“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
These oft-used but potent words from the late Carl Sagan stuck in my head recently whilst trying to decipher The Tree of Life (2011), somewhat in vain. Five weeks and two additional viewings later, I believe I’m only slightly closer to unraveling the (in)famous Terrence Malick film, but it’s progress I’ll gladly take. The movie is well known for its confusing and grandiose nature, book-ending a non-chronological story about a 1950s Texas family with the birth and death of the Earth and universe. Even six years after its initial release the movie is an enigma to most, so I’d be wary of anyone who claims to have all the answers.
That’s not to say people haven’t offered complex takes on Malick’s masterpiece, quite the opposite. Countless interpretations are scattered across the internet amongst other places, varying from religious readings to technical studies to even linguistic analyses. It would be beyond hypocritical of me to claim to know precisely what the film is about of course, but people’s thoughts on the movie as well as its own “quizative” nature invite me to offer my own (limited) views on what Tree of Life seems to say, and the possible implications of that for everyone.
A Universe in Motion
Adhering to the Sagan quote above, Malick sets about telling the story of the O’Brien family by showing us the creation of the universe, our galaxy, our star (Sol/ the Sun), the Earth, and then life itself. More than just a visual marvel, this creation sequence and, eventually, a closing “death” sequence, puts the story in a cosmic context.
The creation sequence does not begin with the movie itself but about 20 minutes in, after many questions about the nature of God, the universe, and death have already been raised (something we’ll look at). The “flame” or lumia art seen at the start of the film (and above) returns, possibly signifying the origin of the Big Bang: an infinitely small point that exists outside of time and space but also encompasses all of it. After the Big Bang’s expansion we see a series of stunningly realized images, including the first conversion of matter from energy, the formation of nebulae, the birth of stars, galaxies, supernovae, etc. A beautiful closeup of our Sun (artificial of course, but still incredible) shows a changing and amorphous plasma surface, very much a living thing.
All these things, entities we typically think of as stationary and timeless, are shown here churning and changing, living, reproducing, and, eventually, dying. The elements that make up not just the Earth but all living things, humans included, are forged in core of stars, stars born in gaseous nebulae. Like the carbon in an apple pie, it is not possible to tell a complete story with humanity without acknowledging this origin, nor without recognizing the tumultuous motion of the entire universe.
(Sidenote: If you missed that particular episode of Cosmos and you could use a quick brush-up on the origins of life, the Earth, and the universe, I highly recommend 0:45 through 3:55 of Bill Wurtz’ hilarious and musical video “ history of the entire world, i guess”)
Malick does not let us forget this shifting motion. Ironically, one of the most constant and stable images in the film is the erratic, bubbling sun. The ball of plasma is present throughout the majority of the film, looming overhead as a constant reminder that, as the O’Brien’s neighbor shouts at his wife, “this is my house. You’re allowed to live here!” The sun enables life and the Earth to exist, but has a finite lifecycle of its own, as does the universe. Ominous as that sounds, the presence of the sun can be seen as a stand-in for divinity or even God as well. That is, after all, “where God lives” according to Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain).
Regardless, the importance of the sun in some capacity is nearly undeniable. Malick insisted on using only natural light whenever possible, to the extent of having three different sets of the O’Brien’s home used to best take advantage of available sunlight. He instructed the film’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, to study the baroque painter Johannes Vermeer’s works to make the best use of the sun’s natural lighting, something it seems Lubezki achieved in spades. Vermeer’s distinct lighting style, that of the sun gently filtered into a room with no other light sources, is used often and to great effect in the film.
Left: Vermeer’s painting “The Glass of Wine”. Right: A scene from Tree of Life featuring similar window lighting.
The sun and its influence can be found in other ways as well, sometimes with even further thematic significance (symbols are rarely simple nor “unlayered” with Malick). Shadows, for example, are a common visual motif, one that ties heavily into both the sun and the dichotomy of nature and grace mentioned at the film’s outset (more on that soon).
