Malick’s Modern Job: “The Tree of Life”


 The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal.[1]

~ Saint Augustine, Homily 2 on the First Epistle of John

More than any previous era, modern Man feels small. As astronomy presses further the boundaries of the known universe, one could say that we shrink in proportion. As our cities grow larger and our buildings seem to defy gravity, this conquest of nature leaves us estranged from it. “What is Man that you are mindful of him?” asked the ancient Psalmist under the star-studded sky that greeted him each night. “What is Man?” the modern asks, as astonishing images from Hubble reveal millions of luminaries that lie forever beyond his vision’s capacity. Only silence seems to answer us from this infinite beyond. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal.[2] Ours is an age when mankind has been put in his place, one could say. What we are learning screams “Where were you when the universe began?” Our existence appears so unnecessary, so insignificant in comparison to the vastness of time and space. Pain and suffering accentuate the sense of isolation all the more.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life addresses this alienation. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The Tree of Life begins, quoting the Book of Job as its epigraph.[3] Director Terrence Malick’s experimental film is not unlike the Book of Job in that it sets this cosmic question within the context of an individual family’s loss. God answers Job with a riddle, but he was comforted, nonetheless.  As an artistic exploration of the problem of evil and unjust suffering, Malick’s The Tree of Life is as complex and puzzling as Job’s mysteries, with meaning that encompasses and transcends every camera movement. This film provides a modern retelling of Job with stunning cinematic lyricism, one in which the wonder of existence “shines through everything.”[4]

The Tree of Life not only opens with one of the most powerful and difficult passages from the Bible, the rest of the film is to be equally as difficult, prompting the same dichotomy of reactions that a reading of Job prompts. Critic and viewer reactions alike are as varied as the reactions to the ancient poem that depicts the unjust suffering of an innocent man. As one reviewer noted, it is “the sort of film that either seizes your imagination or leaves you cold,” but “it’s not the sort of movie you leave thinking, ‘Well, that was okay, I guess.’”[5] This is attested to by the scores of articles and books that it has inspired. “The result is a beautiful, messy film: at times lyrical, intimate, and uplifting; at others, vast, inscrutable, and maddening,” wrote another reviewer. [6] One might conclude that The Tree of Life invites, even taunts its audience to wrestle with it.


The O’Brien family’s suffering provides the focal point for the film’s nonlinear narrative. Mourning for his younger brother who died at the age of nineteen, Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn) serves as Malick’s Job (with the initials J-O-B, no less) as he questions how God could have allowed it. As a highly successful architect, Jack’s alienation is palpable as he appears to merely float through his corporate existence, his outer actions being upstaged by an inner conflict over the death of his brother.  “Jack is burdened with memories,” writes Peter J. Leithart in his book Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. [12] This burden causes the estrangement and one way in which Malick depicts this is by bringing to the forefront Jack’s inner voice. “Paradoxically, memory will be Jack’s healer,” Leithart observes.[13]

In this, Malick’s Jack also functions as a type of Saint Augustine. Jack’s restless heart yearns to know how his mother, simply called Mrs. O’Brien (played by Jessica Chastain), coped with her son’s loss years before.  He pays homage to her faithfulness, too, saying “You spoke to me. Through her, you spoke to me, from the sky, the trees. Before I knew, I loved you, believed in you.” Like the fourth century Christian convert, Jack is preoccupied with searching out his memories to see God’s hand. “When did you first touch my heart?” he asks of God, echoing Augustine’s “grant me, O Lord, to know which is the soul’s first movement toward Thee.”[14],[15]

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace,” his mother tells us as the film opens.[16] The film then goes on to show these two ways, as embodied in Jack’s family, and how they collide, and cross, and complement one another. Jack’s mother and brother are the epitomai of this grace for Jack, while his perfectionist father (played by Brad Pitt) who exerts absolute control over his family, is identified with nature. At the beginning of the moving, Jack “lives his life more by nature than grace.”[17] Part of Jack’s healing will involve resolving this conflict and, like his father, he will be recalled to the wonder of existence itself.


