Monday, November 7, 2011

The Tree of Life and Eschatology

Brother... Mother. It was they who brought me to your door.

On first viewing these opening words to The Tree of Life seem enigmatic, but on a second viewing they take on a more literal meaning.

After having seen the film, we know that Jack has an intense love for both his brother and mother, whom we see in his memories. His mother is portrayed as a graceful, angelic, flawless being of light. Since no human purely embodies goodness in this way, it's safe to assume that the lens through which the mother is portrayed in the film is Jack's own memories. Many of which were based on real experiences, but many of which he probably has imagined or constructed. Such as when we see his parents grieving his brother's death, and there's a shot of Jack as a grown man in the room with them, but they can't see him. Indicating that this is Jack's own interpretation of how his parents received the news of his brother's death.  Or when we see his mother dancing on air. The mother in the film is most likely an idealized version of his mother -- as his memory has somewhat distorted or caricatured her -- whose graciousness and love led Jack to see goodness in the world and seek to understand it.

The same is true of his brother, but in a different way. He also sees his brother as fundamentally good, while he views himself as fundamentally wicked (at least after a certain age when he "discovers" sin). The death of Jack's brother profoundly affects him, even into his late adult life, as you would imagine. It is reflection upon this tragedy that prompts Jack to seek answers to questions about life by probing his own memories about his brother.

But whose door do Jack's mother and brother bring him to?

Within the context of the film it's clear that the door is God's door. The door of Faith, which is portrayed near the end of the film as a literal door frame in the middle of a desert landscape. Having searched his own life, through his memories, for answers about God, life, humanity and existence, and having primarily found those answers through his mother and his brother, Jack is brought to the door of Faith and he steps through.

As soon as Jack steps through the door there is a sequence of shots that are reminiscent of those from the Creation sequence earlier in the film when, in response to questions of "Who are we to you?", God responds -- as he does in the Book of Job -- with a display of natural wonders starting with the Creation of the universe. At this moment, when he comes to Faith by trusting in God and, according to the Christian belief, is made a new man through Christ, we are shown a glimpse of New Creation. The ultimate, eschatological reality of those who will be resurrected to live in the New Creation.

 Malick's choices of shot sequence are not arbitrary. These shots of New Creation are triggered the moment Jack enters the door of Faith. In most of these shots Earth itself is shown, and these shots can be taken to represent an external, God's-eye view of New Creation occurring -- Heaven and Earth coming together -- which we then "zoom in" to on the shores of a beach of New Earth, where the Humans are entering New Creation together, after having been resurrected. The title of the film is significant here as in Revelation 22:2 where the tree of life is used as a symbol for mankind's renewal during the time when Eden is being restored. Add to this the otherworldly look of the landscapes that are shown -- though still clearly being Earthly -- along with the resurrection images, and how all of this relates to the Christian doctrines of the Resurrection and New Creation, and how they in turn relate to Jack's journey in the film leads me to the conclusion that the final sequence is a profound depiction of Christian eschatology.

It would seem that this final sequence is a subjective vision as experienced by Jack, but one which acts as a preview for Jack, showing an understanding of the ultimate hope for humanity from his perspective. Whether it's a literal vision given to Jack supernaturally, or whether it is Jack's personal understanding of a divine truth is debatable, but the essence of what is being shown seems indisputable.

As the film can largely be seen as an ongoing dialogue with God, taking place in the head of Jack, with God providing answers to Jack's questions, this final sequence is a culmination of the answers to all the questions: "Who are we to you?", "Where were you?", "Why do we suffer?", "Is there nothing deathless in this world?", "How do I get back where they are [to a place of innocence]?" God provided individual answers along the way, but the ultimate answer to all of them is that God's love and grace opens up a means for Salvation from our fallen state where pain, sin, and death are defeated and erased, and we are given New Life in Christ.

With the grip that dispensationalism has on the contemporary, American religious imagination, it's highly likely that even many Christians wouldn't recognize this eschatological vision as being fundamentally Christian at all. Which is a shame because -- if not for other more important reasons -- it would allow for a deeper appreciation of this film and what it has to say.


  1. Excellent review. I can appreciate the film even more after reading this. Quite a film. I wonder if Socrates could sit through an edited version for discussion.

  2. That would make for an good meeting topic. We should do that.