A famous Zen koan reads: “When we’re all passed over, the rhythm of the river remains…” Memories can be seen as a series of vignettes, and that the sum of these parts create a whole that has much greater meaning than their components. However, in the end, time existed before and after these events, and in the grand scheme of things, each moment lacks significance. To a person, those experiences do have significance. Thus, there is a significance to insignificance, and vice versa. The representation of time in cinema has been portrayed in various forms, but the institutional mode of representation has become the dominant form. Pivotal filmmakers such as Terrance Malick have resisted most conventional tropes and filmic techniques found in traditional American film production to create divergent concepts of time and reach a transcendental style.

The Tree of Life was one of the most controversial films of 2011, earning both praise and hisses, but also semi-shameful whispers of “I just don’t get it”. The film is indeed an accomplishment, even for Terrance Malick who has directed only a handful of films, but each is easily beloved by cinephiles across the world. The cinematic devices used in the film evoke Malick’s philosophy on the nature of religion and pragmatism existing side by side. In fact, dualities exist everywhere in this film to reflect the struggles and conflicts that exist within our (multi-)universe, our world, our communities, and our families. Malick presents a transcendental style in The Tree of Life that explores how cinema can capture both space and time in an accessible, experimental form without detering too far from American film production standards.

Synthesizing the Auteur and Theory

The Tree of Life has autobiographical elements for Terrance Malick. Born in Waco, Texas in 1943, Malick would study philosophy before writing articles for publications including Newsweek, The New Yorker, and Life. After graduating from AFI, Malick directed Badlands on a small independent budget to critical acclaim along with Days of Heaven five years later. Gossip of the director becoming a recluse lingered until his 1998 war epic The Thin Red Line followed by The New World. The Tree of Life takes place in Waco, Texas during the 1950s, and Jack O’Brien happens to be a similar age as Malick would have been during this time period 1.

Malick’s films consistently use many elements to create an omniscient style that is unique within American cinema. A lone house is often times used as a central or pivotal location in his films. This is particularly true for Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life. All of his films include a river as a central motif. Characters often walk around or across a river as their plot moves along, like the river itself. Voice-over narration from multiple characters’ perspectives occurs in all his films, creating the omnisicent point-of-view in his films that give the universe and the natural world a perspective that is rarely seen in cinema. The use of B-roll footage of moments of nature intercut with characters interacting with nature is a signature style. These narrative asides are usually rhetorical questions towards nature or a higher power. Lastly, Malick’s main characters are often times anti-heroes, characters who are rarely heroic, mostly criminal, but their introspective nature aligns spectators towards sympathy.

The Tree of Life - RainPaul Schrader, famous for co-scripting Taxi Driver with his brother, discussed in his book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer how filmmakers from different cultures produced films that would represent transcendence of the Holy or a way (Tao). Schrader suggests that this international and universal presentation of a transcendental style in cinema was a desire for filmmakers to express “two universal contingencies: the desire to express the Transcendent in art and the nature of the film medium” 2. For Schrader, the specific definition of transcendent style is “a general representative filmic form which expresses the Transcendent” 3.

French Philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote in his second book about the philosophy of time and movement, Cinema 2, that modern cinema has formulated a new filmic image, the time-image, which “is no longer empirical, nor metaphysical; it is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that Kant gives the word: time is out of joint and presents itself in the pure state” 4. This time-image supersedes the movement-image (found in Cinema 1) which is sort of an analog to the IMR. Deleuze specifically notes that “the time image does not imply the absence of movement […] but it implies the reversal of the subordination; it is no longer time which is subordinate to movement; it is movement which subordinates itself to time” 5. This time-image is the product of a break in the sensory-motor schema to give rise to moments where characters no longer know how to react to certain situations or within certain environments 6. Essentially, Deleuze suggests that cinema can now represent the contemplation of characters without relying on the institutional mode of representation.In order for Schrader to consider artists representing a transcendence, there have first been a subservient form of cinema. According to Noël Burch there was. The Institutional Mode of Representation (IMR) is the way in which producers and filmmakers have created a discipline in which films are produced and presented in order to keep the spectator sutured into the narrative of the film. The IMR attempts to create a three-dimensional space making use of master shots, medium shots, close-ups, and reverse shots allowing the spectator, the camera, and all mechanisms to act a cinematic apparatus. American cinema first formed an IMR set around the introduction of syncronized and projected sound in 1927. Until the 1948 Paramount Decision had finally been fulfilled by the Big 5 and Little 3, Classical Hollywood Cinema dominated film production and theatrical exhibition across the world. IMR changes with the tides of culture and business. Today the IMR in contemporary film has evolved to become faster paced and more sophisticated than its Classical Hollywood Cinema ancestry 7.