The Film Experience defines lyricism in film as “styles that express emotion, beliefs, or some other personal position in film, much like the voice of a lyric poet does in literature.”[18] Filmic poetry is perhaps the best way to describe The Tree of Life. After the epigraph, the film begins with a series of images and voice overs that lead us to the scenes of the O’Brien family’s suffering.  Although it contains narrative elements, The Tree of Life is more like a visual poem than a particular story about a specific family. Still, it is remarkable how personal it feels in its capture of the typical American family life of the time.

The film critic Jason Solomons writes that the film “soon gives way to grass and leaves and wafting net curtains, a tumble of gorgeously tasteful images underscored by a whispered voiceover,” all of which is “trademark Malick.”[19] In this, Malick uses lyricism to explore the philosophically heavy questions raised by unjust suffering, perhaps reflecting Martin Heidegger’s (whom Malick studied in graduate school) belief that art “interrogates being, and in that very act proves that the human being transcends being in some inexplicable sense.”[20] Also, Malick combines elements in such a way to express something that Heidegger believed, namely that “the existing individual” cannot be reduced to this or that collection of properties “because, unlike physical objects, it never exists as merely present and available for categorical dissection.”[21]

Malick’s film forces these ideas about existence upon us in an array of beautiful, memory-like images that trace an important time of growth in Jack’s childhood, one which he remembers as a loss of innocence. It is significant that this loss occurred when his disciplinarian father (nature or the law) was away on business and grace through his mother ruled. In the freedom this granted, we see Jack and his brothers both enjoying life, yes, but also going wild, killing animals, hurting each other, and destroying property. In this, we see a reflection of the Garden of Eden, where one could say that law and grace both ruled.

This entire episode is bookended by stunning cinematography depicting the birth and death of the universe, again drawing the connection with Job. Every image is replete with significance, making it a difficult film to analyze, not unlike its biblical counterpart. As an audience, it forces us to slow down and ask questions of meaning: from waterfalls, fields of sunflowers, and desert wastes, to the O’Brien family garden where Jack’s father contends with nature. Nothing is wasted. Visual concepts abound in Malick’s film as images are purposefully arrayed amongst gorgeous orchestral works forming a dialectical montage that demands both close attention and abandonment, not unlike a poem or song.

The lyricism in The Tree of Life is created in numerous ways – through music, lighting, and camera movement. “The camera’s attraction to trees and sunlight bestows upon ordinary events and characters an extraordinary beauty,” writes one commentator.[22] “Malick’s camera drifts like an angel, or a ghost, rarely staying still, its images sweeping us along in an ebb and flow, washing us in the ways of nature and the ways of grace,” writes Solomons.[23] At times, the camera points away from the immediate characters to focus on nature, as if to say that it too is an important actor in Jack’s remembrances, forming a part of the answer for which he is searching his memory.

Voice-overs from Jack and his family interrogate God throughout the film. In all of Nature, man alone interrogates God, and, as Leithart remarks, “like Job, Malick seems to know that God created human beings to talk back to him.”[24] The immediate dialogue between the characters is often muted and sometimes even drowned out by the voice-overs. In this, Malick is not indicating the inconsequential nature of the day to day conversations of life, but how they might indeed be unified in our memory, coming together to form our perceptions and expectations, which we then take into these innermost questions of existence. We are formed by all of these experiences, in other words, and they, in turn, might affect our ability to have ears to hear the answer.

“Father and mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will,” says Jack. “Who are we to you?” Jack’s mother asks. Scenes of the tremendous power and magnitude of the universe’s birth are depicted in response, is if lifted from the text of Job 38 itself.


Arguably, the most controversial decision of the director was to move directly from scenes of an individual family’s suffering to the grandiose images of the creation of the universe and earth’s earliest history when life arose. Indeed, the images seem disjointed, and the juxtaposition of the two almost heartless. Yet those familiar with God’s response to Job when he dared to ask God “Why?” will immediately recognize what Malick is alluding to here.

