The Tree of Life: Known Unknowns


Known Unknowns
Chris Wisniewski on The Tree of Life

“‘Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’.... we must avoid emphasizing any particular, individual being, not even focusing on the human being. For what is this being, after all! Let us consider the Earth in the dark immensity of space in the universe. We can compare it to a tiny grain of sand; more than a kilometer of emptiness extends between it and the next grain of its size; on the surface of this tiny grain of sand lives a stupified swarm of supposedly clever animals, climbing all over each other, who for a brief moment have invented knowledge. And what is a human lifespan amidst millions of years? Barely a move on the second hand, a breath.” —Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics

“Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” Job 38:1-3

A mother points at the sky and tells her child, “That’s where God lives.” The camera pauses briefly on the top floor of the house and on the moon just above it in the cosmic distance. The heavens are quiet and dark, offering no trace of the Supreme Being who purportedly calls them home. The mother speaks with conviction, with faith, but in this quiet, fleeting moment, she and her child seem to be alone in the universe, planted on their small piece of earth.

Terrence Malick’s divisive Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life—mesmerizing, rhapsodic, infuriating, breathtaking, thrilling, sometimes silly, often moving, and always challenging—consists of what feels like hundreds of moments like these, mini-vignettes of great intimacy and grand ambition, some interrogating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, some ostensibly reaffirming spiritual beliefs that have been passed down in evolving forms by theologians and philosophers across millennia. These scenes are fragments, glimpses, suggestions of suggestions of big thoughts and big questions, filtered through the perspective of one man, Jack (Sean Penn), who looks back from a point of ambiguous crisis on both his own childhood and his place in the grand cosmic order. But before it gets to the business of this exhilarating and confounding spiritual journey, The Tree of Life begins with a death.

A woman (Jessica Chastain) answers a knock at her door. She accepts a telegram that informs her that her son has died (at the age of 19, we later discover). We never learn the circumstances surrounding the death, but it serves as the existential and emotional trauma, the rupture, that sets The Tree of Life in motion. The dead man is Jack’s younger brother. Malick shows us the mother and father (Brad Pitt), each processing their agonizing grief, then flashes forward to the present to the middle-aged Jack, now apparently a successful architect. Whether Jack’s spiritual crisis is a direct consequence of his brother’s death or not, Malick implies a connection between his present state and this shattering event long past. The death of a young person has an arbitrariness to it that can shake those touched by it irrevocably; it’s a reminder that we’re not promised anything in this life, even existence.

From his obtuse depiction of Jack’s existential torment, Malick makes his way back to the very beginning of the universe, then takes us through the age of the dinosaurs, to Jack’s birth and childhood, all the way up to his adolescence. As this synopsis should make clear, The Tree of Life is, indeed, narrative cinema (and its story is apparently largely autobiographical), but the movie demonstrates scant interest in traditional filmic storytelling. Malick has pushed his narrative approach to its most extreme point. He weaves into and out of scenes or, rather, moments, building not storylines but movements. The camera is never where you expect it to be and almost constantly in motion (the steadicam- and handheld-heavy cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, achieved with natural lighting, is nothing short of astonishing). Scenes end abruptly with unexpected fades. The music, including Alexandre Desplat’s original score and an array of classical and operatic pieces, propels us forward, and, in fact, the movie has an almost musical quality in its rhythm and pacing. As narrative cinema, The Tree of Life can be seen as an experiment in radical subjectivity: Malick doesn’t just show us Jack’s point-of-view; he immerses us within his conflict of spirit—through his kaleidoscopic and elliptical depiction of Jack’s early life, Malick retraces the moments of Jack’s spiritual and moral “becoming.” Psychology and incident are peripheral to this project, and to criticize Malick for his opaque characterizations and his disinterest in narrative cause-and-effect—as some already have—is to quite miss the point of the form and object of Malick’s filmmaking: though the comparison is something of a reach, it’s akin to lobbing the same criticisms at Faulkner or Joyce.

It’s no surprise that a movie this ambitious and this difficult has been met, its Cannes victory notwithstanding, with varying degrees of praise and hostility, but I am surprised by how quick many have been (particularly those who fall somewhere in the middle) to complain that the film is “flawed” or “imperfect.” Let’s set aside the question of what constitutes a “perfect film”—as if some such a Platonic ideal existed. An assertion of The Tree of Life’s “flaws” insinuates that Malick’s project isn’t worthwhile (fine, if you wish) or that The Tree of Life somehow falls short at what it sets out to do. This dubious latter argument, however, fails after we more rigorously and thoroughly investigate the philosophy underlying Malick’s filmmaking.


