Nature and Grace: Dichotomies in Malick’s Tree of Life

Tree of life Requium

There is a line in the film Tree of Life, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” This motif– an inner struggle between waring subjectivities, dichotomies –runs throughout the film, and it’s closely related to the greater theme of the story, which is in the opening monologue, “The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life– the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.”

The Tree Of Life: Way Of Nature, Way Of Grace from Otto on Vimeo.

The story is among the heaviest, darkest, yet most illuminating spiritual meditations that I have come across in recent years. This story weighs heavily, hits close to home, and I’m certain many others feel the same way. Malick’s style, like a deluge of river rapids (which, is a prevalent image in the film), is not necessarily inviting. For these reasons I think it’s the type of film that either someone won’t understand on any level, or is entirely subdued by.

Spirituality in the film is heavily informed by Christian theology, but it’s not at all dogmatic. In fact, the story stands as an indictment of steadfast and blind ideology. Dogma– social, theological, familial, cultural dogma –is decidedly an antagonistic factor in the life of the central family, the O’Briens. The family is particularly white, suburban, middle class, the archetypal Texas American dream, sans only white picket fences. However, this family, a token of American pride and sensibility, is fragile, inherently susceptible to it’s own weight. It only takes something so paltry as a telegram, which the mother receives at the end of the clip, to level the family, disintegrate it.

Roots of conflict are seeded in the hearts of the three O’Brien children, but the eldest boy, Jack, is most directly effected. His struggle, the war of dichotomies, factions of subjectivity, nature and grace, is ignited by dogmatism, fueled by immense histories, the ever echoing voices of his family, his mother and father, their cultural legacies that remain a constant din inside of him. “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” As we follow him on his journey through the annals of boyhood we are forced to ponder our own histories, the legacies of the many journeys that led to our being. Jack bears the weight of these legacies, but he cannot escape his growing suspicions about patriarchal control and matriarchal peace. He watches his father, keenly, studying, his eyes narrowed. He searches his father for evidence of either humility or malice, though is convinced of neither. “Do you love your father?” he is asked, to which he responds with only the certainty of condition, familial dogma.

And yet, Jack is drawn to the promise of strength he sees in his father. He finds solidarity in simplicity, a momentary calming of the factions inside of him. As all boys must attempt at some point, Jack indulges in the violence within him and redirects it outward, essentially relinquishing himself of it. However, Jack’s younger brother, known simply as R.L., presents a challenge to the violence. Jack recognizes that he has followed a path to nature because his brother has followed a path to grace. “Hit me son,” his father challenges, and Jack obliges. “Come on, hit me,” his father then says to his brother, but his brother is reluctant.

Jack wonders about the separation between nature and grace. “Always you wrestle inside of me,” he says. He constantly finds himself on the side of nature while praying, “help me to be good.” At one point violence swells within him. He happens upon his father who is underneath the family Buick for repairs. He walks up and his father quietly, but sternly points at him, dismissing him. Jack then walks around to the rear where the car-lift is positioned. He stares at the wrench for a moment, then walks away. The implication is that Jack momentarily considers knocking the wrench loose to let the car drop onto his father. This is an experience that all boys must have, testing the boundaries of love and anger and the willingness to forfeit one or the other.

Nature, and grace. One defined by the other. The war continues. Much as Jack must face his suspicions and fears, we too have no choice but to realize that, regardless of whether we scale the highest, most remote and frozen peaks, find ourselves lost and hidden in metropolitan back alleys, or are adrift in an unmeasured sea, that inner war will wage. It is inescapable. And so, Jack discovers that there is no boundary between nature and grace. The line that he may arbitrarily draw between past and present does not exist, the two are simultaneous, are not independent. And the war continues into his adulthood, boundaries between factions blurred.