This creation sequence has audiences and critics split on whether or not this first-ever, scientifically accurate visualization of the birth of the universe was successful. This took courage on the part of Malick, one could almost say divine-like daring. Solomons writes, “22 minutes in, The Tree of Life becomes something extraordinary … and gob smacking, requiring unbelievable … confidence from the film-maker, but also beseeching a giant leap of filmic faith from the viewer.”[25] “These aren’t special effects, these are ideas,” he astutely observes.[26]

One of these ideas in the contrast that these IMAX-level visuals set up against the dream-like segments of Jack’s life. In one, we have the clear, unimaginably powerful forces of nature creating stars and planets, and the seemingly uncontrollable fecundity of new life exploding into being on a young earth. All this brightly contrasts with the neat, tree-lined streets of 1950s America (an Eden, in many a mind), with rows of houses where neighbors compete to have the best, neatly trimmed lawns. Within the context of Jack’s memories, it shows the irony of Mr. O’Brien’s oppressive perfectionism over his lawn and his family. Like Jack, he lives by nature more than grace. Only later will he realize that he spent too much of his time trying to master nature without marveling in its glory. Towards the end of the film, he comes to the following realization: “I wanted to be loved because I was great, a big man.”[27] Echoing Job, he laments, “I’m nothing. Look. The glory around, trees, birds. I dishonored it all. Didn’t notice the glory, a foolish man.”[28] The creation sequences that surround this struggle highlight this glory all the more.

Accompanied by a haunting requiem, one in which the composer laments the loss of a friend, this sequence takes on a startling personal nature, too. Malick communicates here that Nature’s God is not immune to our sorrow. Indeed, readers of Job will remember the intimate way in which God talks about his act of creation, comparing it to giving birth, and will detect hints of this in the imagery that Malick chooses.

“Who shut up the sea with doors

when it burst forth, coming out of the womb,

when I made the storm clouds its garment,

and thick darkness its swaddling band,

when I prescribed its limits,

and set in place its bolts and doors,

when I said, ‘To here you may come

and no farther,

here your proud waves will be confined’?”[29]


Out of all the images and scenes, the most confounding seem to be the final ones in which Jack reunites with his family on a beach. Many struggle to find any meaning apart from the idea of eternity. The way in which people wander aimlessly on the beach is rather anti-climactic and even lifeless in comparison to the previous scenes of creation. Malick here seems deliberately vague in his intentions. Yet whatever they are, we get a sense that these bring peace to Jack. Leithart suggests that this vagueness is deliberate for it represents “a vision of a future reconciliation of everyone and everything, but it is only a glimpse … and through a glass darkly.”[30] Perhaps what is clearest in this sequence is the idea not only of eternal life, apart from death, something that makes any unjust suffering in this life more palatable, but also the idea of a reunion with those we love. Malick even hints at this with a view of Dallas’s famous Reunion Tower from the elevator that is carrying Jack just moments before his final vision on the beach. Grace lives on when nature dies.


Leithart writes that after this “we see Jack walk out from the glass office building that does more to deflect the glory than to admit it.”[31] Jack’s slight smile indicates that his peace has been made, and that, like his mother, he is able to let his brother go and have “restored confidence in the order of the universe.”[32] He will be reunited with him again, and this brings hope. Malick here uses the image of a field of sunflowers, who mature to permanently face towards the sun in the east, to indicate Jack’s spiritual growth.

In the end, The Tree of Life, as a complex work of art, seems to be deliberately implicit in its meaning, opening itself up to as individual a response as possible and in this, it reflects the individual human life with all of its wanderings on the varied paths of nature and grace. Indeed, one could argue that these paths are as unique as how each individual suffers, for, as the late Henri Nouwen wrote, human “brokenness is always lived and experienced as highly personal, intimate and unique” for “each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers.”[33] Perhaps this is why this work of art has elicited such varied and extreme responses. This is instructive for the Christian wishing to understand and minister to others who are suffering.