The Tree of Life - Trees
When we consider Schrader’s transcendental style and add Deleuze’s time-image, we can begin to look at films that represent the contemplative nature of human beings and the environments they inhabit. Malick’s films allow their characters to contemplate their own existence and allows the spectator to join in on the contemplation. This matches the IMR as Malick uses contemporary film techniques and his own personal style to create contemplative and transcendent cinema.

Terrance Malick’s filmography has mostly used linear plots even if his films do not portray narratives in a conventional sense. In Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life, he uses a divergent concept of time to cut across multiple time periods in order evoke philosophical concepts and spiritual emotions in a transcendental style. Malick’s work has more reliance on the IMR, but his films have a painterly gesture to them and are often plotless, or at least the plot is secondary to the transcendental style or concept. Similar to Jim Jarmusch’s use of vignettes, Malick points to those moments where nature and the characters exist as is. Rather than fluid and concise dialogue, Malick uses voice-overs and minute amounts of dialogue between characters. However, these minute amounts of dialogue do not necessarily push the plot forward, but instead raises and repurposes the questions and themes in Malick’s films.

The Conflict Between Grace and Nature & Other Dualities

Wikipedia does a decent job summarizing broader concept of The Tree of Life as “variously: a motif in various world theologies, mythologies, and philosophies; a mystical concept alluding to the interconnectedness of all life on our planet; and a metaphor for common descent in the evolutionary sense 8. It is a concept that appears in many religions that is the perfect title of a complex film such as The Tree of Life. In Jedeo-Christianity, God is considered to be the ultimate convergence of nature of grace, providing both the treachery and treasure in life. Thus, both the concept of the Tree of Life and God have an innate conflict between grace and nature.

The Tree of Life - Cosmos
At the beginning of The Tree of Life, in the present, something has triggered an older Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) to become lost in his childhood memories and he begins to examine the significance of these memories. These memories have arrested his present being and his past is now haunting him. Malick later presents the evolutionary scientific understanding of creation of the cosmos, our earth, life, and examples of conflict between dinosaurs. The scene with the dinosaurs can be seen in a variety of ways, regardless it explores the possibilities between and in grace and nature. It can be the tender moment of compassion between warring oppositions, whatever they may be. Perhaps an analog to the relationship between Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Jack, or Mr. O’Brien and Mrs O’Brien. Malick shows both the beauty and the cruelty of the cosmos and our world, and contrasts it with Waco, Texas in the 1950s. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a loving father who uses strict disciplinary action towards his children, exhibits jealousy of his neighbor’s greener grass and new car, and later chases material success when he leaves home for a prolonged period to market his inventions and patents.
Malick portrays the conflicts in a suburb, an environment that is considered a safer atmosphere than urban cities, but with closer social interactions than a rural town. Furthermore, Malick has replaced survival of the fittest in a harsh, but beautiful pre-historic world with the struggle for material success in this modern suburb. When Malick takes his spectators across billions of years he does so to express the complexities of human beings existing in a modernized society. Furthermore, Malick is presenting how delicate and insignificant the moments of our lives are when compared to the cosmos. Yet, Malick presents these seemingly insignificant moments of the O’Brien family as being significant, especially to Jack O’Brien.

