Last night a beautiful 1300 word essay appeared in the Comment section of “‘The Tree of Life’ #16 – Film Critics Missing the Glory.” In the hopes that this Comment will not get missed, I am posting it here as a Guest Post.

August 15, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Carlos D. Comment on “‘The Tree of Life’ #16 – Film Critics Missing the Glory.”

For what it’s worth here is my take on the ending of the film and how it ties to the rest of the movie. Note: Some of the quotes have been taken from Christopher’s Tree of Life post # 8.

The day in which the movie takes place, and in which Jack has the vision, is probably the anniversary of R.L.’s death – hence the candle in the blue vase and his comment in the office: “No…it’s just this day.”

Jake is spiritually lost in a desert – he walks and walks, always toward the sun. Sometimes he changes direction and ends up looking at a wooden pier jutting out to nowhere. A dead end, it seems. Other times he gets to a doorway in the middle of nowhere, but he is reluctant to go through. So he wanders some more. This “situation”, one imagines, has been going on for some time. He has dreams about it.

On the day the movie takes place Jack sees a young tree, encased in concrete, being planted outside his building. A few moments later he hears his brother R.L. whisper the words: “Find me.”

“How did you come to me, in what shape, what disguise?”

Jack “finds” R.L. in his memories. More importantly he recalls that day in the woods when he hurt his brother and received nothing but grace in return. That day was the true beginning of his moral universe – which is why Malick scores the early part of the scene with Preisner’s ‘Lacrimosa’ (this time on piano, no vocals).

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

Later on he gives “grace” to the burned boy while they play on the street. Jack is (in a matter of speaking) R.L.’s first disciple and he uses the same simple gesture his brother taught him: a touch – of human solidarity and compassion – on the shoulder.

“How did I lose you? Wandered. Forgot you.”

But in time Jack forgot all about this, about the glory, about grace, about his mother’s admonitions, about his brother’s lesson. His brother’s memory became only an object of unendurable pain, a harsh symbol of the meaninglessness of it all.

That’s where Jack was.

But later that day, riding an elevator going up, and after much spiritual anguish, Jack says a prayer: “Brother, keep us, guide us, to the end of time.” And he has a vision.

Why an elevator? Maybe Malick likes Godard because this is something Godard would do: show the sacred traveling by totally mundane means. Maybe it’s a bit of theological humor from Malick. Or maybe it is a barbed comment on our times and cities: where else, so far from nature, can a man find himself transported to a higher plane?

We then see the end of the earth and the solar system. We see the sun, now a white dwarf, coming out of the earth’s shadow. At this moment we hear R.L. again, this time saying: “Follow me.”

“Follow me” does not mean any actual physical trailing. It means: “do as I did”, or “follow my ways”.

Then we see a flurry of truly enigmatic images: the woman in a brown gown leading Jack to the door and standing on the other side when he finally wills himself to cross it; the young women in a barn (?) performing some ceremony with candles; the house with big door and gate; the two wrapped bodies outside a city; the wooden ladder; the woman pulling someone from a hole (grave?); the room with adjacent doors; the woman in bridal gown resting on a metal bed frame (emphasis on her left hand); and so on.

I have no explanation for these images. They are beautiful and profoundly enigmatic and part of me wishes there were more of them. But I cannot make any sense of them individually or in their sequence. I’m beginning to think of them as Malick’s own Book of Revelations – an eschatological array of arcane and mystical images that must have some profound meaning for Malick and Malick only. One thing though: most of the characters in these images are women. (Note: When young Jack is looking at the girl in his classroom and later following her down the street we hear a piano rendition of the hymn ‘Welcome Happy Morning,’ which is also used during the closing credits of the film. Women are very special beings in this movie.)

Then we get to the beach proper – which is not heaven (because we see the burned boy still showing his terrible scars), but might be some form of eternity (I like that, although I don’t understand how exactly eternity differs from heaven), or maybe it’s just part of Jack’s spiritual landscape (like the desert wasteland). To me it is simply Jack imagining a meeting place of sorts, no different and no more special than any such place I’ve imagined myself. Maybe it’s no more than the first stirrings of what people call faith.

And here on this beach he meets his father, and following his brother’s example he puts his hand on Mr. O’Brien’s shoulder – who responds in kind. Later on he finds his dead brother and along with his father they return R.L. to the arms of Mrs. O’Brien. This is something Jack wanted very much to do for his mother (“How did she bear it?”).

Then after night falls on the beach we move to the salt flats – which I take to be the very entrance of heaven and/or eternity.

In a house like the one they shared so many years ago, but whose door now opens to the arid salt flats, Mrs. O’Brien does what she must and lets R.L. go. Jack stands behind her, one hand on her shoulder.

The house sort of flies apart and we see Mrs. O’Brien walking on the salt flats. I believe this means she died some time ago.

Then we see a truly heavenly vision: Mrs. O’Brien attended by angelic beings and exalted in pure light. “I give him to you, I give you my son” she says.

Most reviewers and commentators have elaborated on the obvious Christian symbolism of these words – and they’re not wrong; R.L. is after all a “Christlike” character in the film and even directly linked with Christ during the scene in the church. But for some reason they read the scene as some sort of Abrahamic acceptance on the part of Mrs O’Brian. That she is willingly giving her son to God.

But that doesn’t make much sense to me. R.L. always belonged to God (if you accept the film’s religious perspective) and furthermore it makes little dramatic effect. “The Tree of Life’ is about Jack’s spiritual journey to the ‘door.’ It’s not about Mrs. O’Brien reconciliation with the idea of her son’s death.

That’s why I believe the “you” in Mrs. O’Brien’s words refers to Jack. From her heavenly abode (or from deep in his vision at least) she is telling Jack that her son came to this world, if only briefly, to help him on his path of grace. And now she is giving him to Jack, to keep in his memory forever, and to continue living by his example.

The last image of the vision is a field of sunflowers – those faithful “followers” of the sun.

When Jack “returns back to earth” he knows his brother life was never in vain or meaningless. R.L. is with him and in him. Always has been, since that moment long ago when he first saw him, bathed in white light, in his little crib.

With this knowledge Jack’s world is once again restored to its glory (which was always there, of course). We see the glass building perfectly reflecting the heavens and the clouds above. Jack smiles (sort of) for the first time.

And last, the bridge: an object with ancient religious meanings (e.g. pontifex maximus), a sign of communion between two worlds over an expanse of life-giving water.