“Feel like I’m bumping into walls,” he says, “Any how, it’s all about your career. But I don’t understand anything.” The way of nature, the way of commerce, hierarchies, architects of industry, resources, exchange. Facsimiles of order. The way of grace, the way of restless imagination, culture, messy harmonic resonance, ideas, humility painfully gained. Facsimiles of beauty. These are all uncertain terms, but we are somehow expected, conditioned even, to simply take them for granted, to commit ourselves to them, without question. Just as each member of the O’Brien family must, we too seek to shrink into the obscurity of nature as a refuge from the tumult, the disorder of grace. And so, we justify our sacrifices in order to fortify our security, equating substance and sustenance, though, we have only confused the two.

The father of the story, Mr. O’brien, fortifies himself and his family with the pleasantries and minutia that have been handed to him through cultural dogma, and he’s come to depend on them. Tithing, skilled work, prayer, discipline, tenacity, a smile and a hand shake, fatherly advice, all tenets of a ‘good man.’ However, as his priest, Father Hayes, cautions in a sermon, “Misfortune befalls the good as well.”

The Tree Of Life: Job from Otto on Vimeo.

After all, what is our place in nature if not a single point in a long chain of cause and effect, linearity where, of course, there is no boundary between the past and future? We do not exist presently, and so we are free of the obligation to actively navigate this phenomena we call our lives, the tempest of the present. Instead, we abstain. It’s easy to retreat into the comfort of nature– a human being. Yet, we recognize it as perdition only too late. At some point we stop planning for the future and reluctantly accept the finitude of the time that we are given. We desire to “be loved because [we are] great.” We are saddened, having “lived in shame,” wondering why we had never risked ourselves for our only passions– a human doing. Desperate, we then seek forgiveness in grace yet cannot seem to resolve a lifetime of fear. We have passively accepted our life having never actively created, or engaged it. We stand at the precipice and peer over the edge, frightful because we see nothing whatsoever below, nothing to make sense of, nothing to verify the separation between above and below, our curiosity beckons us toward self-destruction, to jump, yet we are paralyzed. The burden of guilt, and the endless war.

The Tree Of Life: Life’s Work from Otto on Vimeo.

There is, however, only one thing that silences the war– grief. Utter, and complete loss. In grief all questions narrow, metamorphose into “Why?” There is no dogma steadfast enough to justify the loss that the O’Brien family experiences. Jack also watches his mother, attempts to see through her eyes as she asks “Lord, why? Where were you?” Here he discovers the weight of history. Through her eyes he sees the cause and effect of nature, that all things manifest are inevitable. He sees that loss is inescapable. “Answer me,” she begs. As we understand early in the film because of the telegram Mrs. O’Brien receives, the family has peered over that precipice and saw nothing where they were told they would see God. They are cautioned, though, “does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away?…Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?”

The Tree Of Life: Lacrimosa from Otto on Vimeo.

However deep her suffering, Mrs. O’Brien continues to be a beacon of grace for Jack. He hears her pain, “We cry to you, ‘My soul, my son.’ hear us,” but he carries her voice with him into his adulthood. Her voice is the memory of the times he and his brothers play in the river, the memory of his birth, family dinners, afternoons spent cradled in her lap on the river bank. From the expenses of the past grace reaches out to him, and he hears her voice, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

The Tree Of Life: Love from Otto on Vimeo.

All the skepticism, the tumult, is quieted. Just as Jack has begun to forfeit his tendencies toward nature and begin to accept the way of grace through his family’s loss, we are invited to ponder our own griefs, many as they are. Is there any refuge from grief, and what does it mean to be redeemed? Do we forgive for the sake of love and happiness? “You spoke to me through her,” he says, her voice echoing from the past and beyond even his own recollection. “Lacrimosa,” or “weeping,” resounds from long before even the Earth was formed. The tragedy of his family, it’s grief, is felt long before its own cohesion. He knows this, and asks, “When did you first touch my heart?” The way of nature, though, points in one direction, the direction he will ultimately choose, a path that leads to grace.

The Tree Of Life: Questions from Otto on Vimeo.

And so, whatever Malick’s motivations, he invites us all to heed Jack’s story, embrace our grief, our inner dichotomies, and quiet those factions, to realize that our struggles are far greater than the sum of our selves, so that we can move towards grace.