One needn’t read the Book of Job or Heidegger or St. Thomas Aquinas or Thomas à Kempis to “get” The Tree of Life—movies can and should be taken on their own terms, and this one is a singular, immersive, and fully gratifying aesthetic experience for anyone open to it. But there is no doubt that Malick’s movie engages, explicitly and directly, with philosophical and theological questions raised by these sources, and that the rich intellectual tradition on which he draws for this film merits some consideration. The movie has already been rejected as “hollow,” “kitsch,” “simplistic,” and “confused, amorphous, cosmic, furry-headed” by critics who find it somehow philosophically inadequate, but these charges aren’t supported with evidence that the critics in question have taken Malick’s ideas seriously enough even to reject them: Malick brings a command of centuries of thought to the table and in some corners has been met with curt dismissal.

The movie begins with a passage from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” The quote sets up the celestial creation story to follow, but few have remarked on its broader context. The Book of Job occupies a unique position in the study of theodicy—the question of why, if God is good, evil should exist in the world. Job endures all kinds of earthly torment, and when he finally confronts his maker, his God, embodied as a wind storm, denies him the right to question His authority. Instead, God asserts that Job, in his ignorance as a mere human, has no ground on which to ask what he asks, to seek meaning in his suffering. It’s one of the more harrowing moments in all of the Judeo-Christian scriptures: God argues that we, as humans, will always live in ignorance of why bad things happen to us in this life.

Given its highly religious overtones and the clear reference to scripture at the movie’s outset, it may initially seem curious that The Tree of Life doesn’t factor God into its depiction of the creation—but given its indebtedness to Job and Malick’s particular expertise in Heidegger, the Big Bang-to-dinosaur sequence makes a bit more sense. Martin Heidegger, whom Malick translated as a young philosopher, advanced a metaphysics that rejected over 2,000 years of philosophical thought. For the German scholar, the study of “Being” required, among other things, a deferral of theology (faith, in Heidegger’s view, made the question of why “Beings” exist too easy, and, therefore, effectively negated the value of philosophy altogether). The God of The Tree of Life, if He exists, is passive, indifferent. He leaves us—with our finite and limited understanding—to make sense of the violent and chaotic world He has created. A dinosaur rests with a gaping, perhaps mortal wound. Why? Another dinosaur places his foot on the head of potential prey, then decides to move on. Why? An asteroid plummets onto the Earth, killing most of its creatures. Why? A 19-year-old man dies, leaving his family to mourn the loss. Why? This “why” question may be the most essential in all of human thought, and if Malick is too ambitious for evoking it, I’m not sure what we otherwise expect art to ask.

Jack’s mother draws a distinction between the “way of nature” and the “way of grace.” The dichotomy is central to the history of Christian theology—one finds it in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the monk Thomas à Kempis, though Malick’s version appears to be most indebted to the latter—and it instantiates a different attitude towards metaphysics than that espoused by Heidegger. Jack’s mother begins with an assumption of faith, with a belief that human “nature” is somehow perfectible through “grace,” that we can put aside the difficulties, setbacks, and violence that are natural to us and somehow live as models of a divine ideal. Many have assumed that she is merely a stand-in for Malick. The filmmaker has clearly created a character who attempts to reconcile one of the great philosophical quandaries of Western thought. One critic has even gone so far as to dismiss Malick’s presentation of this millennial struggle between nature and grace as “intellectual nonsense.” Regardless of the worthiness of this theological debate, I am not convinced that Malick follows Jack’s mother in asserting a fundamental conflict between nature and grace. In The Tree of Life, Jack seems, finally, to live, and to lose himself, within a contradiction: he seeks grace, even though he realizes that we are all doomed, naturally, to suffer—to live and to die without ever knowing what the point of it all is. In the meantime, we have beautiful, thrilling, and difficult movies like this to remind us how important it is to seek answers to unanswerable questions, to look for solutions to unsolvable problems, to make sense of this sad, frustrating, and altogether wonderful life we all live.

Despite his multiple influences, it’s clear, from his film’s opening citation, that Malick’s central reference is Job. This is confirmed by what seems to be the longest extended piece of dialogue in the film, a sermon delivered by a preacher about a passage from the book to a congregation that includes Jack’s family. He reminds his listeners that none of them is immune from suffering, that each of them will one day face death. Certainly, I know less than Malick does about Job, Heidegger, and Thomas à Kempis, but in this moment, despite my comparative ignorance, his movie made perfect sense to me. The Tree of Life ends with an adult Jack walking with his mother, father, and countless others on a beach. They contemplate the seemingly infinite sea, even as they are aware of their own limits, the finitude of the shore. There is the known, and there is the unknown. It is the purpose of art to explore both, to put them in dialogue. I don’t think The Tree of Life ends with answers. Rather, it mines contradictions—between nature and grace, God and man, being and not being, the infinite and the mortal—and it ends by saying that we are all Job, both required and doomed to contemplate what it means to be and what that means for how we should live.