Hibbs notes that “Malick’s film is a corrective to the contemporary Christian tendency to avoid nature and science altogether.”[34] Peter J. Leithart had this to say with respect to the film’s value for the Christian: “The film is a truly astonishing achievement, an ambitious artistic exploration of questions rarely formulated by religious believers: How are we to think about cosmology, about the place of human existence in the capacious orders of time and space? What matter to us, to the universe, or to God is our occupying of a speck of seemingly insignificant space in an incomprehensibly vast universe? What we know of modern cosmology and paleontology makes the Psalmist’s question even more weighty: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’”[35]

There is not much that slows us down in this hurried life of ours. We are mostly content to allow the “river of temporal things” or Malick’s nature to rush us along, striving for survival through the next success, relationship, material item, or form of mindless, mind-numbing entertainment, “wandering around and about by ways so hard and laborious.”[36],[37] All of these carry us along, but our souls remain unsatisfied, restless, like Jack O’Brien’s. We hunger to taste grace and to feast on meaning and to understand our suffering.

Pain has a way of stopping us in our tracks, concentrating things, and forcing us out of our safe abstractions about meaning, to see how vital questions of ultimate meaning are to our ability to keep calm and carry on. Agony has a way of stopping time, making us acutely aware our temporality and the causal chains that constrain us. The anniversary of his brother’s death did this for Jack, as did the loss of a job had done for his father earlier.

True to the spirit of the Book of Job, The Tree of Life does not present us with a tidy theodicy, all neatly packaged in a little box with the loose-ends tied and hidden away. Instead, it forces us to see our suffering within the context of God’s works on a grander scale and reminds us of the wonder of existence itself. In depicting the creation as a birth that is recapitulated time and time again on all points along the spectrum – from the grandest of galaxies to the feeblest of human lives – like Job, The Tree of Life teaches us that God is far more powerful that we can imagine and His universe is rich with meaning and purpose beyond our imagination. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for us.” Wonder helps us cope with existence and suffering – wonder puts us in our place and teaches us true greatness.

Malick’s artistic consideration of the place of human suffering within the vast cosmos provides Christians a visual reminder that the best theodicies are ones which, like Job, direct us to put our hands over our mouths and grieve in silence alongside those that grieve, for that grief itself is a pointer to our God.

And we do not mourn as those without hope. 


[1] Augustine, “Homily on I John 2:14-16,” New Advent,, accessed July 6, 2017.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, (London:  Penguin books, 1995), 66.

[3] Job 38: 4,7: The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick (River Road, 2011), accessed June 22, 2017,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Matt Zoller Seitz, “Your guide to Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,”  Salon, July 11, 2011, accessed July 1, 2017,

[6]Christopher Orr, ‘The Tree Of Life’: A Beautiful, Lyrical Mess, The Atlantic, June 3, 2001, accessed July 1, 2017,

[12] Peter J. Leithart, Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013) Kindle Edition, p. 65.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.

[15] Augustine, Confessions, 2nd ed., trans. F.J. Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006), 4.12.18.

[16] The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.

[17] Peter J. Leithart, Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, 62.

[18] The Film Experience, 305.

[19] Jason Solomons, “The Tree of Life – review,” The Guardian, July 9, 2011, accessed on July 1, 2017,

[20] McGrath, 122.

[21] Ibid., 1.

[22] Thomas S. Hibbs, “A Story From Before We Can Remember: A Review of the Tree of Life,” First Things, July 9, 2011, accessed July 1,2017,

[23] Solomons, “The Tree of Life – review.”

[24] Peter J. Leithart, Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, 31.

[25] Solomons, “The Tree of Life – review.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Job 38: 8-11, ESV.

[30] Peter J. Leithart, Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, 86.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Peter J. Leithart, Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, 86.7.

[33] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 2008), 87.

[34] Thomas S. Hibbs, “A Story From Before We Can Remember: A Review of the Tree of Life.”


[36] Augustine, “Homily on I John 2:14-16,” New Advent,, accessed July 6, 2017.

[37] Augustine, Confessions, 2nd ed., trans. F.J. Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006), 4.12.18.

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