The Whole and Every Grain of Sand

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead


It’s been over ten years now,
but I still remember the way it felt to walk back into the world after watching The Tree of Life for the very first time. It was an old feeling, or perhaps a very young one—a simple curiosity and awe at everything all around me, at everything simply existing. I looked at trees and listened deeply to sounds and silences; I took in the sky and thought about eternity. I felt almost indescribably small but at the same time connected with much larger things, the way I used to feel walking out of church as a kid, back when I still believed with all my heart. But this time, I was walking out of a movie theater. 

The Tree of Life has this effect on many viewers. The cumulative experience of Terrence Malick’s fifth and greatest film is simply overwhelming: It’s at once the director’s most grandly epic film—moving from the literal origin of the cosmos to the far distant “shore of eternity” at the end of time—and the most intimate, autobiographical tale Malick has ever told, its central narrative tracing a childhood that echoes many of the details and characters from his own. Toggling between the universal and the specific within a kind of symphonic structure, The Tree of Life builds an ethereal, impressionistic sense of movement and time that ebbs and flows like a memory or a dream, eliding many of the normal narrative dictates of plot in favor of immersing us in what it feels like to move through a life, while also anchoring its perspective of our brief time on earth sub specie aeternitatis—in the light of eternity. Or, as Malick himself wrote near the end of his initial draft of the screenplay, “The whole of the picture has been a sifting. The chaff flies away, the kernel remains. Something lives in you that shall outlast the stars.”

*

Nestled within The Tree of Life is a smaller film all its own, a near perfect 13-minute sequence that manages to capture—almost entirely through music, movement, and montage—the love and grace through which a child enters, and gradually comes to know and experience, the world.

It starts just over 35 minutes into the film, as the opening strings from Respighi’s “Siciliana Da Antiche Danze Ed Arie Suite III” lilt onto the soundtrack, the camera hovering in on Jessica Chastain’s pale, luminous face as it breaks into a smile. Having spent the previous 15 minutes taking us through literal eons of time—from the origins of the known universe to the earliest emergence of humanity—Malick’s narrative narrows its scope considerably, focusing his ever-moving camera on a young couple lying on a picnic blanket in small-town 1950s Texas, falling in love. 

In the space of 30 seconds of screen time, the man (Brad Pitt) and woman (Jessica Chastain) have courted and coupled and are happily expecting their first child. He gently rubs her swollen stomach, putting his ear up against her belly and listening. There’s a look of wonder in his eyes, a softness and curiosity we don’t really see from him at any other point in the film.

A new story, Jack’s story, is about to begin. And, at least to Malick’s eye, that’s every bit as miraculous and worthy of attention as the formation of the entire universe.

After Jack is born, we see scattered, impressionistic fragments of his early years, almost entirely from his point of view: resting contentedly on his mother’s shoulder, crawling under a table, learning to walk, looking through books, playing with a favorite stuffed animal, trying to make sense of a new baby brother, his mother twirling him around in the backyard. Each image and synchresis, each shot and edit and transition, allows us to experience these moments in a deep, sensory way that few films ever reach. We feel each of these moments as they accumulate in a familiar kind of rhythm, as if gathered from our own hearts, our own stories. 

Which is, of course, the point. “The ‘I’ who speaks in this story is not the author,” Malick says in the preface to his initial draft, “rather he hopes that you might see yourself in this ‘I’ and understand this story as your own.” 

*

Often, when I notice myself coming apart at the seams a bit more than I wish to—which, considering the past 19 months spent in pandemic life, has been rather a lot—I’ll turn to the strange, melancholy comforts of deep time. It’s a stoic, contemplative space once I can get there, a place where everything finally slows down. Thinking about the 800 million years that Earth existed without any form of life on it at all, or the 4,599,800,000 years it existed before human beings showed up, has a way of shifting one’s perspective rather quickly. 

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the frenetic, destabilizing, lonely rhythms of modern life; the chaotic 24/7 news cycle, the constant daily dribs and drabs of anxiety and dread, a deep worry about our country, our environment, about the world as a whole. It’s so easy to mistake now for forever. In our rush to get everything done we lose sight of deep time, of Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar, of the eternal; we forget that this world is an ancient one, that it was here long before us and will be here long after we’re gone. We forget how insignificant most things are, how insignificant we are, ultimately, in the grand scheme of things. We’re here on this little rock with no real idea of why, and only the vaguest ideas of how, but still, in spite of all of that, we have lives to live and people to love and stories to tell. And the best kind of stories, the kind we need far more of, are the ones that keep us connected to the mystery of it all, reminding us that every single living thing is actually its own kind of miracle. Because when you look at it that way, you can’t help but fall in love.