Dualities exist everywhere in The Tree of Life, but first we can return briefly to how Malick’s earlier films all feature this element. The opening line of Malick’s The Thin Red Line, “What’s this war in the heart of nature?”, can be applied to any of Malick’s films, specifically The Tree of Life. What is this war in the heart of the suburbs? The cosmos? Between dinosaur species? Between father and son? Between God and believer? Some of the voiceovers in the film are questions from the characters directed towards God. These dualities pose the questions that exist in our reality. How can human beings, who are born and die on this earth like every other creature, live in a time where technology has created a mechanized lifestyle? The opening voice-over of the film is that of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) saying “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life—the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” Mrs. O’Brien is the Grace and Mr. O’Brien is Nature; the duality that posits both polar ends of Survival of the Fittest. The film’s distributor Fox Searchlight developed a website for the film (www.twowaysthroughlife.com) which separates the site’s experience dependent on whether you choose ‘the father’s way’ which includes quotations and clips from the movie that match the beauty and danger of nature 9. If one chooses ‘the mother’s way’ does the same but uses graceful imagery.

Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien represent the conflict between nature and grace within Jack’s family and home. Mr. O’Brien represents the Survival of the Fittest, that success requires domination. His courtroom battles have replaced the violent battles that happen between men on battlegrounds, and the fustration of losing is placed on his family. He commands the respect from his wife and children that he does not recieve in the court of law. It is this fear that the O’Brien children cannot understand when he demands for things to happen a certain way in his home. Not only are dualities conflicting with each other, dualities exist within dualities like Matryoshka dolls. Mr. O’Brien is seen in church playing the organ with his sons watching in awe. It is nature being graceful. One of the earliest flashbacks in the film is that of Mrs. O’Brien as a young girl outside her farm looking out with the same contemplative nature and grace that she carries throughout the whole film. Mrs. O’Brien is Grace, she is a lovely educator and a protector of the weak. She also assists her children and even the audience into showing the nature that does in fact exist in grace. Not only do Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien represent the conflicts of nature and grace, but also the collaboration between the two.

The death of Jack’s younger brother is shown to affect Jack’s Mother the most, she becomes hysterical while walking down the suburban streets. An involuntary nature has come over her and her gracefulness has shed. Jack’s younger brother is the representation of how powerful the greater world has on even the most isolated rural and suburban populations. Jack’s Younger brother becomes quite the guitarist at an early age, good enough to play along with his father at the piano for a tender moment of gracefulness while nature takes a break. Malick’s own brother was a classically trained guitarist who had commited suicide.

Mentioned earlier, Malick uses B-roll footage of small slices of life and nature. In this film, Malick uses universally natural phenomenon of the spiral. In the creation of our universe to even a shot of a spiraling staircase. The spiral is based on the Golden ratio that is roughly 1.61803399 to 1. This ratio is the building block of perfect syemetry and beauty. It is found everywhere. It shows  again how there is a continuous system that exists in chaos.

Questioning Religion

Jack is lost in multiple time periods; as a child, as a man, and even in a location that is a possible analog to an afterlife. As Jack recounts his childhood, Malick is giving the spectator a chance to determine whether Jack really did love and whether he chose grace over nature; or did he simply witness it between his parents?. Again, Malick used multiple time periods in order to present the exhibits that the spectator needs in order to contemplate these questions. A linear presentation of the events in The Tree of Life may not have the same affect on the contemplative nature of this film.

The struggle of religion in this film is expressed much more vividly and compassionately than others. The opening title card sets the tone and theme of the film: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’ Job 38:4,7″. The Book of Job recalls Job’s loss of his entire wealth and prosperity, but continues to live life with grace. One life is not the sum of experiences on this earth or beyond. The Tree of Life, specifically in the scene that portrays the creation of the universe, galaxy, and the earth, explores this concept exactly.

Questioning the role of God comes from the entire family but Young Jack’s is striking: After a young child dies in a community pool, he asks “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.” Mrs. O’Brien also considers the role of God after the Father who presides over the funeral of a young child: “He is in God’s hands, now.” Mrs. O’Brien counteracts in voice-over: “He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?”. The question of “where were you” is reiterated by nearly all the characters, but in the Book of Job, it is posited by God. In the end, Where was anybody?

