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Some Reflections on The Tree of Life

At the source of the dream, there is a creative mystery which we cannot rationally explain. It is the creativity of nature. It is the same creativity which has created the millions of species of animals and flowers and plants on the earth which man could never invent.

Marie-Louise von Franz, Way of the Dream

The Tree of Life, which ran in theaters in the summer of 2011, was Terrance Malick's fifth feature film in a span of forty years, and it should be understood at the outset that it is not a movie or film, at least as that genre is recognized by a contemporary cineplex audience. Rather, it is best viewed as an artful throwback to the earliest form of cinematographic experience--magic lantern theater. It is a progression of discrete, often seemingly unrelated images and vignettes, some bordering on kaleidoscopic, that challenge the viewer by loosely weaving a narrative that is, in turn, both intensely personal and unabashedly cosmic.

The Tree of Life is prefaced with a quotation from the Book of Job that frames all that follows, for Malick intends nothing less than to take up the Jobbian struggle to make sense of human suffering in the context of a grace-bestowing Deity. Against a black background, an immense flame, a constant fire appears, a representation of the archetype of the Sacred Tree, the World Tree, The Tree of Life, symbolizing that which is eternal, spiritual, divine. Then the words, "Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to Your door" are spoken in a quiet, prayerful manner. The voice we will come to recognize as that of Jack, the eldest son and protagonist of the film. Malick uses this device of whispered, measured words to reveal the innermost thoughts--at times plaintive, at times accusing--of both Jack and his mother as they express themselves to God. Against a backdrop of brief images of the family life shared by three sons, Jack, RL, and Steve, with their mother and father, Malick uses words spoken by the mother to formulate the central polarity that provides the underlying dynamics of the film:

"The nuns taught us there are two ways through life--the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself, accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of Grace ever comes to a bad end."

In the mind of young Jack, his mother is clearly associated with the way of Grace and his father with the way of Nature, and because the personal aspects of his mother and father are largely undifferentiated from projections of the archetypal Mother and Father, Nature and Grace are infused with aspects of this archetypal polarity as well.

Immediately the period of the story-telling advances twelve years, to the moment when a telegram arrives, informing first-of-all the mother that her second son, RL, has died. The images that follow visually writhe with the agony of her loss and the stoic grief of his father. One of many consoling neighbors attempts to comfort his mother with the homily, "He is in God's hands now", only to be countered by his mother's reply, "He was in God's hands the whole time."

Following the aftermath of RL's death, fleeting images of the eternal flaming tree, of a door, a threshold, a desert give way to a much later time when Jack, now a middle-aged man, rises and dresses, lighting a candle in remembrance of RL on what appears to be the anniversary of his death. Jack progresses through his day, carrying forth the trappings of a professionally successful architect, but he is clearly distracted and absorbed in the memories of his brother and the unresolved grief lingering from his death. After a brief, apologetic phone call with his father and an unproductive meeting in his corporate board room, he leaves his company offices in a cathedral-like glass-and-steel office tower, and with memories and images flooding his consciousness, he descends to the street for a walk. Scattered images of ocean waves, desert sand, of RL shrouded by a curtain, the aftermath of RL's death, swarms of birds, mark the end of Malick's introduction to the intensely personal portion of the narrative that provides the immediate, human context of The Tree of Life.

Although Malick tells the story of Jack and his family and of the consequences of RL's death with extraordinary acuity and sensitivity to the details of the experienced lives of children and adults living in small-town Waco, Texas in the 1950's, and despite the fact that, as various film critics have asserted, certain aspects of this family's life and circumstances seem to run parallel to Malick's own family biography, The Tree of Life is not in anyway a narrative dependent on or limited to Malick's family story. Malick is telling the story of an individual and a family with the requisite intimacy that can only be derived from biographical experience, but, in fact, any other well-told life story would work as well, because the issues faced by Jack and his family are issues faced by everyone. What truly matters in The Tree of Life is the universality of human experience of which the story of Jack's family is but a single instance. For just this same reason, The Tree of Life is not essentially a narrative that presupposes Christian religious beliefs; although Jack's family is small-town Texas-American Christian, the issues that he and his family face are perennial and common to all of humanity, regardless of any specific religious standpoint.