The antidote to the soul-draining nature of modern life, then, is a film like The Tree of Life. Something that resets our dial, reminding us that everything matters and nothing matters, that our world is impossibly old and unfathomably large but only ever experienced through small, everyday moments. Terrence Malick sees miracles almost everywhere, and has been preaching his gospel—through a felt-sense of visuals, voiceovers, and classical music—for nearly 50 years. The Tree of Life, like life itself, requires a certain kind of patience, as well as an openness to experience and a trust in its directorial hands. But if you’re willing to invest your time, and your heart, it pays out tenfold with a humbling sense of wonder and awe. 

*

So, what is The Tree of Life about exactly? Well, in one sense, it’s kind of about everything. Its narrative map is essentially sorted into four movements—each with its own meaning, shape, and purpose—each remaining in conversation with the whole, the overall symphony of experience Malick is conducting. Visual, musical, and thematic motifs repeat and echo throughout; everything is a part of everything else. “He was interested in a non-narrative style,” Paul Ryan, a cinematographer working on the film, told Bilge Ebiri in 2016. “The cinematic equivalent of how, say, Beethoven had structured his symphonies.” 

In most symphonies, the first movement is in sonata form, featuring two distinct themes—sometimes referred to as the masculine and feminine melodies—one typically bold and vigorous, the other quieter, more softly expressive. The first movement often contains an introduction, followed by exposition, development, and a return to the original themes in a slightly different way. If you need any further proof that Malick intended The Tree of Life to be a kind of cinematic symphony, look no further than how he structures his own opening scenes.

The film begins with a quote from the Book of Job, followed by an undulating, orange-yellow cosmic light, an enigmatic image which, depending on your own perspective and history, might represent any number of things (though given Malick’s own worldview, it likely represents God/The Creator), and which will repeat at various points throughout the film, signaling a transition to a new movement within the narrative. We hear a man’s softly whispered voice in voiceover, speaking to this mysterious light: Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door. 

The light fades out and John Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle”—a mournful, somber dirge—rises over a montage of images, and a new voice, that of Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain), gives voice to the film’s central tension:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, when love is smiling through all things.

As she speaks about the way of Grace, we see images of her as a child, and then as an adult, a mother of boys. When the voiceover arrives at the way of Nature (Nature only wants to please itself), Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) appears on-screen for the very first time, sitting down at the dinner table. The melodies, or the battle lines such as they were, have been drawn—and Malick will spend the rest of his film trying to resolve them. 

*

The Tree of Life is built upon dualities, opposing forces and impulses in conflict with one another—the way of Nature and the way of Grace being perhaps the most obvious one, highlighted and underscored as it is, though it’s certainly not the only one to be found. If anything, Malick builds dualities on top of dualities, layering his opus with the kind of existential double binds most of us spend our entire lives wrestling with and trying to work out. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Why does suffering exist? How do we navigate loss? How do we go on? What is all of this?

But rather than attempting to resolve any of these unanswerable questions, Malick simply posits or portrays them—or at times, has characters speak them directly in voiceover, pitched halfway between a whisper and a prayer—while, to paraphrase Rilke, encouraging us to love the questions. Because, while there may be no good answers to assuage our deepest fears or scratch our existential itches, The Tree of Life seems to suggest that taking in and loving this world for what it is, while also engaging with these deep mysteries, is exactly how you grow and shape a soul. “Live the questions now,” Rilke advised his fellow poet more than a century ago. “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

It’s tempting to try and figure out, to really try and nail down, how Malick is doing what he’s doing here. So many people have spent so many years writing about the film, looking for ways to try and capture a thing that words simply can’t capture. And believe me, I’ve tried too, a lot. But somewhere along the line, doing so came to feel almost entirely beside the point. Figuring out a magician’s trick is usually only momentarily satisfying, stealing something far greater in return: the chance to believe in a world where magic can simply exist. 

The best filmmakers—or, at least, my favorite ones—tend to imbue their movies with a distinctive vibe, a heartbeat or rhythm or flow that runs throughout their films. It’s not something you notice so much as something you sense, that certain something (or perhaps an alchemy of somethings) that makes a film feel like a film from Scorsese or Kubrick or Anderson or May. The movies might not always work, but it’s hard to ever mistake them for anybody else’s. And Terrence Malick’s entire body of work is perhaps the most distinct, recognizable, and unique of any American filmmaker working over the past 50 years—each and every film, from Badlands to A Hidden Life, always and unmistakably, his own. 

