The Tree of Life is the oddest film among the 2011 crop of Oscar nominees. Director Terrance Malick tells a story similar to what we know of his own life story, growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s as the oldest of three brothers and having a brother who died at an early age.
Any Tree of Life explanation needs to guess what’s going through the mind of one of Hollywood’s most reclusive figures.
To guess the meaning of The Tree of Life is pretty simple, though.
The boy character is coming to grips with a senseless death and God’s role in that death, along with his role in people’s lives leading up to that death. This leads to a number of questions. Is God an uncaring, distant being? Do the lives of God’s many creations matter at all to him? Does he exist at all? Or is he so intimate in our lives that he’s too close to see, his manifestations so everyday and mundane that we look right past it?
To analyze these questions, look no further than the title of the film. Those reading this analysis shouldn’t assume I’m stating my theory on the meaning of life. Instead, I’m trying to interpret what Terrance Malick is showing us through his art.
The Tree of Life – Culture References
The term “Tree of Life” has been used as a symbol in religious, spiritual, and philosophical thought for thousands of years. References to a tree of life are found in cultures spread around the globe.
From ancient Egyptian and Chinese myth to Norse mythology to Jewish Kabbalism, a tree of life has been used to describe many different concepts.
In recent years, the term has even been used for a scientific theory involving the Earth’s ecology. The life tree or family tree has been used to describe ancestry and bloodlines for centuries.
In most cases, the term is meant to convey interconnectedness. Everything and everyone is connected in some way. In Norse myth, the world tree or Yggdrasil connects the nine realms together. The underworld are the tree’s roots, Earth is just a bit above, and the lands of giants and gods sit on its branches.
In Kabbalah, the tree of life includes ten levels, each associated with another aspect of God. At the bottom sits Malkuth (the Earth we know), while at the top sits the Kether (the glory of God). In either cases, it’s all part of one whole.
The Book of Job
The Tree of Life begins with a quotation from the Old Testament (Job 38: 4-7). The quote states, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” This is a question God asks of Job, but it’s only the beginning of God’s longest speech in the Bible. Read through Job 37 through Job 41 and you’ll see imagery that appears in the movie again and again. I’ll point these out at several points during this analysis, but let’s talk about the light at the beginning of the film.
The swirl of light at the beginning of the film is Terrance Malick’s first depiction of God, but by no means the only one.
Much of the imagery of the movie’s first 30-40 minutes also depicts his God. Notice how the camera stays on the ocean waves as they swirl about in the surf. Notice the flock of birds as it twists and turns, contorts and swirls about in the sky over the city. Notice the puff of cigarette smoke and how it swirls about in the frame. By choosing several unconnected things which have the same characteristics, Malick is showing us that God is present in everything.
The Eye of God
This vision isn’t confined just to Earth, though. The scenes of the creation of the universe, the fiery plasma jets of the stars, the spiral galaxy, and the swirling colors of the nebula are all just other manifestations of the Biblical God to Malick. The director is showing us what God said in the quotation–the Creator laying the foundation of the Earth.
The nebula shown in the film is called the Helix Nebula, but after the Hubble telescope took pictures of this beautiful piece of space, people have begun calling it “The Eye of God“.
Tree of Life Interpretation
The film goes on to show the propagation of life on the Earth, including depictions of the dinosaurs (whose bones are later found by the boys) and even the primordial ooze where amino acids first began to combine into single-celled life.
One might think this is a creationist’s nightmare, but the point here is that God was there through every stage of evolution–even the moment the meteor hit and extincted the dinosaurs, paving the way for mammals to rule the Earth. You might think the point of the film is to say, “With such grand scope and so many millions of years in the making, what does the death of one little boy mean to God?”
That’s not the director’s point at all.
Go back to Job 37 and you’ll see what made God so mad that he appeared to contradict the mortals. The words immediately proceeding God’s appearance are: “The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power…he (does) not have regard for all the wise in heart?”
This angers God, because men are assuming he’s beyond the veil, uncaring and unfeeling. You can imagine Job’s surprise when God appears to contradict these words.
Light in The Tree of Life
Let’s return to the idea of interconnectedness. Once you start to see that Terrance Malick is depicting God as the nature around us, you start to see that God’s a vital part of every scene. The use of light to depict the Creator Being in the first frame of the film means that every time light is prominent in a scene (and that’s often in a Malick film), it’s meant to depict His presence.
Think about all the scenes where light is shining through trees, through the window, or on the faces of the congregation. Notice the light on the wall while the mother is holding her newborn baby. Notice the sunlight shining through the window as the child climbs the staircase. Notice how the sunlight draws your eyes in all those weird scenes of the attic. Each of these is meant to convey that God is there, whether people recognize it or not.
Tree of Light Final Scenes
Most of the middle parts of the story don’t need to be explained too much, as they’re for the most part literal and the meaning is clear. The final scenes of The Tree of Light might need to be explained, since you have that odd moment where Sean Penn walks through the stone doorway. Once again, this is taken from Job.
In Job 38:17, God asks, “Have the gates of Death been shown to you?” The full quote is this, “Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?…What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths to their dwellings?”
Sean Penn’s character, who’s obviously familiar with the Bible from his childhood, is imagining he’s walking through death’s door and emerging in the so-called “abode of light“.
One of the first ideas put forward (by the mother) is the thought there are two types of people: people of nature and people of grace. Brad Pitt is certainly a “man of nature” throughout the movie, while his wife is depicted as a “person of grace”.
You get the idea that Sean Penn, businessman that he is, must have been a man “of nature” throughout his life. One of the final scenes between Brad Pitt and his son acknowledges that the two are alike. But in that moment outside his office building in Dallas, where he imagines himself with his mother and brother and father in the land beyond, the son takes comfort in being a person “of grace”.
Tree of Life Interpreted
The depiction of the eventual demise of the Earth might be troubling to some–but this inclusion raises God from some pagan nature symbol to something else.
We learn that the source of light and the symbol of God throughout the film isn’t really God, but just another manifestation of that being. A pagan movie would show the Sun to be eternal and all-powerful.
In The Tree of Life, the Sun is shown to be only another symbol of the Divine Being, no more eternal than dew on leaves after a rain or the wind blowing those same leaves when the fall appears. Like any other part of the cosmic Tree of Life, the Sun is just another branch of the great interconnected structure.