The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick demonstrates that despite our natural weaknesses, humankind can find grace through love and family, and thus replace anguish with beauty. This theme is exemplified by contrasting the vastness of the universe with family life, and by disregarding time and avoiding cause-and-effect. Symbolic scenes also add to the meaning by showing the solace we find in family, amidst the wilderness of trials and pain.
Malick’s film heavily contrasts the vastness of the universe (representing nature) with the seemingly simple lives of individuals (representing grace), and then suggests that individuals are everything but insignificant by allowing the audience to see into their minds through prayer and intimate scenes. Sequences of the universe being created and volcanoes erupting surround the viewer with images of grandeur and nature- a relentless force, determined to get its’ way. These are then juxtaposed with scenes of prayer, worry, and family struggle, deeply intimate and paradoxical in the way that they show the insignificance of our tiny lives, and just how large an effect our simple, beating hearts can have. Nature and grace are both introduced in the beginning by Mrs. O’Brien. Nature, represented in dinosaurs and asteroids, is wild and gigantic and destructive. These elements are seen in the father, who abuses and yells and teaches his children to fight. Grace, on the other hand, is gentle and loving, and caters to the individual. Grace does not rely on rules, as the mother shows. Mrs. O’Brien is kind and humble, playing with her children and protecting them. The juxtaposition of these two apparent enemies is significant because, despite the temptation to see them as antagonistic, they actually can work in harmony. A simple, intimate hand-held shot of the mother holding a butterfly delicately in her hand shows the potential for beauty and balance between nature and grace. Their huge differences, seen in the universe and the newborn baby, can work together to form something beautiful, not unlike the romantic marriage of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien. Scenes of them courting demonstrate just how much love can come from such a union.
This abstract film disregards chronological order as well as cause and effect. It switches back and forth in different times and leaves many conflicts unresolved and many stories untold. By doing so, it gives more power to the characters’ individual struggles and prayers and the film’s artistic elements, because it does not clog up the audience’s mind with plot or structure. Switching back and forth from the time of dinosaurs to a 1950s family tragedy emphasizes the contrast of nature and love in the family. Nature is relentless and cruel, but grace allows mistakes and as such, some characters’ trials are not completely resolved — they leave their house, the children secretly cry, and nothing more is said. The father lashes out at the wife, and Jack wishes death upon his father in an especially passionate moment. These conflicts are not specifically resolved, but rather implied to be healed through their love and father’s desire to be better. Grace triumphs in times of love, and healing is found and conflicts are abandoned.
Symbolic scenes of an older Jack wandering through deserts show his struggle as a part of nature. He feels this power of the natural man as a child, vandalizing property, stealing clothing, and watching a friend drown. This is paired with his sincere prayers and obvious love for his family despite all that happens. In the end, the scene of the family finding each other in the wasteland, Jack meeting his brother again, and Mrs. O’Brien saying “I give You my son” shows the healing power that love can have on the wounds that nature inflicts upon us. Family can and should be the most natural source of grace, forgiving and understanding and eventually overcoming — whether that be the death of a child or the fights we have at the kitchen table.
Written for Intro To Film, freshman year @ BYU