The Tree of Life
Written by Gabriel Rench on June 24, 2017
Well, it’s summer. It’s time for the beach towels, sunblock, the nearest pool, and, yes, good movies. Who doesn’t love a late night movie with some great friends? Good movies, though, are harder to find than the nearest swimming hole. What do I mean by a good movie?
A good movie is one whose plot rings true with the story of God’s world and whose craft reveals excellence. I’ve seen “Christian” movies with a good story but the skill in making the movie left much to be desired. We might exclude then some intentionally Christian films; on the grounds that their craft is not excellent. Of course there are gradations on the theme, but essentially a good movie glorifies what God loves and defames what God hates. The question we need to be asking of flicks is, “What story is it telling?” In some cases, a non-religious film will end up “preaching the gospel” because it comports with how God made us. Of course, we’ve all seen movies with stunning cinematography and special effects; they’re fun. However, my favorite stories are the ones that are true about the world and have some substance.
Is it just me, or are we experiencing something of a drought with clever story telling in our movies? What is with the recycled Spiderman movies?! Are we that boring as a people now? I think we might be at the tenth Transformer movie, I don’t know. I affectionately call these movies “A.D.D. movies”; we’re bored unless we have a continuous stream of explosions on the screen. Christians need to be good at storytelling. It’s time to rise.
Might I suggest a movie for you? It’s called The Tree of Life from 2011. Perhaps you’ve seen it? If so, explore this with me and leave some comments; perhaps you’ve picked up on some insights.
Even though the film showcases Brad Pitt, I still consider it explicitly Christian. The gospel is revealed beautifully in this film, but it is subtle, like good art. Here’s the problem, though: some do not like Christian films to be subtle about the gospel. Some believe a movie can only be considered “Christian” if it has a plain declaration that Christ died for sinners along with a sinner’s prayer on screen. However, have we considered the power of a more creative telling of redemption played-out through characters on screen?
The Tree of Life is written and directed by Terrence Malick. Emmanuel Lubezki as the director of photography makes the film worth watching in itself. If you’ve seen The Revenant, then you’ve noticed his skill for finding beauty with his camera. Then there’s the score for the Tree of Life: stunning. It is a ponderous movie, evoking in us our deepest longings. In other words, don’t try to watch this movie while playing “Final Fantasy” on your iphone, talking with your buddy on speakerphone, and eating that microwaved burrito at the same time. You need to treat this film with the respect you would show most literature.
Let me say here that I don’t pretend to know Malick’s mind with every detail of this movie; how could I? We observe what is given to us in a movie, what is there. With this story, Malick is tapping into so many biblical themes, God’s world as it is–that the work extends beyond him, speaking deeper than he intends. That is what good poetry does.
The movie is a modern story with the struggle we all have with the problem of evil: a deep topic. Even more, this story is personal for Terrence Malick. It’s his soul on screen. The movie revolves around the challenge of evil and the drama of the book of Job. It opens with a verse from Job on the screen. Creation-like scenes fill up the beginning sequences and evoke in the viewer creational beginnings and subsequently the Fall, later. The film joins in on the ancient musings of Job and faces the reality of death head-on. But like a Christian story, it doesn’t leave us there. This piece of art is about God and man, and man’s struggle to live in spite of death, by faith in his mysterious Creator. The title of the movie itself reveals its cards: Edenic access to God and our relationship with Him.
The Tree of Life should be appreciated by more Christians because of the way it respects the impact of families and generational sin. The centrality of parenting and marriage comes through in the film’s artistry, hinted at by sustained shots of the husband’s wedding ring. The father’s world is ambition, cold steel, hard facts, gluttonous greed, and dogs devouring dogs. The mother’s world in contrast, set in the 1950’s, is the idyllic setting of the homemaker, the home. The grown up Jack O’Brien in the movie is married, but childless. Throughout the story he thinks back fondly of a time when families prioritized the home.
The father represents “nature” in a broad sense, strong but wild and unpredictable. The mother, Mrs. O’Brien, personifies “grace” in this tale. She’s the helpmeet to Mr. O’Brien, she adorns him. Jessica Chastain is beautiful in this film. She’s close to earth; close to animals, elegant, kind, forgiving. She’s most everything good in Tree of Life. Here’s a clip from the beginning of the movie:
The focus of the drama however, hinges on the father-son relationship. Will Jack O’Brien overcome the shadow of pain his father left within him?
In the last scenes of the movie, he descends down an elevator, having wrestled with God in the upper realm and come to faith. He descends down the elevator from a high place to the living world again. Jack’s life is now far from the quaint joys of childhood to the adult world of “grown up” skyscrapers and modernity. Joy had been in the O’Brien household when they enjoyed grace all around them with the simplest things in life, like reading kids books on space exploration at the dawn of the space age, fireflies, and playing in the street.
Not everything had been idyllic in childhood. Jack is plagued by the father hunger he suffered as a boy. Indeed, his struggles as a child parallel his maturity in faith. His faith is immature. Childhood in the movie is not a place to stay. “When I was a child I used to think as a child, but now I am a man.”
The movie is about coming of age, it’s about coming to maturity. And how does maturity live? It lives like a tree does, growing heavenward in the middle of sometimes adverse circumstances. One of the last scenes of the movie is a flourishing tree in the middle of a city courtyard, and it’s his faith as a grown up. This tree is planted in the city, amidst concrete, but it thrives: The Tree of Life.
Good movies prove the beauty of God’s story. You’ll hardly find a film more beautiful. Go see the show.
 An example of this is the film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, whose main themes encourage wonder and gratitude with life.
 Peter Leithart, Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Cascade Books, Eugene, OR. P. 84.