The Way of the Brother: How Critics Missed the Boat on Tree of Life

N.B.: While ‘spoilers’ might be a misnomer in regard to a Terence Malick film, nevertheless a number of details of Tree of Life are revealed in the following essay. —eds. 

Since watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life a few days ago, I’ve been trailing my daughters: slowly, deliberately, unsure if I’m a cinematographer or a parent. In spite of my lifelong love of cinema (and teaching and publishing on the topic for the past decade plus), I rarely take video of my kids. Malick’s film did nothing to inspire me to press record, yet I can’t help seeing the joys and frustrations of my daughters through new goggles, some new cinematic lens that makes me both nostalgic and present, simultaneously. I’ve rediscovered a purposeful approach in my observations, a more meditative vision of the way their hair bounces when they run and skip, the way their smiles broaden across their faces in the presence of ice cream, their desires to climb, to explore, to wonder.  

Among other things it engenders, The Tree of Life magically (and I do not use that term lightly) re-imagines childhood as the nexus between paradise and fall, birth and death, lust and repression, violence and pacifism. And it re-imagines that innocent world through the lens of experience, through a knowing voiceover that constantly looks back with questions—however theologically pedestrian—about choices of good vs. evil, beneficence vs. malice, absence vs. presence. All of it is caught somewhere between the macrocosmos and microcosmos.  

Two Paths

Most critics have noted the film’s early-on pronouncement of an either/or choice down life’s path: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” The father (the masculine force, disciplinarian, the god of justice) is pit in distinction to the mother (the feminine force, compassionate, the god of mercy). Marketers have exploited this dualism, and a promotional website for the film carries the title: twowaysthroughlife.com. Comments on the film (by critics and in the comment sections of major media outlets) typically ape this dualistic proclamation.  

But as I watch my daughters play, in amiability and animosity alike, I realize The Tree of Life is not merely about parental spouses acting out nature and grace in divergence from their childrens’ lives. The film, and the reality of growing up, is also deeply about sibling relationships with each other—à la Cain and Abel, Mary and Martha, Flint and Little-Sprout, Helen and Clytemnestra, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus—which is where so many critics and observers have got the film wrong. The Father-Mother choice is there, but Malick provides a way out of the bifurcation: the way of the brother. This does not exclude the nature-grace distinction, but wraps it up in another form. And in distinction to all those old myths in which the siblings rival, fight, and kill each other, Malick’s sibling is redeemed through the other.  

Where was everyone in that crucial third (or fourth, its hard to tell) part of the film? Did they all drift off into naps, hypnotized by the lulling music? There was a third category, a synthesis, a Hegelian aufhebung, a middle way that was articulated in the narrative voiceover as that of the “brother.” The film is told primarily from Jack’s point of view, but it is his younger brother R.L. who becomes the glue to the weavings of stories.  

Indeed, the first word of the film is “brother,” and that is set up before the “nature vs. grace” distinction. Further, the final words of the film are addressed to the brother as well: “Guide us, to the end of time.” (Note: he is not talking to God here.) This third chapter is not oriented parentally but fraternally, as Jack and R.L. explore the woods with BB gun in hand, tempting (and sometimes torturing) the other, finding forgiveness, and finding in a deep way what forgiveness actually is. It is R.L. who embodied the synthesis between nature and grace, father and mother. The sibling relation is central to the film.

Between Nature and Grace 

By suggesting we see Tree of Life not in terms of a dualistic choice, but as a “middle way,” I also mean to trigger a Buddhist sensibility to the film that runs alongside the more overtly Christian one. There is no space to develop a full account of this here, but it is worth mentioning that a “Buddhist reading” is entirely plausible.

In fact, many of Malick’s films—in terms of cinematography, mise-en-scene, soundtrack, and editing—have much more in common with Korean Buddhist-themed films than they do with anything produced by his compatriots in Hollywood. I’m thinking here of Why has the Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Yong-Kyun Bae, 1989), Passage to Buddha (Sun-Woo Jang, 1994), and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, … and Spring (Ki-Duk Kim, 2003), a list that could go on. Meditative images of minute dimensions of life meet soaring soundtracks, focusing the viewers’ attention on the often overlooked.  

Beyond the style, I mention here one curious relation to the narrative of Buddhism’s origins. The Life of the Buddha tells of Siddhartha’s young existence as a prince, living in a kingdom of earthly delights. At one point in his life, he travels beyond the palace walls, and there has his “four visions.” He sees an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic. These radically change his life, becoming the sparks that lead to the renunciation of his old life and begin his spiritual journey.  

In Tree of Life, there are a couple key encapsulating scenes experienced by both Jack and R.L., and both scenes take place outside their own neighborhood. One day, as they walk through their downtown, they imitate drunken men stumbling out on the street, laughing as they go. And then they walk past a palsied man, crippling across the street. We half think (and fear) the boys might imitate him too, but they don’t. They are bewildered, and the image sinks into their minds.

The way the scene is shot makes it clear they are not being “polite” (as in having been previously told that “its not nice to make fun of other people”) but they are genuinely confronted with an image of something they can’t quite register based on past experiences. Another scene shows a boy who has drowned in the nearby public pool, his lifeless body laid on the side as the boys gaze on, clearly trying to make sense of it. No further comment is made.

To stretch this and suggest all four Buddhist visions are replicated in the film is too much, but these examples show how the imagery of suffering can have transformational value, as is intended in retelling the Life of the Buddha. These become part of the bundle of experiences that move the boys from innocence to experience. And in each scene, the boys seem to see in ways that none of the adults do.   

In Praise of Middling 

The film is disingenuous—or rather the marketing for it is. The ad campaign convinces us that there’s an either-or choice. Yes, there is the statement about choice in the beginning; between following nature or grace. But toward the end young Jack whispers, “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” There is no triumph of one over the other. And a quick glance at the older Jack (Sean Penn, in his Houston glass-and-steel temple of a skyscraper) makes it clear that grace is not coming out on top. 

One of the joys of being a parent is the chance to get back to the garden, to see the world anew, through the eyes of my children. Of course it’s never really or fully through their eyes, but only my eyes seeing through them. Like the life of a parent, Tree of Life offers a necessarily mature perspective, even if we are forced into that maturity kicking and screaming like a baby. It’s not about childhood, though it is that too. It’s not about choosing one side over the other, though the temptation is there. We parents/audience remain in the middle—in between microcosmos and macrocosmos, nature and grace, innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood.  

splate@hamilton.edu'

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. His most recent book is A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects, from Beacon Press. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.