About an hour into the film, the O’Brien’s priest, Father Haynes (Kelly Koonce), asks, “is there nothing which is deathless, nothing which does not pass away?” The question is a potent one, something I nor Malick can reasonably, definitively answer. No matter what the answer may be however, it is clear that everything we saw created during the creation sequence will eventually cease to be, at least as we understand. After an adult Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) finishes reminiscing about his childhood, we witness a brief but powerful scene: the death of the Sun, the Earth, and perhaps even the heat-death of the entire universe. The sequence mirrors the creation, featuring similar shots to clue us in on what’s happening and maintaining a poetic symmetry between life and death.
Left: During the creation sequence, our sun illuminates a vast field of dust and gases from which a primeval Earth is forming. Right: The sun expands into a red giant five billion years from now, swallowing the Earth.
Left: Trapped H2O beneath the young Earth’s surface rises as steam, creating a hydrogen-rich atmosphere. Right: Atmosphere long since burned away, the sun expands, encasing the Earth surface-to-core.
Left: An orange-red sun shines through Earth’s (relatively) new atmosphere & ozone layer, providing the energy life needs to emerge safely. Right: Now a cooling white dwarf, our sun nears the end its life behind a barren, lifeless Earth and alongside every other entity in the universe, culminating in heat death.
The implications of this context are varied and complicated, but the concept of a constantly shifting, mortal universe rings true regardless. Every single thing shown in the sequence(s) – stars, galaxies, nebulae, fish, microbes, dinosaurs – every one is born, evolves, reproduces (e.g. “gives life” as the sun does for plant life), and dies. There is no pausing a boiling pot, no simple constant to rely on. “Life goes on,” says Grandma (Fiona Shaw). “People pass along. Nothing stays the same.”
Two Roads in a Cosmic Wood
But why apply such a complex and grandiose context to a story about one human family? Well, as anyone who’s seen even part of the film can attest to, that’s not nearly all that Tree of Life is about. There is a reason the creation sequence did not open the movie. The film’s central question, one that requires the previously discussed context, revolves around the aforementioned ways of Nature and Grace. Mrs. O’Brien introduces these concepts very early on (about two minutes in), describing the premise over footage of her childhood on what looks to be a farm with her father.
“Grace doesn’t try to please itself,” she tells us whilst a young version of herself sits amongst some cows. Grace “accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries.” Images of a loving father and a vast field of sunflowers flash by, presumably showcasing examples of both Mrs. O’Brien’s memories and the appreciation of nature (actual nature, ironically) and love one ought to have if they “love the way of grace”. Aside from the selflessness she describes, the film also associates the Way of Grace with compassion, mercy, creation of art (be it music or painting), imagination, innocence and an admiration of “the world shining all around” them (i.e. literal nature). She herself exhibits many of these traits, providing an example of kindness for her children to follow. R.L. takes after her, embodying Grace nearly every time he’s seen on screen. More so than his mother, R.L. is artistic, imaginative, and innocent the way only a child can be; he paints, plays guitar, reads fantastical sci-fi stories, but, most importantly, consistently refuses to hurt others, choosing to trust them instead.
This seems a purer expression of an idea from one of Malick’s previous films, The Thin Red Line (1998), in which a soldier, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), is forced out of peaceful island-living and into a situation that tries to force him away from what is here known as the Way of Grace. (Spoilers): He ends up sacrificing himself to save an R.L.-esque character (Adrien Brody) and his entire squad, choosing to protect others rather than act out of self-interest or preservation.
Left: R.L. peers out his bedroom window in Tree of Life. Right: A nervous Cpl. Fife watches for enemies in Thin Red Line.
References to the sacrifices this path requires are littered throughout the film. The book of Job, a quote from which opens the movie, revolves around Grace as the movie describes it. Accepting “being slighted” is an understatement in Job’s case, a good, faithful man that had everything taken away from him anyway. The beautiful music that plays during the creation sequence is Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” or, in latin “weeping.” This is a reference to the Virgin Mary’s “Seven Sorrows”: tragedies suffered by Mary that did not shake her beliefs nor her commitment to Grace.
The Way of Nature is, naturally, the opposite of this ideal. “Nature only wants to please itself,” says Mrs. O’Brien, “get others to please it too.” Here the scene changes from the farm to Mrs. O’Brien as an adult, the camera panning towards Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and young Jack ( Hunter McCracken) deliberately as she describes this “wrong” path. The film associates the Way of Nature with cruelty, violence, destruction/misuse of art, industry, adulthood, and darwinism. Mr. O’Brien embodies these traits for a majority of the movie, only realizing the error of his ways after he’d already steered Jack down the same path. In a New York Times interview, Jessica Chastain describes the opposing roles, including the Way of Nature.
