The Tree of Life

Director Terrence Malick’s new movie “The Tree of Life” is a meditation on traditional Christian questions about evil, suffering, grace, and beauty, says Calvin College professor of English Roy Anker. Watch our recent interview with him about the film. Produced by Steven Niedzielski. Edited by Fred Yi. Special thanks to Matt Kucinski and Calvin Video Productions.


  • Adelaide

    Evocative film! Leaves an lingering after image. I’m still comtemplating and digesting its contents two weeks later. Seeing it felt like a meditative experince. Wish someone would elaborate on nature and grace.

    I got the grace part but not clear of the refence to nature. Having watched the Decorah Iowa eagle “family” this year from eggs to fledge my hat is off to nature.

  • RaySunshine

    This film beautifully portrays the maturing of parents as they evolve from demanding obedience to understanding the need for cooperation and a child’s need for love and acceptance, a process which unnecessarily repeats itself absent earlier education. It is the almost inevitable result of children conceiving children.
    Sadly, studies show that we have only 2 years to impart Empathy to a child; and only 6 years for a child to form his/her self image. These are the same years that parents are generally trying to finish college or begin a career, more often than not, at the expense of their children and their formative years.
    We need classes for prospective parents to enable them to interact more constructively with their children once born. This film could well serve as a part of that instruction.
    I envision founding the Jean Valjean Foundation which would sponsor “people to people” action, including parenting classes to address these issues. Remember the refrain from the closing song of Les Mis, “. . . let he who is strong come stand with me.”

  • S Brent Plate

    As usual, Professor Anker helps show us the light! Considering the themes of his last books on film, I find myself wishing Malick’s film had been in place before he published those. Nonetheless, here we have Anker’s thoughts nicely laid out in connection to this intriguing, inspiring, overwhelming, even daunting film, Tree of Life.

    I personally connected with the film on a number of levels, from reminiscences of my boyhood, to some Christian themes (also from my boyhood), and on into the grander cosmic connections. I myself couldn’t keep to the Christian focus that Anker so ably outlines. Instead, my own takes on the film wanted to connect the cosmic imagery to many other similar images through history. We see them visually reproduced in everything from the logos of film production studios to Christian-inspired history to scientific visual diagrams and Darwin’s own use of a “tree of life” to supplement his emerging theories on the origins of life. (I’ve written more on such visual cosmologies at: .

    Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey was obviously influential on Tree of Life, suggested that artistic truth needs ambiguity to “avoid superficial, pat truths.” Kubrick further suggested how “Really artistic, truthful ambiguity is the most perfect form of expression.” I would amend this and suggest that good mythology likewise has a built in ambiguity. That’s why we need to understand art to understand religion, and vice versa. In this ambiguous way, Malick’s Tree of Life is a good Christian story, but it is also perhaps a Buddhist story (see my essay on the “Way of the Brother”: . And perhaps it is a cosmic story, bringing macrocosmos together with microcosmos, showing us our place in the universe.

    -S Brent Plate, Hamilton College

  • Greg Garrett

    I do buy this interpretation of the film as a sort of Christian meditation. From the movie’s opening use of Job, traditionally–and wrongly–considered the Bible’s answer to the problem of suffering, we can understand Terence Malick’s approach. It’s a conversation about the meaning of life, but the voices are cinematic rather than logical. The first time I saw the movie here in Austin, I didn’t completely get it. It took, ironically, the film’s rapturous reception in post-Christian Britain, where I spent most of the summer, to confirm for me its brilliance as Christian meditation. No other film maker would dare to make this personal and this challenging a film. And if doesn’t work entirely–Sean Penn doesn’t have much to do, and like most films (except perhaps the new Harry Potter!), it doesn’t present the afterlife well–but it’s still the most lush and lyrical movie I’ve seen since The New World, which just happens to be Malick’s last film.

  • Helen Seager

    The remarks made about the film by the commentator are interesting, well intentioned, and thought-provoking. BUT…..
    They are made by a white middle class well educated culturally up to date mild-spoken male. The clips portray clean, attractive , well-dressed, and apparently affluent family. The folks who will understand the message most easily will be the minority of folks who are living just that sort of unreal life. Where are the others who DON’T and CAN’T have that kind of life? If they view the film, I daresay that it would not appeal to the folks whose labor (unless they are unemployed!) supports the lifestyle portrayed in the clips. Perhaps the “others” are portrayed in the film, but you can’t prove that by the clips shown.

    Trinity Church Will Street recently distributed an educational program called “Reading Scripture through the Eyes of Others.” Ironically, it was “too expensive” for use in parishes that are not full of folks living the lifestyle portrayed in the clips portrayed in the clips. How will “Tree of Life” be viewed by the “others”?

    I live in an interfaith retirement community that takes SPirituality seriously. If this film is suggested for view here, I will not recommend it as a choice.

