Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, in its broadest sense, transposes the gospel narrative. Through three stories that together cover creation, fall and redemption—specifically via Jesus Christ as a didactic church scene suggests—the film ultimately states that humankind can only find hope and life in a reconciled relationship with creator God. Within the metanarrative, though, live countless themes and ideas which enhance and flesh out the greater story being told. The concept of suffering and the significance of family may be the most prominent of these elements.
However, after stepping away from Malick’s masterpiece for some months, I’ve found myself continually pondering the characters of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, father and mother. According to the opening sequence, they represent two ways of life: the way of nature and the way of grace. Such symbolism becomes obvious throughout the film, but in the same way, I would argue that beyond that representation, the two characters also signify two distinct natures of God—in the way that Jack comes to understand Him and, arguably, Malick.
The most apparent reading of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien considers them opposites. Mrs. O’Brien, played by a beatific Jessica Chastain whose fair skin and soft voice invoke purity, seems to signify all that is right in the world. She is kind, patient, sweet and, more than anything, selfless in her love for her husband and kids—the way of grace.
Her husband, a stern Brad Pitt, emerges as just the opposite. In a voiceover at the beginning of the film, he’s described as controlling, proud and self-seeking—the way of nature. And as we get to know him better, we discover that those descriptions ring very true. Before his oldest boy, Jack, goes to bed, Pitt’s character doesn’t tell his son he loves him. Instead he asks: “Do you love your daddy?” The gesture implies his own motivation and desire to be loved and praised.
It’s easy and probably correct in some ways to think of the characters as mere representations of two very different human beings—in a Christian context, fallen and redeemed man—or two very different ways through life. Following my first viewing, I certainly couldn’t see past that conclusion. I thought that surely Malick—being the spiritual and philosophical artist that he is—is revealing the greater problem of humanity: our depravity and desperate need of a savior. I still believe he’s doing that and to some degree through the portrayal of the father and mother. I just don’t believe it’s the only purpose behind their characters.
Throughout the film, we hear Jack pray to God, but sometimes those prayers seem directed toward his father and mother. In the opening sequence, he muses to himself: “Mother, father, always you wrestle inside of me.” Even more, when one of his young friends dies in a swimming accident, Jack pleads with God, asking Him how He could let a little boy die. Jack goes on to accuse his creator of being unjust and wrathful. While his words certainly resonate with so many of us who at some point in our lives have become overly burdened by this dark world, they also sound nearly identical to the language used to describe his father.
Moreover, overwhelmed by his friend’s death and the confusions of his life, young Jack asks God in a prayer: “Why should I be good if you’re not?” Blurring the line even further between Mr. O’Brien and God, these words insist upon the idea that there is an indefinable part of God that almost seems contradictory, like the idea that “He [both] gives and takes away.” The same connection can be made with Mrs. O’Brien’s character, too. She’s certainly unlike her spouse, but likewise, her loving and graceful presence makes for a reflection of the same God as seen in a different light.
As characterized in Jack’s parents, the two natures can then be understood not only as the “two ways through life,” but moreover the two natures of God. It can definitely be argued that Jack views God this way—at least as a child—and in the same vein, it can be inferred that Malick views—at least at some point in his life he did—God this way, as well. Now this obviously isn’t the conclusion that most people want to share since it seemingly paints God as both conflicted and, in another sense, just plain cruel. The film, however, doesn’t end there. Mr. O’Brien’s character must be further examined to truly comprehend the extent of his cruelty or, as it turns out, the lack thereof.
From the perspective of Jack, his father appears strict, demanding and ultimately self-centered in the desire for his family to love him. But if we step away from that perspective, despite its influence on the narration of the film, we start to realize that even though Mr. O’Brien is still in many ways self-seeking, he desperately loves his wife and kids. He wants to provide for them. He wants to make sure they’re safe. He wants to instill in them values and virtue. He, moreover, wants the best for them even if it sometimes requires taking away their momentary happiness and pleasures. It’s when we start to see Mr. O’Brien in this manner that we begin to see him as a representation of God and, perhaps, a God whom we can love and respect.
Still, such a reading doesn’t cover every characteristic and action of Mr. O’Brien. We still have his bitterness and fits of rage, specifically a dinner scene in which he becomes somewhat violent when his son disrespects him out of rebellion. When I first saw this scene, it caused me to feel upset. It made me angry. Just like Jack desires, it made me want to retaliate against him.
Yet, again, when stepping back to see the scene through a broader lense, I’m not sure I have a lot of trouble with it. He’s tried to be patient with his boys, and we can certainly assume that they’ve been unruly in the time leading up to dinner. After all, these are the same kids who we later see break windows, shoot each other with pellet guns, and tie frogs to firecrackers and send them “to the moon.” Is there really anything unjust about his anger and desire for them to submit to his authority? Likewise, when we as humans refuse to obey the will of God, doesn’t He have every right to become enraged?
Through Jack’s relationship with his father, Malick surely parallels humanity’s relationship with the heavenly Father, particularly the part of His nature that many struggle to accept and understand, His fatherly attributes—that which involves authority, power and control. In doing this, he essentially addresses the universal question of how a loving God could allow such pain and suffering. The film goes on to answer the question in a two-fold manner:
First, the words of Job and a magnificent creation sequence answer the question with another question: who are we to question our Creator? Where were we when He laid the foundations of the world? This response insists upon the arrogance of the stance and the tininess of humankind in relationship to a sovereign and perfectly wise God.
Second, the correspondence between Mr. O’Brien and God—the side of Him that most people write off as mere Old Testament behavior—goes even further by demonstrating how and why such darkness might be permitted to exist in a world controlled by a God of light. Mr. O’Brien is by no means perfect and not always a correct representation of God, but as a whole, we come to understand his strict, disciplinary actions as motivated by a love for his children and a yearning for their trust and surrender. Thus, a connection between Jack’s understanding of his father and our understanding of our heavenly Father emerges, and we not only come to see Mr. O’Brien differently, but also God and His sovereignty over all of creation.
In the end, of course, it’s impossible to completely marry the character of Mr. O’Brien with a particularly nature of God. To do that, we would be forced to not only put The Tree of Life in a box, which is certainly not where it belongs, but we would also be forced to conclude that God is in some way imperfect. At the same time, though, when it comes to the more self-seeking characteristics—such as the desire for his name to be praised—of Mr. O’Brien, I’m almost convinced that Malick is asking us to look for those same characteristics in God.
For some, that might be disheartening as so many refuse to believe that God would be for anyone besides us—humanity. For me, it’s comforting because if God wasn’t for God, ultimately seeking His own glory and praise, I don’t think He would be God. Plus, if I can trust that He is simultaneously loving and full of grace—a nature displayed through Mrs. O’Brien—I can, like Jack does with his father, eventually trust that He isn’t after my grudging submission but instead my obedience and, thus, joy.