Talking Pictures in Review: The Tree of Life (pt. 2)

Last week, I mentioned a few tips shared with the audience before the Talking Pictures screening of The Tree of Life.  But while those pointers are meant to help you better navigate the film as you watch, your experience with it, probably as much or more than any other I’ve seen, will be helped a great deal by discussing it afterward. With that in mind, here’s a recap (and expansion) of the post-film discussion.

And yes, there are significant spoilers ahead.

After You Watch: Connecting Some of the Big Dots

Sadly, I can’t dwell on the artistic excellence of the film—including the stunning visuals and an almost embarrassing largess of acting excellence. I’ll limit myself to commenting on what I found to be some of the more important elements of the movie and trying to sum up its larger message. 

1. There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. As I indicated last week, this quote from Mrs. O’Brien’s initial voiceover introduces much that will be instrumental in what follows.

With that in mind, the character of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is effectively the embodiment of grace. This shines through her interactions with her children, husband, and others as well as the natural world around her. Witness the joy her children express when around her, the drink she gives the prisoner, and the butterfly landing her hand. Even the way she moves exudes grace. 

By contrast, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) personifies the way of nature. Outwardly pious, he is often angry, envious, and discontented. To his boys he is often harsh and demanding—think of his dinner table interactions with them and how his method of waking them contrasts with that of his wife. He tells his boys they need “fierce will” to get ahead in the world. But his self-reliant striving never seems to gain him what he desires.

(Still, Mr. O’Brien is not merely a caricature. Even if his parenting is deeply flawed, we see several moments of genuine love for his kids. He also appreciates—and creates—the glory and goodness of music. He is, to use Francis Schaeffer’s term, a “glorious ruin.”)

2. Struggling between these two ways is Jack (played as a boy by Hunter McCracken). In fact, this struggle provides the central dramatic tension of the film, one that builds toward the climactic resolution/conclusion. His voiceover tells us that his father and mother have always been striving within him. We see, in several boyhood acts of rebellious behavior, a clear expression of his “fall.”  His prayer echoes that of Paul in Romans 7: What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.

Even so, he does not continue unchecked down the way of nature. He seeks and receives forgiveness and restoration from the brother he has wronged. He experiences a measure of reconciliation with his father.

All this is evidence of a point that is made explicit by his own narration: he is being drawn—providentially—to the way of grace: 

How did you come to me? What shape? What disguise?  

You spoke to me through her [his mother]. You spoke with me from the sky…the trees…before I knew I loved you…believed in you. 

When did you first touch my heart?

What was it you showed me? I didn’t know how to name you then. Always you were calling me. 

3. The above points help to explain what may at first seem to be the unusual shift in focus to the creation sequence. It directly follows scenes in which we see family members grappling with the death of the middle son, R. L. (Laramie Eppler)—the parents at the time of the tragedy and the adult Jack on what is likely the anniversary of the event years later.

Here the film’s connection with the Book of Job through the opening scriptural quotation is crucial: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? …When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job. 38:4, 7). 

In the biblical context, this quote is part of God’s “reply” to the agony, questioning, and even God-directed accusation that Job voices in the midst of his suffering. God’s answer is in fact a series of questions that underscore his glory, power, and wisdom. They pointedly suggest that he just might have a few things going on that are, shall we say, above Job’s level of comprehension.

In my judgment, the creation scenes in The Tree of Life function in a very similar way. They are the film’s response to the bewilderment of the surviving family members. They signal that the story of the O’Brien family is part of a much larger story, one stretching back to the beginning of all things and authored by someone who is incalculably wise and powerful. Tellingly, the flame-like symbol, appearing at the beginning of the creational sequence and clearly representing God, first appears at the very beginning of the film as it launches the story of the O’Briens. This suggests that the same superintending presence active in the grand scope of creation is likewise active in their particular story.  

4. The scene of the O’Brien family attending church also struck me as crucial. The sermon that we hear along with the family is, not coincidentally, concerned with the story of Job. After stressing that that no one—neither the unrighteous or unrighteous—can shield themselves or loved ones from misfortune, the minister asks, Is there nothing that is deathless, nothing that does not pass away? At precisely this point, we are confronted with a shot of Jesus portrayed in a stain glass window. 