  • Jacoba Jonker

    A beautiful film; we saw it a few months ago at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre. It’s got it all – good vs. evil, nature vs. culture, love vs. hate, “truthful abiguity”, nature and grace, etc. Thank you, Brad Pitt, for your role in this exquisite film…

  • Terrence Hryniuk

    One dimension is not evident in the above comments is that the movie has shown in the correct order from the big bang,formation/death of stars in accurate astrophysics,birth of the solar system and the most advanced pictures of our planets using satellite and Hubble telescope pictures e.g. Voyageur !! shots of Jupiter and Saturn. Some very high powered physics has gone into the movie coupled with high powered biology on the arrival of life on earth. I have been teaching high school physics and mathematics in Winnnipeg, Canada. Further, the advanced material on biology is also there on life starting on earth. Further,as a qualified social worker as well, the family dynamics are done well e.g. the roles of Mother and Father dealing with the continum of children on the continum of dependency to independency e.g. Mother appears overprotective while Dad is stating the need to be aggressively independent. The Director has left no subject undeveloped. He has accomplished the Divine creation of the universe,the obvious design theory right up to the afterlife of humans. The move rocks;it is a masterpiece and was intended to be so. terrence hryniuk

  • Terrence Hryniuk

    I wish to add some further observations to mine above regarding the astrophysics and now the mathematics recently mapped in the 70′s out by Dr. Mandelbaum,i.e. fractal mathematics, the principle of self similarity. This new field is the mathematics of nature and a tree is usually used as an example where one can observe the first branching and then define the rest of the branching. A famous demonstration of fractal mathematics was done by a group scientists in the rain forests of Brazil using one tree’s pattern. From this one example they were able to calculate the number of trees in the Rain Forest. Thus, the mathematics of nature took a serious quantum leap to define/describe things like snowflake patterning,veining in the human body, how the eye does really see, etc. Hence, the persistence of the tree imaging in the movie does now make further sense as it illustrates the actual divine design or the principle of self similarity throughout biology. A recent PBS special showed the dynamics of this discovery of how life creates life, by this French mathematician who solved major problems for IBM in the U.S. where he now works. Again this movie has covered the topic of life,divine design,afterlife,, like no other movie has. I believe Stanley Kubrick started the serious questioning of the universe with Space Odessy 2001,for movie goers, but necessarily could not get far without the Hubble telescope, the Big Bang,and yes, fractal mathematics, the key to a conceptual framework to map out life itself. Terrence Hryniuk

  • Terrence Hryniuk

    Further to my entry above, I simply wish to give a correction to the spelling of Dr. Benoit Mandelbrot, the major mathematician in the past 30 to 40 years who has made major contributions in fractal mathematics, Dr Benoit Mandebrot, a French citizen who moved to the U.S. and worked for IBM, and also Yale University and just died in 2010. His contributions as described above were addressed by PBS and major applications were made especially as above to measure the number of trees in the Rain Forest. Until he mapped the field of self-similiarity, scientists could not understand how trees branch, human veins branched,, how snow flakes can be described,etc. In other words, we can now interpret more clearly references to “The Tree of Life” the movie. My apologies to the spirit of Dr. Benoit Mandelbrot on whose shoulders we can now sit to see how God, the mathematician, mapped out creation. Terrence Hryniuk

  • Binx Bolling

    From baptism water to votive candles, Malick’s film is thick with overt religious imagery rooted in Christianity. With that in mind, what is the shimmering light in the bedroom? The scene I am speaking of is present in the film’s trailer (26 seconds in).

    Initially I believed it to be Thomas Wilfred’s “Opus 161,” a light composition that appears at the beginning and end of the film, as well as in a handful of key intervals throughout. (Malick evidently uses this light sculpture as a visual manifestation of the Creator.) I was trying to count how many times the “Opus 161″ composition found its way into the narrative, and after revisiting the bedroom image I am rethinking my original assessment.

    A New York Times reviewer said, “…a boy, in whispered voice-over, speaks directly to God, whose responses are characteristically oblique, conveyed by the rustling of wind in trees or the play of shadows on a bedroom wall.” This sentence leads me to suspect that the shadows on the wall might be different from the luminous cloud that bookends the film. Does anyone else concur with my initial belief that the light on the bedroom wall could be this Wilfred light sculpture?

  • Terrence Hryniuk

    Dear Binx, Well, it’s been awhile since I have seen this movie, but I will research for myself “opus 162″ and the “wilfrid light sculpture”. Would you be able to provide some details on these words.??? Personally, I have for years been working on the dynamics of the interfacing of the divine and the earthly. In terms of some new physics theoreticians thinking there is a connection between these two realities. Shakespeare himself said through Hamlet “there are more things…..than you have dreamt of..etc.” I have been overcome with awe about the new ideas emerging from physics and math e.g. fractal math, 11 dimensions to physics realities,etc. But, I will study the stuff you speak of and will return to this site. Regards. Terrence Hryniuk