Life is such a peculiar thing. It is regarded as the most precious of things by humanity. However, it is also the one thing that humanity shares with other creatures, from the tiniest bacteria to the largest whale. That exact same life that humans and the rest of nature partake in equal portions however becomes vastly differentiated with the sudden absence of it. For the rest of the universe, death is just an act of nature. For humanity, death is something else, something that dwells, something sacred, something spiritual, something religious.
"Was he bad? Where were you, to let a boy die, to let anything happen? Why should I be good, if you aren't," a boy asks God after witnessing another boy drown in a public swimming pool. The death of a fellow human elicits such a response from another human. It is as if a great injustice has been done by God. Death is treated as punishment instead and should only be merited when one has been evil.
Naturally, the initial emotion that The Tree of Life communicates is one brought about by death, grief. A mother opens her home to the news of her teenage son's death. Moments of piercing silence, probably out of doubt or disbelief, ensue. Then she lets out a defeated wail, short-lived though as Malick immediately cuts to the next scene of the father who learns of the death of his son through a phone call. Sequences of grief follow: neighbours and friends attempting to placate the mother, the father wanting to grieve in privacy.
Fast-forward to several decades after, a man, seemingly aloof from his wife and the world, remembers the death of his brother. He lights a candle, apologizes to his father about something about his dead brother, and goes about his work-a-day life with evident distance. As these visualizations of grief, both fresh and carried over through the years, flicker onscreen, whispered prayers are heard. The mother looks up to the sky. "That's where God lives," she once told her son. The scene cuts to a cloud of light over darkness, the same image that begins and ends the film and recurs every so often. "Lord, why? Where were you? Did you know? Who are we to you? Answer me," she pleads.
At that juncture, Malick tells the story of the universe, from when it was just nebulous formations of light and darkness up to the appearance of life. Awe is an overwhelming emotion derived from a position of subordination. The images that Malick conjures in non-stop fashion are ones that can only elicit awe. From something as epic as galaxies being formed to something as minuscule as the moment a sperm enters an egg, the images are always sublime and powerful. In the midst of such breadth and brilliance, everything else, even death and grief, seems insignificant.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth," quoted by Malick from the book of Job, could be God's response to the mother's chain of questions. Religion has trained humanity to regard itself as the center of the universe, but the history of the universe, it seems, points out to the exact opposite: that humanity is but a dot in the journey from beginning to end.
Malick goes back from mapping the formation of the universe to mapping the evolution of a man, from the time when the father and mother fell in love, to his birth, to the early stages of his maturity. Told in fragments instead of a linear narrative, the film takes the shape of a montage of memories kept that inevitably molds adulthood. It is also a medley of emotions that ground the experience back to familiarity. A boy looks jealously of his baby brother. The father plays a few notes of his piano to accompany his son who is strumming his guitar as the older son enviously looks from afar. A boy throws a piece of lingerie to the river because of the guilt of an emerging sexuality. A son wishes for the death of his father. The same son imagines his mother flying in the air, an angel.
Malick explores the supposed opposing concepts of nature and grace. Ostensibly, the father, strict and dictatorial in the rearing of his children and the management of his household, represents the path of nature. On the other hand, the mother, kind, gentle, and immaculate, represents the path of grace. Childhood becomes the setting of these clashing forces. The boy struggles from innocence to worldliness, treading the path to nature. "I'm as bad as you are. I'm more like you than her," the son tells his father.
To absorb these characters are mere symbols of some cosmic tug-of-war between nature and grace is to belittle the complexities of their humanity, which Malick laid down with such meticulousness that it can only come from somewhere intimate and personal. The father, the mother, the three children, all fall from grace, rebound, and just exist notwithstanding the greater forces that lord over the universe. It is that innate ability to exist and the knowledge of existence that separates humanity from the universe. In a way, that ability and knowledge allows humanity to distance itself from the evolution of the universe and create for itself a history of its own choosing, a beginning of its own choosing, and an end of its own choosing.
To exist is to choose. Rather than representations of a philosophical notion, the characters exist, deciding to jump from domination, such as when death results in a collapse of faith, to acceptance, such as when the father's financial collapse brings all of them together to leave their perfect suburban home, and so on.
"I give him to you," the mother whispers as she is caressed by angelic beings. Images of the dead son leaving their suburban house towards the horizon, of the adult eldest son seeing his father, mother, brothers, all in ageless form, converge in a beach teeming with people from memories both close and distant, of birth, of death, and of life mingle onscreen.
Grace, as Malick seems to elucidate, is neither the opposite of nature, nor an elementary appropriation of the mother's maternal qualities, nor an adjunct of religion's concept of morality. It is simply acceptance of the movement of the universe, that people die to form part of the story of the world, that humanity, despite its capacity to choose, can choose to be again part of the universe it has always attempted to sever itself from in its quest for dominance over creation. Grace is a moment of peace, that secluded smile the adult son lets off because of and despite the world.
The Tree of Life is a priceless work that is astoundingly majestic, sublimely spectacular, but never alienating. In its search for deeper truths, it positions itself not from the vantage point of a pompous philosopher, looking in from the outside, but as an everyman, looking out from the inside. In that sense, the film is far more generous than it looks. In its beautiful abstractions are fissures that allow for the entry of varying interpretations that are inevitable given the infinite number of disciplines, faith, and experiences that are around.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)