Director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life premiered ten years ago at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, winning the prestigious Palme d’Or on its way to further success on American shores. The film, which centers on the lives of a 1950s Texas family, stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, the parents of three young boys, as well as Sean Penn as a grown-up version of their oldest son, Jack. The stellar cast was just one of the reasons critics praised the film upon its release, but many other aspects—from its stunning cinematography to its deliberate direction—similarly earned critical recognition. It would go on to be nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
It’s curious, however, that one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the past decade was also one of the films most preoccupied with religious questions. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth,” reads the prologue on screen, taken from the Book of Job, which plays a central role in the film. “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
One need not be a nostalgic religious traditionalist to notice that such overt religious references have become rarer in the movies typically in contention at Cannes or the Academy Awards. What’s more, The Tree of Life was released in what in hindsight was an inflection point in American religious discourse. It came out five years after American Theocracy and six years before The Benedict Option, as liberal fears about the theocratic aspirations of the religious right gave way to conservative anxiety about the rise of an antagonistic secularism.
So how was it that, in a century characterized by rapid secularization, The Tree of Life struck such a chord in mainstream culture? That’s precisely the puzzle that the film presents to religious and secular viewers alike.
The film flashes forward and backward in time, but it begins sometime in the 1960s, showing the O’Briens learning about the death of Jack’s younger brother, R.L.. Mrs. O’Brien is devastated. Soon after she receives the tragic news, we see her wandering a forest alone, a blank expression and a few quiet tears on her face. “My hope, my God … what did you gain?”, she asks in a voiceover.
Conversely, Mr. O’Brien oscillates between a heartbreaking pain and a white-knuckled insistence that, even in the face of tragedy, he and his family are alright. One moment he cries, regretting being too tough, too demanding of R.L. The next he’s shooing neighbors away who are trying to comfort his wife, sternly thanking them, but adamantly telling them to leave.
Years later a grown-up Jack remembers his brother’s death. Now an established architect in a large metropolis, Jack is nevertheless overcome with a deep malaise, rooted in his inability to make sense of R.L.’s fate. He lights a candle on the anniversary of R.L.’s death, its light flickering as he reveals that his brother was merely nineteen when he died.
Although The Tree of Life tells the story of how a family in 1950s America dealt with the death of one of its kin, it is unquestionably much more ambitious. The film, in the words of film critic Roger Ebert, “[attempts] no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.” In attempting to do this, it explores two questions that most major religious traditions typically address: What is the relation between man and the cosmos? And how do we deal with the inevitability of suffering?
One of the most famous scenes in the movie portrays creation itself. Malick and his visual effects team present the formation of galaxies and planets, of chemicals and microbes, of oceans, mountains, flora, fauna, and eventually the appearance of sentient life, from the first invertebrates to dinosaurs and even to the O’Briens themselves.
What’s striking is that Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki succeed in drawing a connection between the creation of the world and ordinary familial interactions. Parallel sequences in the film rapidly switch between almost panoramic-wide shots (parts of the film were shot using IMAX cameras) and intimate close-ups. They are also accompanied by an exquisite repertoire of classical music, from Mahler to Mozart to Respighi. In what may be the film’s best montage, the visuals of Jack and R.L.’s births and infancy resemble those of the Big Bang. We closely see the infants’ cries and coos, their first steps, their first words, and the marvel in their parents’ eyes at their little hands and feet. Then suddenly, this vignette of images onscreen magnifies to Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau,” as Mrs. O'Brien, playfully spinning a young R.L. around, points to a majestic evening sky and tells her son, “That’s where God lives.”
The film’s profound scale is deeply intertwined with the second religiously infused question it addresses: the problem of suffering. Malick never tries to offer a justification for R.L.’s death, certainly not a divine justification. His death is never presented as part of God’s plan, and the main characters never treat it as such. But by the same token, Malick also rejects a straightforward nihilism, and doesn’t settle for understanding suffering as senseless.
