During the sermon time in church yesterday, we discussed Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Quite a few people in the congregation seem to have seen the film. The response appears to have been generally positive.
Like all great films, “The Tree of Life” continues to work in the viewer long after we leave the theater. It percolates beneath the surface. Scenes bubble up and you find yourself pondering some part of the film you had not thought about before, or hearing in your mind a piece of the script.
I look at the world in different ways since seeing the film. Biking to the church yesterday, looking at the sun breaking through the clouds, I thought, “This looks like it is from ‘The Tree of Life.’” My sensitivity to the beauty of God’s creation is heightened. My heart is broken open.
Coming away from our discussion yesterday, I have been thinking again about the voice-over from Mrs. O’Brien near the beginning of the film. She says,
The nuns taught us there are two ways through life — the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.
Many reviewers quote this statement but leave off the first four words. It is important to include “The nuns taught us…” “The Tree of Life” is not an uncritical endorsement of this potentially dualistic vision. The film certainly does not endorse the implication that Nature exists in opposition to Grace as if they were two separate and conflicting forces in life.
Malick’s portrait of these two forces at work in life, is far more nuanced than simply pitting one against the other. It is not Nature or Grace. It is certainly not Nature against Grace. Malick’s film portrays the power and importance of both Nature and Grace.
We need both the father and the mother in order to navigate successfully through life. When Mr. O’Brien goes away on a business trip, it is true that freedom and joy break out in the O’Brien home. It is also true that this is the time when windows get broken, and a neighbour’s home is invaded and Jack’s innocence is lost.
Mr. O’Brien’s parameters and rules may be too stringent. But the energies of “Grace” must flow within some defined parameters. In another voice-over Jack says,
Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me.
Throughout the film, Malick portrays Nature and Grace permeating the universe in a balanced tension. Even the much criticized dinosaur scene where a wounded dinosaur is spared by his stronger opponent, suggests the possibility of Grace at work in these pre-historic beings.
Mr. O’Brien who is seen by some commentators as simply the embodiment of the rule of law, is not bereft of Grace. One of the things that makes him such a moving character is that we see him so often struggling to reach out to his boys. In his awkward paralyzed way, he wants to love them. He wants to give them the best chance to make it through life, even though the tools he provides are sadly inadequate.
There is something deeply moving about the fact that, as an adult, Jack is able to apologize to his father over the phone for some insensitive comment he has made about his dead brother. Jack’s ability to apologize to the father he has experienced as such a frightening force in his life, suggests that their relationship has reached a point of some resolution.
The gentleness of Grace has entered into the hard-edged demands of Nature.
Terrence Malick’s vision is much more wholistic than the simplistic “Nature versus Grace” paradigm suggests. The conclusion of “The Tree of Life” offers a vision of the unity of all things. At the end of the film Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien meet in, what seems to me to be a vision of the unity of all things. It is a vision that takes place inside Jack’s adult consciousness. It is here that the O’Brien parents exchange their only real embrace and their only true kiss.
Finally, Malick suggests, Grace and Nature must kiss. They must be united. We need both the force and the form of Nature, as well as the freedom and the spontaneity of Grace.