#GODonFILM: Interpretations of The TREE of LIFE

Today’s post is from a guest blogger, friend, and fellow Regentarian, Desirée de Jesus. Desiree is a film theologian and philosopher working in Europe right now, and so I’m glad to have found similar conclusions to her about The Tree of Life (particularly how the brother is the key element to the narrative). Here’s her take on the Tree of Life:


Terrence Malick is something of an enigma.  A philosopher-cum-filmmaker, Malick guides his viewers through cinematic meditations suffused with emotionally evocative imagery and sequences that create space for the contemplation of philosophical and theological notions about the tensions of the lived experience.  From Badlands (1973) to The New World (2005), Malick’s films probe the consequences of relational rupture within a world that has lost its innocence, and his most recent film The Tree of Life, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival continues this discourse, albeit through unconventional narrative means.

The Tree of Life is an ambitious exploration of the human condition as embodied by the O’Briens, a family living in a small, idyllic town during the American golden age of the 1950’s. Much of the film presents an Edenic landscape of childhood memories of freedom and adult-imposed constraint through the eyes of Jack, the film’s central character. The dynamism and myopia of the camera’s movement and placement offers an immersive cinematic experience that recalls the often complicated transition from childhood to adolescence.  And yet, this is not a straightforward coming-of-age film.  Rather than the conventional plot-driven, character development of popular Hollywood films, The Tree of Life situates this family’s story within the grand narrative of the birth of the universe and the evolutionary development of Earth’s living organisms. Some may find the heavy symbolism and Heideggerian visual poiesis of this particular style of storytelling too unconventional for their liking, but I’d like to suggest that the formal qualities of the film can offer interpretive insights that will help make sense of the narrative and illuminate theological themes. Let’s just look at a couple of them.

While this is not always the case, most of Malick’s films feature the use of voice-over narration during their prologues.  Although they initially appear irrelevant to the story progression, I think that the first words spoken supply the film’s thematic framework and ground the visual juxtaposition of what some film theologians refer to as “echoes of transcendence.” In this prologue, after the passage from the book of Job fades to black, the slow emergence of an isolated flame-like shape is accompanied by the whispered utterance of the word “brother.” Without giving too much away, the word “brother” not only functions as the central relational focus of the film (as it is the catalyst for the subsequent narrative flashbacks), but also as an invitation for the viewer to consider his (or her) shared loss of innocence personally, interpersonally, and in relation to the Fall.  For the film’s jump cuts and lyrical tone collaborate to create an immersive ontological event that evokes the recollection of our own childhood experiences; thus reinforcing the notion that this particular loss of innocence is an endemic aspect of creaturely life on Earth since the beginning. But this is not a meditation in which God is absent.  Rather, by using a visual rhetoric of light suggestive of the presence of God, Malick’s aesthetic seeks to depict some of God’s immanence, transcendence, and mystery within the natural world. The additional layer of visual subtext represented by the presence of windows throughout the film offers another opportunity to contrast the omniscience of God and the myopic, temporally bound human perspective. In fact, when I think of the film’s “message” in this way, it helps me to make more sense of a cinematic structure that on the surface appears to be the joining of two largely different films.

Of course, there are many other themes and ideas that can be mined from The Tree of Life, but I hope that my brief analysis of the film has offered you another avenue for theological and philosophical engagement, and maybe even encouraged you to give the film a second viewing.


Desirée de Jesus is finishing her MA degree in Christianity & the Arts at Kings College London.  For her dissertation, she is placing the films of Stanley Kubrick in dialogue with the early Church Fathers and modern philosophers.  She is also interested in genre studies (westerns & sci-fi), film phenomenology, film theory, and star studies.



If you’ve seen the movie, how does this resonate with your interpretation?

Is there an interpretation?

What is this movie about, really?

Published by Wayne Park

Asian-American clergyman thinking about issues of faith, place, race and culture-making in the vast city of Houston, TX

9 thoughts on “#GODonFILM: Interpretations of The TREE of LIFE

  1. The film definitely seems to have several layers to it. Quite honestly, my simpleton mind was probably too focused on the visual images and expecting to see/hear the normal “angry dad” cliches but i was pleasantly surprised by the humanization (is this a word?) of the father character by revealing to the audience his sincere and loving heart. Initially walking out of the theater, i was completely confused by what i saw and knew there was a ton of symbolism that went way above my head, but after hearing PW break it down some and then hearing Desiree’s post above…it does kinda motivate me to watch it again sometime. But yeah…watching Kung Fu Panda 2 one week and then watching this 6 days later has my head spinning.

  2. I wish that I had the sort of life which allowed me to watch movies in the theatre and not wait until their later release in some sort of home viewing format (DVD or streaming). As it is, I have three kids and my wife and I have no friends so babysitting is out. Someday I will see this film and see for myself how incisive and insightful Desiree really is! Until then I take her analysis on good faith.

      1. Hyperbolic statement which names reality as more pitiful than it is. But the fact of the matter is I am a recent resident of Blaine, WA and finding free babysitting is increasingly difficult as we know few people here. Paying for babysitting, makes a movie kind of expensive. So usually we wait until the kids are asleep and find something to watch or read.

    1. i think it helps to know what to look for going in to it; IMO the climax and high points of the movie are so subtle that it only came to me afterwards, discussing it w/ friends

  3. So finally got around to watching this last night (hence my comment on a rather old post). I really appreciate Desirée’s insights into this. The other early voice over which plays throughout the film is the mother sharing how she learned from the nuns she needed to choose between grace and nature. Grace lays down rights but those who choose grace do not come to a bad end. Malick cuts from this sequence to a situation of real pain in the lives of the central characters (and the large cosmic sequence which points to what ultimately lies beyond our grasp).

    But the whole Nature versus Grace theme plays out in the relationship of the Mom and the Dad with their sons. The mother is gracious, the father is stern and repeatedly chides his sons that if they want to succeed in life they need to fight, and ambitiously make their way in the world. The father comes to see his position as bankrupt and the character of Jack is caught between nature and grace.

    The closing sequence of the movie (which I don’t quite understand) also seems to capture something of the ultimate triumph of Grace. Malick’s use of Job seems to underscore that though we may suffer and have pain and lose in life, but in the ultimate teleological sense, Grace wins.

    I am intrigued by the brother references throughout the film because much of the narrative seems to be addressed to ‘brother’ while some of it most naturally seems addressed to God. Is God Big Brother, our brother or does the narration’s addressee vacillate between God and the fallen brother? Ultimately, I think Malick is trying to leave this open and suggestive and not tie it down too tightly but I hear Christological implications.

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