Having set the stage with the tragedy that has enveloped Jack and his family, Malick returns to the central concern of his film--an attempt to situate the intensely personal life of the individual human in relation to the seemingly remote and impersonal cosmos and, further, to the Divine. With the image of the eternal spiritual fire of the Tree of Life again dancing in the pervading darkness, Jack's mother is heard to cry out, “Lord. Why? Where were You? Who are we to You? Answer me.” In response, Malick moves forward quickly to visually present the creation myths of our time and our culture—the account of the origins of the physical universe from the Big Bang and inflationary epoch as told by astrophysicists and cosmologists and the account of the emergence and evolution of life on Earth as told by biologists. The images that follow one after another are stunning in their beauty—representations of the Big Bang, the formation of our galaxy, our solar system, our planet in its fiery infancy. As Earth cools and the physical and chemical processes from which life issues become prevalent, Jack's mother again is heard to call out, “We cry to You. My soul. My son. Hear us.” The earliest forms of life appear in the ocean, giving way to creatures of increasingly greater complexity, jellyfish, sharks, rays, a plesiosaur, a beating foetal heart, reptiles, dinosaurs. At this point, one of the more perplexing vignettes of the film occurs when a weakened or injured parasaurolophus, an herbivore dinosaur, is seen lying on its side at the edge of a shallow river, and a larger ornithomimus, an omnivore dinosaur, approaches from a distance. The ornithomimus towers over the helpless parasaurolophus, and, expressing its dominance, places its sharp-clawed foot on the parasaurolophus's head, once, and then again. After a moment of what appears to be reflection, the anticipated attack does not take place, and the ornithomimus turns and lopes away. With this strange, unanticipated behavior from a normally rapacious creature, Malick expresses symbolically the fact that a level of consciousness has emerged amidst the evolving lifeforms on Earth that involves the capacity to make decisions or to choose between a variety of potential behaviors that include compassion, cooperation, and caregiving and nurturing of the young among the available options. Finally, as the age of the dinosaurs ends with the destruction wrought by an asteroid that crashes into Earth, we hear the mother lament, “Light of my life, I search for you. My hope. My child.” Jack is now seen briefly wandering through sand formations, and with his words, “You spoke to me through her. You spoke with me from the sky, the trees. Before I knew I loved You, believed in You, when did You first touch my heart?” and images of a water snake, a river, a massive oak tree, the first part of The Tree of Life unobtrusively draws to a close.

Whereas Malick uses the first part of The Tree of Life to take up its central concern by counterpoising the immediacy and uniqueness of human existence with the unfathomable grandeur of the eternal expressed by the cosmic vastness and complexity of the universe, he devotes the next part of the film to the intimate recounting of Jack's childhood and family life through a succession of extraordinarily detailed remembrances. By themselves, many of the vignettes of Jack's life, imagined or recalled, may seem mundane or inconsequential, but viewed as a whole, they constitute a record of the milestones reached as he progresses along his path of individuation from conception through adolescence. We witness his birth, the care and attention lavished on him, the first born, by his mother and father, and his sense of frustration and confusion when he is displaced from the center of their attention by the arrival of one, and then another, brother. We observe his growing awareness of the differences between his mother and father--one playful, accepting, loving without conditions, the other critical, demanding, enforcing boundaries and structure in his life. We see Jack growing up innocently with his brothers and their friends, climbing trees, playing in the warm dusk of a summer evening, hiding in the tall grass of the fields and exploring the banks of the river. Then we watch Jack as his awareness develops of the feminine other, first experienced through his mother, then soon the stirrings of his sexuality with his attraction to a schoolmate and to a young woman living next door. As well, we are at hand as his awareness grows of human evil, deformity, and death, expanding to include his own capacity for being destructive and hurtful.

As Jack's remembrances of his childhood unfold, the character of his mother and father and their relationships with Jack and his brothers, as well as each other, are revealed in progressively greater detail. In particular, Jack's father is shown with increasing complexity as a man whose nature is conflicted by traditional patriarchal expectations reinforced by his involvement in the post-Second World War military and later his work in the petrochemical industry, contrasted with his long-standing desire to be a “great musician”, a dream from which, in his own estimation, he had let himself “get sidetracked”. Frustrated by the need “to be loved because [he] was great” and the perceived lack of acknowledgment he receives from his employers, at home he is stern and demanding of his three sons, criticizing everything from their yard work to their table manners and, as a measure of his self-doubt, coercing from them expressions of their love for him. When he leaves the family to take an extended business trip, the three boys are ecstatic, freed from their father's constraints and subject only to the love of their mother. Their mother, on the other hand, is seemingly a much simpler and uncomplicated character, one whose manner and being are consistent with a devotion to love and to the way of Grace that she has chosen to follow throughout her life. She has an ethereal quality—at one point Jack imagines her twirling, dancing in air—that elicits unconditional love from each of her sons. Unlike Jack's father, whose negating and destructive aspects are clearly on display, we see virtually nothing that reveals the nature of his mother's Shadow.

As Jack matures, he is first disaffected from his overly-critical father, at one point wishing that God would let his father die and at another imagining killing his father himself. Then as he struggles with his first adolescent experiences of his growing sexuality and his own capacity to be destructive, deceptive and hurtful, he draws away from his mother, to whom he can no longer talk. Finally, in the wake of his father's self-examination and contrition precipitated by being forced to accept a job transfer to a different city, Jack surprisingly moves toward an identification with his father: “I'm as bad as you are. I'm more like you than her.” On the other hand, as RL matures, his talent and sensibilities remain closely associated with his mother. He is naturally artistic and musical, provoking some jealousy by both Jack and his father. He is gentle, guileless, and unwilling to fight or even to protect himself. When Jack betrays his trust and discharges a pellet rifle into his finger, RL runs away in tears, but soon he is won back by Jack's apology. Although the eventual cause of RL's death is never revealed, it is clear that given the circumstances of his childhood—a jealous, negating father and a gentle, all-enveloping mother—he might have found it impossible to acquire the requisite psychological maturity needed to defend and protect himself as an adult. Ironically, it appears to be Jack's experience of his father's Shadow that gives him the needed reference point to begin to integrate the elements of his own Shadow that have emerged as he psychologically matures.