And while he’s made several masterpieces (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and A Hidden Life) and a handful of less successful films (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song), The Tree of Life feels like the culmination of all Malick had been building towards for 40 years, working at the peak of his powers on a project that obsessed him, in one form or another, for most of his career. 

*

Imagine a time when all of this is over. When you can finally stop trying, stop struggling. Imagine a place where you can lay all your burdens down. Where your loved ones, from various ages, surround you in embrace, in a kind of chorus of celebration and relief. You’ve arrived at the end, and can finally see how the whole of your life was always a part of this whole, too, one small but important string in a chain of creation that extends backwards and forwards forever. Your journey is complete, and it ends in love.

This is how The Tree of Life ends, the only way it could end really, at the end of everything. Plenty would argue with me—even among the film’s biggest fans, Malick’s “shores of eternity” coda is often minimized or derided—but without this section, without leaving us in this place, it would be a lesser film. The previous scene, with the O’Brien family moving away from the home that anchored the film’s central narrative, would have made a perfectly fine ending, at least in a typical film. But it wouldn’t transcend anything. And Malick, throughout the entirety of the film—and throughout his entire 40 year journey with it—was clearly always driven to try and capture the eternal, to find a way toward transcendence. Anything less than taking us to the very end of time would have felt like a noble swing, but ultimately, a miss.

So instead of ending his film with the O’Briens moving away from the family home, we jump forward to the present, to adult Jack—his childhood reflections at an end—sitting alone in a skyscraper among skyscrapers, looking out over a cold, sterile, soulless landscape. He steps into an elevator and winds up in a desert, whispering Brother in voiceover and following a woman whose face we never see, but who appears to be his mother. He comes to a simple, wood-framed door in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rocks and empty space. The film has come full circle from its opening lines (Brother…Mother…It was they who led me to your door). He eases up to the door, tentatively, unsure. And then he walks through.

The screen cuts to black and then, just as he showed us the creation of the universe earlier in the film, Malick now shows us its end. We flash forward billions of years. The sun expands and becomes a red giant, as all stars must some day do, destroying the earth, before shrinking into a white dwarf, having exhausted all of its nuclear fuel and thermal energy. “Follow me,” a young Jack’s voice speaks in voiceover.

We return to the desert, where Jack finds his younger self and follows him through the rocky landscape, passing through more doorways and openings—an inverse echo of those he passed on his way to being bornand eventually, a ladder pointed up at the sky. The film cuts to Jack’s mother, the way she looked when he was young, reaching down her hand to offer him a lift. 

He emerges on the shore.

“We have travelled up the river of time,” Malick writes in his screenplay, “ascended, from nature to the soul. Paradise is not a place here or there. The soul is paradise; it opens before us; here, today. The humblest things show it. We live in the eternal, even now.”

*

The key to so many things, so often, is simply in taking the time to truly notice them. Looking deeply, with curiosity or awe, almost always surfaces a kind of empathy or compassion—even a reverence, at times—for the things you see. It’s almost like a form of love. 

And love is as close to an answer as The Tree of Life ever finds—not as a way to make sense of this life necessarily, but as a way to move through it, to endure it, to embrace it. Malick’s film is filled with gentle exhortations towards love, indirectly and directly; his camera locates a love for most everything it finds, and his words state it even more clearly: Help each other, Mrs. O’Brien says at one point. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light

These lines, simple and direct as they are, haven’t left my head since I first saw the film over a decade ago. I carry them with me wherever I go and, when I remember to remember them, nothing grounds me more quickly. I might have no idea why we’re here, or why we keep going, or what the point of any of this is, but if I can find a way to see the world as Malick sees it, as he frames it in The Tree of Life, I can find my way back to myself every single time. And that feels like a kind of love, too. 

It’s not a particularly new idea—if anything, it’s a rather old one, voiced in some form or another by various artists throughout history. And in this case Malick essentially lifted the quote, nearly verbatim, from something Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov over a century ago. Looking at Dostoevsky’s full quote, we can see how the entirety of The Tree of Life is in deep conversation with it:

Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day and you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

Did you catch it? The part, smack dab in the middle, that encapsulates Malick’s entire worldview? If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. It might not be an answer but it is a way through, and Malick returns to it, time and again, throughout The Tree of Life. As the O’Brien family moves away from their family home at the end of the third movement, Mrs. O’Brien, again in voiceover, reminds us: The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.

Malick could have chosen to conclude this section, the film’s longest and most autobiographical, in any number of ways. So it’s more than telling that he chooses to end it here, with these lines, in this way. 

He gives the last words to Grace.