Ms. Chastain interpreted her character as a personification of “the spiritual world,” a contrast to the natural world, “which is all about survival of the fittest,” she said, and which, in the movie takes the form of Darwinian natural selection and American bootstrap capitalism.
Mr. O’Brien is a clear example of this “bootstrap capitalism,” turning away from a career as a musician to work in an industrial plant. Indeed, Malick’s contempt for man-made machinery is alive and well in Tree of Life, continuing symbolism I’ve written about previously from Days of Heaven and Badlands.
Left: In Tree of Life, Mr O’Brien enters a loud, intimidating industrial plant, criticizing employees as he goes. Right: An imposing, deafening machine harvests crops in Days of Heaven.
Focused solely on money,the patriarch of the O’Brien family complains often about other’s wealth and property, violating the commandment “thou shalt not covet” frequently for a devout Christian. A belief in Darwinism (“survival of fittest”) can clearly be seen in his actions and words (e.g. “it takes fierce will to get ahead in this world”), and he passes these beliefs on to Jack.
Since the film is seen from Jack’s memories and imaginings (real or otherwise), we can clearly see the influence of his father and the points at which he is “corrupted”, culminating in several incidents that show how far gone he’s become. After destroying R.L.’s painting, for instance, Jack looks his mother in the eye and says “I’m gonna do what I want.” In a rare moment of clarity for a Malick film, Jack points out the connection to his father outright just in case we missed it. “I’m as bad as you are,” he says to his father, “I’m more like you than her.”
But Jack is not 100% one way or the other, flitting between both paths more than once. “Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me,” reveals an adult Jack, “always you will.” He seems to have followed his father’s footsteps, working in a cold, industrial skyscraper, presumably pursuing money over all else. He appears to be “his own boss” like his father wanted. But he begins to see the Way of Grace as he grows, begins to “see the glory around us” as his father would put it. Jack learns from his father’s mistake, evolves from it. Even early on, after betraying R.L.’s trust and shooting his finger with a BB gun, Jack realizes his mistake and apologizes, offering to let R.L. hit him back. This is a small but crucial step in the right direction, and shows a humility not seen in Mr. O’Brien until the end. He later describes R.L. as “true”and “kind”, wondering “how did I lose you?” Though it’s not entirely clear who Jack has lost, my money’s on R.L. and the Way of Grace that Jack had begun to learn from his example. That or God, or both; who can be sure with these things?
Which brings up an excellent point: how does any of this fit together? If nothing ultimately lasts in a finite universe, why should anyone care about which path they take? Why does Mrs. O’Brien tell us that “no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end” in the film’s opening minutes only to show us almost exclusively “graceful” people dying?
To give even a flawed answer to all of these questions would require a film in and of itself, but in asking them we can start to see a potential through-line in all this ideological muck. What stuck out to me, and is particularly striking whilst going back to the film to write this very post, is the connectivity laced into Tree of Life’s images and themes. However loosely, a theme of rebirth and parallel images seems to suggest that the Way of Grace is rewarded not in good fortune but in transcendence and connection. Confused yet? Let’s break it down with a few examples.
Left: The Helix Nebula, consisting of bright, colorful gasses that indicate the death and transformation of a star like our own. Right: An acidic pool of water on a primordial Earth that closely resembles Helix, composed of elements and material forged in a dead star.
Left: Gasses coalesce into a nebula, likely forming a birthplace for stars known as a stellar nursery. Right: A canyon on Earth, composed of elements forged within the stars a nursery would produce, forms a similar curving shape.
Left: The lumia projection, perhaps God and/or responsible for the Big Bang. Right: R.L.’s ruined painting, taking on a similar color and amorphous shape.
Left: The churning plasma surface of the sun. Right: Waves of water on Earth, a planet sustained by and at the mercy of the Sun.
A brief search for the “actual” Tree of Life reveals not just its mythological origins but its use by Charles Darwin to describe both evolution and the common ancestry all living things share. In his now (in)famous book, The Origin of Species, Darwin describes his use of the legendary tree:
As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.
