Among the Oscar contenders this year, The Tree of Life stands out for inspiring awe and wonder. That was the intention, I'm sure, but audiences mostly express awe about the stupendous visuals, which depict the cosmos from the scale of an amoeba to the scale of the Big Bang. What's gotten ignored is the spiritual argument that Terence Malick, the writer-director, clearly poses. It's a very old argument but one that resists acceptable answers today.
Yet the entire story is about Jack's spiritual confusion, because his Job-like father and his saintly mother stand at two poles. An Old Testament God pulls him one way, a New Testament God the other. The beauty of this dilemma, which could seem artificially schematic, is that it feels so American. Malick made an earlier film, The New World, that explicitly showed America as a land of rebirth, a new Eden. For him, as in all of his movies, the American dilemma is about that ideal beginning and where it has led us. Is it our role to find a special grace that the Old World cannot deliver? Or did the new land turn us into Mr. O'Brien, missing the glory of God because we are fixated on materialism?
I think The Tree of Life is serious enough to legitimately ask these deep questions and powerful enough to make us think about them. It would be fascinating to hear what other viewers feel.
Essentially, the spiritual side of the movie is encapsulated by a short voice-over. The speaker is the mother in the film, who is unnamed except as Mrs. O'Brien. Her son Jack is experiencing his past as a boy in Texas, living on a leafy block that evokes the essence of Fifties America. Despite the nostalgic images, this is a spiritually mysterious and troubled world. It gives rise, some years later, to the tragic death of Jack's middle brother, who may or may not have died in war.
Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien are devastated by their loss, so much so that the mother no longer wants to live. She calls out for her dead child, as the adult Jack echoes when he seeks his lost brother. In the midst of her anguish, his mother tells us that there are two ways of living in this world, the way of Nature and the way of grace. Much more gets said as the story unfolds, about sin, redemption, guilt, the war between fathers and sons, which is almost biblical, and about Mr. O'Brien as Job. In that role, he tries to live a virtuous life, only to be fired from his factory job. In his worst moments Mr. O'Brien declares that he has wound up with "zilch," and he recriminates himself for chasing after worldly success and missing out on "the glory."
Mrs. O'Brien plays another Biblical role, that of Mother Mary. She is innocent, pure, forgiving, nurturing. In this way we get to see the way of Nature portrayed by one parent - if Nature means fighting to survive against the forces pitted against you - and the way of grace by the other. Malick provides a mystical ending in which the O'Brien family is united on the shores of an eternal sea, and the film's final image is of a bridge, implying that this world is connected to the next.
Watch the official Tree of Life trailer: