Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and the Nature of Spiritual Consolation
Beginning with its opening quotation from the Book of Job, through its 15-minute visual history of the universe, to its cryptic conclusion, The Tree of Life invites questions about its "meaning" and the writer/director's intent. While many viewers have been puzzled, frustrated or even angered by this movie, to me it offers a simple New Age message about the nature of spiritual consolation.
The opening quote suggests that God thinks on a scale more vast than man can understand. By inserting the long sequence that begins with the Big Bang and includes the creation of Earth and life upon it, director Terrence Malick places his story within that larger context. While the O'Brien family drama consumes its members, their individual passions appear minuscule within this grand universal context. Their journey is about gaining perspective on their place within that universe, a voyage from solipsism to spiritual transcendence.
This journey is best demonstrated by Mrs. O'Brien in her efforts to reconcile profound loss with Christian faith. Early in the film, various people attempt to offer her consolation Following the death of her son R.L The grandmother rattles off platitudes: "You have your memories of him. You have to be strong now. I know the pain will pass in time," etc. Then her minister offers more rote consolation — "He's in God's hands now." In voice-over, as she turns to scripture, her doubts intrude during one of the verses: "What did you gain?" she asks God. She later wonders, "Was I false to you?" — as if there is a reason why her son has died. "Lord, why?" she finally asks. "Where were you?"
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Malick's answer is the visually stunning sequence in which he unfolds the history of the universe, exposing the comparative insignificance of her personal concerns. In the end, she emerges from her grief by giving her son over to God and the universe, recognizing that she's but a tiny part of something much larger: The Tree of Life. To appreciate the beauty and goodness of that larger whole, to feel a part of it and to rejoice in that beauty is to transcend individual pain and suffering.