly and succinctly, the nuanced, hedge-your-bets declaration in the Gospel of John that “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (see the producers’ virtuoso overlay of film clips in my July 8, 2011 interview on the film, available at the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly website). And, in the end, to be sure, there is the “bright land” of pure Light that the adult Jack envisions—that climatic, consummative realm where all is made whole. Throughout Malick’s film light plays as a rhapsody of grace, in substance and style, a deft multi-foliate representation of Mrs. O’Brien’s early rendition of the “way of grace,” itself a brief, glowing distillation of Paul’s love-rapt ethics.

Those two trees of Life, the one in Eden and the movie, pose enormous intellectual, aesthetic, and psycho-existential challenges, the whole shebang of living in a human skin. Malick seems quite certain, especially if seen within the context of all of his films, of the pressing magnificence, sensual and aesthetic, of the created world. His late films, from The Thin Red Line (1998) on, assert the reality of a constant, effulgent shining or efflorescence residing in all things. So plentiful it is that we ponder the possibility that the whole thing, despite an encompassing, voracious darkness we all share, was made in love. For Malick, it seems, that profusion of shining down-deep everywhere, from babies’ feet to sprinklers in a hot Texas, vexes modernity’s assertion of sheer nothingness. If theodicy stymies those who believe, then surely a beauty-soaked world problematizes skepticism.

Nor does this notion push the limits of orthodoxy. The very brainy American Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards speculated that the human appetite for knowledge of and union with God results from “an infinite fullness of all possible good in God, a fullness of every perfection” that inexorably emanates from God’s being to bathe creation “in abundant streams [of glory], as beams from the sun.” These come from God and “are something of God.” This resplendent “refulgence shines upon and into the creature, and is reflected back to the luminary” (Concerning the End for Which God Created the World). Thus we perhaps move beyond modernity’s constricted empiricism to behold and relish the real Real. Such is the Tree of Life in Eden and in Terrence Malick’s splendorous film.

Roy Anker teaches English at Calvin College. He is a former editor of Perspectives and is author of two books on film, Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (Eerdmans, 2004) and Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies (Eerdmans, 2010).