The minister continues: We must seek that which is greater than fortune and fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that. He closes with this: Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that he gives? Or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away? Or does he alone see God who sees God turn his face toward him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back? All of this again speaks to God’s mysterious, providential ways and hints at their goal. 

5. In another key moment, Mr. O’Brien comes to a revealing epiphany at the loss of his job. In his words, I wanted to be loved because I was great. A big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us. The trees and birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.

Mr. O’Brien is forced by events to understand that all his strivings and the motivations that led to them have been in vain. He experiences an important turn. Having missed it before, he’s now aware of what is larger, more important.   

6. The final sequences amount to what I think is fairly described as Jack’s conversion and experience of eternity (either actual or in some kind of anticipatory vision). Enigmatic at first, repeated viewing reveals these scenes as tightly crafted and full of significant imagery, much of it specifically carrying biblical allusions. What follows is only a portion:

  • Jack begins in an arid, desert-like place.
  • He passes, hesitantly, through the frame of a door (cf. John 10:7).  
  • Candles are lit in the darkness before a door opens to the light of day, nearly blinding by contrast (cf. John 1:5).
  • We see a ladder pointed upward toward heaven (cf. John 1:51, where Jesus alludes to Jacob’s ladder in Gen. 28).
  • A woman is helped out of a grave. Another, dressed as a bride, rises to what is apparently new life (cf. Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:6-8, 21:9-27).
  • Jack finds himself on a water-drenched shore (water being a ubiquitous biblical symbol for life, cleansing, etc.), where he is, in some of the most poignant shots of the entire film, reunited with his family—including his father (!) and the brother he once lost (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18).
  • We see a (discarded?) mask floating in the water—an image that suggests something false or that which hides the true self has been cast away (cf. Col. 3:9-10).
  • Mrs. O’Brien, in a scene that carries overtones of Jesus’ mother Mary, “lets go” of the son she had once lost: I give him to you, I give you my son. Though I might not bet the farm on it, I wonder if this is actually a double entendre. Perhaps we see not only Mrs. O’Brien’s final contentment with her tragedy, but also an image of what God has done: given us his Son. To make matters more interesting, in what could be construed as a play on words and imagery, the shot closes with her extended hands opening and framing the sun. Immediately following, we see a field of sunflowers, a striking, vibrant form of life particularly dependent upon the sun’s light.  
  • Over all this we hear “Agnus Dei,” the last movement of Berlioz’s Requiem. The translated lyrics read in part: “Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest. …Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with Thy saints for ever, Lord, because Thou art merciful. Amen.”
  • While the sequence began with Jack riding an elevator upward, we next see it descending, offering still more views of the sun in the sky. We then see Jack on the ground outside, offering a faint but provocative smile.  
  • This is followed by a lingering shot of a bridge, an image that evokes the sense of crossing from one place to another.

7. Following closely on the heels of the bridge shot, the final image we see is again the flame-like presence of God. Given the immediate context for this shot, it suggests that Jack has been drawn in by cords of grace, that all of what has gone before has been orchestrated to bring him ultimately to an end that is good, satisfying, and gloriously restorative. Since this final image mirrors the films beginning, it establishes God’s presence and providence as framing the entirety of what we’ve seen. He is the Alpha and Omega not only of the film, but also everything it portrays, from the cosmic level down to particular human lives. 

Summing Up

Much more could be said about other scenes and themes within The Tree of Life. With repeated viewings, my estimation of the film only continues to grow—it’s easily one of the very greatest I’ve ever seen. But the above provides enough to justify an attempt to sum up the central focus of the film (an exercise that feels a bit like trying to stuff an entire closet into one tiny suitcase). In the end, I’d argue that The Tree of Life reflects what is in essence the core of the greatest story: the Creator and Sovereign of all that is graciously drawing people through his good, glorious, and sometimes mysterious providence, that they might ultimately find eternal joy and peace with him.

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