With his family packing and leaving their home and familiar life in Waco, Jack's remembrances, which constitute the second part of Tree of Life, draw to a close, and the film returns to the present with Jack deep in thought in his office. A succession of images follows, shards of which previously had appeared, but now seen again, they have greater coherence. Jack is again in a desert environment, walking through a defile in the sand bluffs. A woman is ahead. She steps through a simple door frame placed incongruously in the desert sand and devoid of any supporting structure or any rationale for its existence. After a moment of hesitation, Jack steps over the threshold. Then rapidly the film departs the realm of human life and returns to the telling of the life-story of the cosmos. The Sun expands to the red giant stage of its life cycle, and the Earth is seen to have become a glowing cinder. We hear Jack's mother extol, “Keep us, guide us, til the end of time.” The Sun explodes in the surrounding darkness, followed by an eclipse, darkness, then figures carrying candles, a dark room with light streaming through a crack in the door, and finally Jack's mother opening the door and emerging into bright daylight. Jack follows, again in the desert, and ahead of him is his adolescent self. Jack continues his journey, walking through the desert, along a boardwalk, through a wrought-iron gate, past two bodies shrouded in white linen, again in the sand with his mother walking ahead, then through a wooden door entering into darkness. A bride lies on a simple bed. She stands and opens a door through which bright sunshine streams, and Jack crosses the threshold and walks along the sand, now at the edge of an ocean. In the shallow surf, many people are strolling, including Steve, his mother, his father, Jack's adolescent self, childhood friends, and RL. Jack embraces RL, as does his father and then his mother, and for each, their joy and gratitude is evident. A door submerged in the ocean opens, the light is dimming at the shore, a simple black mask floats in the water, then Jack's mother leads RL to the house door which opens into the desert. She watches from the door as he crosses the sand, and then she walks across the desert, attended by one and then another young woman. She calls out, “I give him to You. I give You my son.” Then, a field of sunflowers appears, gently stirred by the wind. Jack is again seen descending in the elevator of his office building. Images appear of a tree, the city, and then of Jack outside amid the concrete, glass and steel of the city. There is now peace in his countenance, giving a sense that something for him has been resolved. Finally, a massive bridge is seen spanning a large body of water, and at the end, the divine eternal flame, the Tree of Life, again appears, illuminating the surrounding darkness.

The final part of The Tree of Life is a profusely symbolic journey taken by Jack as he departs from his conscious reality and progresses into the depths of his unconscious mind. He wanders, searches, then crosses one threshold, then another, venturing further into his unconscious psyche until he arrives at the ocean's edge. He has arrived where the realm of the personal unconscious, with its memories and affects of all of the people and events that have shaped his life, begins to merge with the deeper waters of the collective unconscious. It is at these depths of his psyche that he is able to find the forgiveness and reconciliation that have eluded him since RL's death. Here the mask, the persona, is discarded. For Jack, his long-awaited reunification with RL and with his family is accomplished, and he can truly accept his brother's passing, envisioning him now as a mandalic sunflower soul rooted in eternity.

As well as the reunification of RL with his family, Jack also psychologically experiences a reconciliation between his father and mother, and because they have also borne within him the projections of the way of Nature and the way of Grace, the polarity attributed to these two ways is dispelled; Nature and Grace are no longer imagined to be polar opposites but complementary attributes of a greater unity. This attribution is reinforced by the appearance of the image of a monumental bridge at the end of the film. This image suggests that the realms of the psyche and of the material world are not ultimately separate and distinct; rather they are joined together as a greater whole, a unus mundus--a perspective that Jung had attained later in his life largely through his collaboration with Wolfgang Pauli.

Although The Tree of Life is pervaded with symbolic content that can be given a rich and deep interpretation when seen through a Jungian lens (Hockley, 2001), it is unclear whether Malick consciously created his film from a Jungian standpoint. However, the fact that the title of the film itself evokes an archetype that is represented again and again in some of the most ancient myths found throughout the world gives some weight to this possibility. A massive tree whose roots, trunk and branches stretch from the depths of the Earth up to the heavens—a tree situated at the center of the world where it forms a pillar or axis mundi that supports and separates the heavens, Earth, and the underworld—is a common motif found in mythologies ranging from ancient Mesopotamia, Israel, India, Greece, Siberia, Scandinavia and the Americas. This tree is the source of blessings, of prosperity, of immortality. It is frequently associated with the journey or quest of a hero. It is also a bridge between the planes of reality that it spans. Time and again in The Tree of Life Malick evokes this World Tree with images of the blue sky seen through the limbs of a massive oak tree in which Jack and his brothers play in their side yard, or the towering trees of Earth's Cretaceous period, or a mature tree being transplanted at a construction site. It truly is the central overarching archetype upon which the film is structured, and in the end, whether Malick has consciously drawn upon Jungian concepts to craft The Tree of Life or that it is simply the extraordinary creation of his inspired imagination really does not matter.

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