What Malick offers instead is a Jobian answer. The central figure in the Book of Job was a righteous man tested by God. He lost his health, possessions, and even loved ones, eventually cursing God, asking why He had allowed such suffering to find him. God’s response is curious. He doesn’t directly answer Job’s question, but rather takes him on a tour of creation—which is precisely what Malick does as well. While at first glance The Tree of Life’s creation scenes may seem pretentious or confusing, they become clear if understood as structuring the film in a deeply religious way, anchoring it to the same questions that concerned the author of the Book of Job those many centuries ago.
In this way The Tree of Life is a modern re-telling of Job’s story, one that similarly doesn’t offer a definitive, rationalized explanation to the inevitability of suffering, but does offer a response. Toward the film’s final act, Mrs. O’Brien pleads to her sons in a voiceover to hold on to wonder and hope. It’s a brief moment, offering the last words spoken in the film before a final extended montage reminiscent of the film’s earlier creation scene. The Tree of Life responds to the problem of suffering precisely through these types of scenes, scenes that evoke awe at the vastness of both the natural world and our own contingent lives. Creation and people’s everyday lives, the film seems to suggest, are inextricable, and the vastness of creation can counter the problem of suffering by inspiring a transcendent sense of wonder.
Ten years after the release of The Tree of Life, America’s religious landscape has changed considerably. Demographically, it has been marked by a rapid secularization, by a move away from organized religion most recently on display in a Gallup poll showing less than 50 percent of Americans belong to a church, mosque, or synagogue. This is the lowest recorded figure since the polling company began tracking the question.
Intellectually, we have witnessed a deepening polarization over issues bearing on religion. Throughout the debates over same-sex marriage and subsequent concerns over religious liberty, a secular intelligentsia has often viewed religion with apprehension. It worries religion will be used as a cover for legal and social animus, especially regarding questions of gender and sexual ethics. More recently, some religious traditionalists have made the case that American society in general and elite institutions in particular—like Hollywood—are becoming irreconcilably inhospitable to organized religion. A more combative approach toward secularism, they posit, is warranted.
The critical success of The Tree of Life, however, challenges our expectations of how particular groups will react to religious messages in the public square. This profoundly religious movie was praised by a largely secular film establishment during a time when many were presumably worrying about Christianity’s influence on society. This praise defied expectations of a secular elite that was presumed to view religion ipso facto as suspect.
Pessimistically, the embrace of The Tree of Life is an exception that proves the rule. Critics were drawn to the film’s ambitious scale, which explored a myriad of other themes besides religion. They could view it as a story about gender relations between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, for example, or as Jack’s coming of age story with a cosmic twist. Some centrist and conservative commentators have pointed this out, noting that many critics praised the film while also largely missing it’s profoundly religious—and more specifically Christian—message.
Moreover, while the film explores deeply religious questions, its ultimate takeaways are largely non-prescriptive, a fact that might merely exacerbate the concerns of 2021’s countercultural religious traditionalists. Only a handful of brief scenes take place inside a physical church, for example. Instead, the film’s most religious moments are filled with shots of the natural world that evoke a Wordsworthian sense of the vastness of God.
This style might strike some as too opaque and too subtle in a cultural moment that calls for zeal to fight back against secular aggression. But as we continue to wonder whether meritocratic elites can find God, it’s worth considering that The Tree of Life may just be presenting the most viable way to explore religion for elite culture at this point in time. Among the film’s triumphs is its ability to speak a type of vocabulary that, at least for now, is largely accessible to the secular intelligentsia and religious traditionalists alike. It is non-prescriptive, yes, but it’s also confident in its appeal to a transcendent wonder over polemics and fear in a secularizing America. Ten years after its release, The Tree of Life offers the best example of a critically acclaimed movie that suggests that the answers to the questions we most yearn to ask—and often avoid—lie not within ourselves, but in the heavens.
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