By Addie Darling ’12
For the modern Westerner, the ideas of work and career seem to dominate our lives: work is scarce, never-ending, and individual workers are replaceable. What often matters most is the bottom line, though oftentimes at the expense of quality and concrete results. Because of modernity’s attitudes towards work and individuals, we seem to be in a constant struggle to make the most—and more—out of the hand dealt to us. Thus, we tend to be caught in a constant battle against submitting to the natural circumstances of our situation or working to make some sort of change—however miniscule—in a dynamic universe.
It is this tension between fighting to change one’s condition and accepting one’s situation that forms the central drama Terrance Malick investigates in his Academy Award-nominated film, The Tree of Life. Malick christens these two forces “nature” and “grace” and traces their manifestation in the life of the universe and in daily family life. The film ultimately makes a case for the existence of balance and cooperation between nature and grace in the natural world, society, and perhaps in the supernatural realm as well.
“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.”
The beginning of the film frames the film’s central conflict between the forces of nature and grace, epitomized through the characters of the father and the mother, respectively. The character of the father initially influences the central character, Jack, the most. The mother, though, is just as necessary for Jack’s formation, descent into dysfunction, and eventual salvation. Mr. O’Brien drills into his son the value of satisfactory, hard work and order in one’s life:
Toscanini once wrote a piece sixty-five times. You know what he said after – it could have been better. You make yourself what you are. You make your own destiny. You can’t say ‘I can’t.’ You say, ‘I’m havin’ trouble; I ain’t done yet. You can’t say ‘I can’t’
Mr. O’Brien’s intense work ethic leads to his professional success and his ability to support his family, in addition to creating a sense of self-worth. However, this determination and work ethic is paired with an intense cynicism that reflects his definition of himself by his success rather than other factors in his life. This obsession with work and performance is at the exclusion of those dear to him, and the distance between Mr. O’Brien and the rest of the family is palpable throughout most of the film.
He is in most conflict however, with the gentle and unassuming ways of Mrs. O’Brien:
Your mother’s naïve. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you’re good, people take advantage of you…
For Mr. O’Brien, one must either take advantage of all set before you, or be taken advantage of. Mr. O’Brien seeks to drive this lesson into his sons throughout the course of the film to “toughen up” his boys, rarely showing them affection and constantly driving his sons to do better at their given tasks.
To a certain extent, it seems as if this hardness is justified: Mrs. O’Brien, while she is a gentle, nurturing and graceful character, is also weak. She affectionately cares for her boys, but when the father is too harsh of a disciplinarian or oversteps his boundaries, the mother sits by and does not act to protect her children or guide her spouse. This dynamic of the father’s strong need for fulfillment outside of the home proper and the mother’s inability to assert herself to protect her loved ones permits for the fracturing of the family and the descent into confusion, depression, and obsession with work.
Thus, The Tree of Life showcases a key tension between the professional and personal life since the post-war era: instead of viewing the two areas as working in tandem for the good of the family as a whole, the two spheres are considered separate and working against one another causing conflict within the family unit.
Still, while painting an accurate portrayal of these tensions, The Tree of Life does not glorify nor vilify either side. Instead, Malick is determined to depict the harmony that exists between the interior and exterior worlds, and how both are necessary for the flourishing of the family—and perhaps by extension, society.
Towards the end of the film, after losing his job, Mr. O’Brien begins to regret his obsession with perfection, order, and self -assertion. After loosing his job, and then again after loosing his second son, the father vocalizes his wish that he had occasionally adopted his wife’s graceful acceptance of life and family:
“I wanted to be loved cause I was great, a Big Man. Now I’m nothing. Look. The glory around… trees, birds… I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”
However, this dialogue between nature and grace, work and acceptance is larger issue than a purely human fascination. Malick ultimately places this tension between the interior and exterior life, between “nature” and “grace,” and between faith and works in context of all of creation. At the film’s outset, Malick asks Job’s question to God for the viewer: “Where are you?”
Malick attempts to answer this question through The Tree of Life in its entirety: its cinematography, the creation sequences, and the revelation of quotidian family life come together to suggest that nature and grace, work and acceptance, are not contrary forces after all, but merely different approaches to the same end. Malick responds for God: 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). Creation and development for Malick—be it of a child, the family, life, or the entire universe—rely upon force and destruction, whereas humility and tenderness require a quiet and unassuming, though no less forceful, strength.