This obviously describes something akin to Malick’s Way of Nature, predictable given our previous look at Darwinism and the film. What it does not cover however is a concept I can scarcely describe with my limited vocabulary but sense throughout the film, a feeling I’m sure Malick fans know quite well by now. This concept seems to say that all things are, at the very least, loosely connected. Everything in existence, me, you, the keyboard I type this on, everything, shares a common ancestor or origin, and to follow the Way of Grace is to evolve so that your own ancestor can further develop themselves in the erratic, ceaselessly changing universe in which we find ourselves.
Aside from Jack’s “evolution” from his father that we’ve already discussed, two examples of this admittedly pretentious and convoluted premise stick out to me: sunflowers and dinosaurs.
The “dinosaur scene” should be easy for anyone who’s seen the film to recall; even in a Malick movie with cosmic imagery it seems out of place. But what we’re witnessing when we see a dinosaur spare a smaller, weaker creature (also a dinosaur; Taxonomy is irritating) is not just off-putting CGI, it’s potentially the first time anything on Earth or even the universe chose the Way of Grace. It felt genuine compassion instead of just selfishly attacking. It may seem like these dinosaurs assuredly meet a “bad end”, as a meteor is shown causing their extinction directly after, but the opportunity to be the first one to show mercy in an incomprehensibly long line of ancestors and descendants (the titular Tree of Life) and the first to respect the connection all things have (the “love smiling through all things”) isn’t a bad end so much as a miraculous beginning, if you’ll allow me to be corny about it.
No matter how much I try to understand the final sequence, the one in which Jack envisions a surreal, heaven-like beach on which everyone he knows is hanging out, I find myself entirely lost. After rewatching the film, especially that scene, a few more times, I think I can give it a shot: Jack and everyone there has died and turned into sunflowers. Alright hear me out for a moment, I know that sounds silly but here’s some things to consider.
The first is the enormous field of sunflowers themselves, shown twice in the movie. The first time is during the initial introduction of the two “Ways.” As Mrs. O’Brien says “the Way of Nature”, we see a young version of herself holding a goat, an animal presumably fairly stuck in its instincts. Then we hear “… and the Way of Grace” and see the field of sunflowers, implying a connection between the two. Roughly two hours later, after we exit the beach scene and panning up to the sun, we pan back down to see the field of flowers, each a part of the “cosmic whole” or Tree of Life.
During the beach scene itself, a series of strange images occur. After Jack walks through the door and follows his younger self to a wooden platform, we see two dead bodies lying in the grass outside a small village, which quickly pans up to the sun. The scene cuts to a wooden ladder, the sun flashing through its rungs, and the camera approaches it and pans up as if to climb it to the sky. It quickly cuts again to an open grave at the same perspective, as though we were buried. A woman offers her hand from the top of pit, and someone, presumably Jack, reaches up to grab it.
Jack enters the beach and, eventually, meets his family as he remembers them there. His mother is seen kissing an old, wrinkled hand and transforming it into a youthful one. A sideways, underwater door is seen opening, repeating the birth imagery from earlier in the film. All of this implies a rebirth to me, one that involves the same kind of evolution, death, and transformation that our sun will go through. Add to this the bizarre sunlight-basking by Mrs. O’Brien and Jack’s love interest, followed by the cut to the field, and it’s enough to convince me that these people, those who followed the Way of Grace (even Mr. O’Brien eventually), are linked somehow cosmically with the sunflowers.
Do I think Malick is trying to say they literally turned into sunflowers? No, probably not. But plants grow from soil, soil our bodies enrich with nutrients when they decompose, and perhaps through that connection we live on in a sense.
Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter what my take on it is, nor does Malick’s elusive “true intentions”. Tree of Life excels at generating varied conversations, from the numerous and complex to the harshly critical, and, for a film whose stated goal was to be “more of an experience and not about plot,” I’d say it does a fantastic job. Tree of Life isn’t about stars nor the 50s nor sunflowers so much as it’s about existential questions virtually every human being has asked before, so I’m perfectly fine with the movie not providing definitive answers if it generates countless discussions that explore its ideas. Just don’t ask me to “generate more discussion” anytime soon, because my brain is currently fried from even this simple look at the film.