When the characters in the film use voiceover to pose questions, it is an analog for Malick to pose these questions across multiple decades, millions or even billions of years. Majority of the film specifically focuses on Jack’s childhood in the 1950s, and the moments presented exhibit the conflicts that Jack, and even his family, have towards their religion. While the family questions the nature of their religion, the film as a whole, questions the nature of humans living in a modernized suburb, outside our species’ evolutionary programmed nature. Malick portrayed the entire concept of time, and bounced back and forth between these time periods in order to place these conflicts and dualities up against each other.

The last several minutes of the film show beautiful scene where mid-age Jack reunites with is family on a beach. The scene is serene and mystical: an analog to an afterlife. It is the moment where it is implied through visual means that Jack is finally judged on how he chose to live his life. Was it nature or grace? Is it Jack asking this question, or some one(thing) else? Regardless, Jack can now reunite with a family that is not only an analog to Malick’s own life, but to that of the American family in the 1950s.


Malick’s use of time is in line with Delueze’s ‘time-image’ and The Tree of Life fits Schrader’s suggestion of a transcendental style. Deleuze considered how filmmakers could reflect such questions in a modern cinema, where characters had difficulty making sense of new environments. The film artist had to transcend conventional filmic techniques in order to ask questions that cannot be posited with movement-image. How do you present life, its before, after, and its present in such a spiritual form? Malick uses voice-over to present a question or thought, and then uses the image to present either an example or explanation to the spectator to contemplate. Thus, Malick uses time-image to present existential questions regarding his characters, their environment, and/or the nature of things to create a transcendental style through a divergent concept of time.

Along with A Serious Man, The Tree of Life uses the parable of Job in order to pose post-modern existential questions in a prior American decade. These films explore the uncertainty in life despite our modern knowledge has given us a wealth of information. The film’s uses a non-linear concept of time to reflect on our species’ innate ability to consider our temporary existence as both significant and insignificant, and how the balance between them is delicate. These films suggest that it takes a lifetime to understand this balance. At the same time, the film explores how time can be considered meaningless in nature, but necessary for reasoning beings to contemplate their own existence in nature. This is both a philosophical and mathematical question and topic. In The Tree of Life Malick portrays a divergent concept of time in transcendental style that allows the spectators to contemplate the role of human existence in society and nature at the same time as the protagonist.

Films such as The Tree of Life are difficult to grasp, that is because the filmmaker is attempting to grasp something that either has not been done before or not at all to this degree. The IMR requires the spectator to have attained and remain in synchronization with the standards of film editing. Films such as this require the same spectator to reach beyond what has become conventional and strive for something bigger. Where Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey to explore the delicate human being existing in the harsh and sterile environment of space, Malick does it right here on planet earth, except that life on earth is organic, evolving, and is competing with itself. This essay is a humble, but far from comprehensive examination of one of the most bombastic films from generation of filmmakers who synthesized European film sentimentalities with American capitalism. The aesthetics scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame can be examined and interpreted far beyond what is presented here. As examined in this essay, The Tree of Life is a complex film that utilizes complex film theory and philosophy. Thus, it is not at all surprising that vast majority of audiences have balked at the film. The Tree of Life calls for repeated viewings thanks to its high replay value, and instantly places it in the untouchable canon and pantheon of films that are the greatest.

  • 1. Ankeny,Jason. Terrence Malick Biography. The New York Times. Retrieved 23 December 2011. Web.
  • 2. Schrader, Paul. Trascendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. New York: De Capo Press, 1972. Print. pg. 3
  • 3. Ibid., pg. 7
  • 4. Deleuze, Gilles. “Preface; Recapitulation of Images and Signs; Conclusion from Cinema II: The Time-Image.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 185-202. Print. p. 195
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Burch, Noël. Theory of Film Practice, trans. Helen R. Lane. New York: Praeger. 1973.
  • 8. The Tree of Life. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 26 December 2011. Web.
  • 9. Two Ways Through Life. Fox Searchlight. 2011. Accessed 30 December 2011. Web. www.twowaysthroughlife.com