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In “The Tree of Life,” How are Grace and Nature Contrasted Through the Film’s Characters?

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Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) is a film about humanity as it relates to nature and existence. The theme of loss is prevalent throughout, as the film frequently positions scenes of beauty and creation against ones of anger, loss, and grief. Centered on the life and losses of a Texas family, the film weaves between the family’s past and present, and boldly illustrates the creation of the universe, from the exploding stars that produced the Earth, to the formation of life, dinosaurs, and progression to human existence. All of existence shares the same eventual life cycle.

Loss kicks off the film’s narrative, when the middle son of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) is killed in Vietnam at the age of 19. All the characters speak to him throughout the film, in narrative whispers, as if communicating with God or the universe as well.

The oldest son, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult), finds his childhood a challenge under the roof of parents with different parenting styles. In one of the film’s first pieces of dialogue, the family matriarch tells us “there are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. It accepts insults and injuries.” Visuals of Mrs. O’Brien along with the narration. She’s in the yard, playing with the children, enriching their lives with love and compassion.

“Nature only wants to please itself,” she continues as the camera pans to reveal Mr. O’Brien for the first time. “And others to please it too. It likes to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.”

Mr. O’Brien is an artistic soul. He’s the church organist, and he obsesses over Brahms music during family meals. Yet he works in some sort of factory and has a very cynical outlook on life. He’s bitter towards anyone who has more money or status than him, and he has a tendency to be cold and angry. It’s clear from his artistic passions that his life didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped. He teaches his kids to fight, and constantly reminds them the world isn’t going to do anything to help them, while their mother preaches the opposite not through words, but through affection.

Jack finds this grace and nature debate represented by his parents difficult to manage within himself. His younger brother (the one who dies at 19) is musically gifted and artistic like his father, and Jack feels cast aside. His parentage and eventually the death of his brother weigh on him well into adulthood, as seen in the scenes with Sean Penn playing the adult Jack.

“Through the struggles of Jack’s character, the movie poses us with the choice, repeated by mother and by the ongoing imagery: “We must choose between the way of grace and the way of nature.” Grace here means generosity, forgiveness, a form of inner strength that can suffer all sorts of insults and still keep going, resolute and beatific. There are many ways of describing it, but all of them are anchored in our existence, in our humanity. We are the conduits of grace: It would not exist without us. (However, during the cosmic narrative scene, a predator dinosaur spares the life of a docile plant-eater in a seemingly graceful act. Perhaps a suggestion that grace is not only human and that it evolved?) From this perspective, and from what the movie tells us in text and imagery, grace is goodness. Nature, on the other hand, is indifferent to us; it just keeps on going, doing its thing, creating and destroying, with no deeper sense of purpose or value. If God is in nature or is nature, as the movie seems to suggest, then God is not graceful. Most of us are stuck in the middle of this power struggle, trying to make sense of our brief existence. A premature death has no excuse. It shatters even mother’s seemingly inviolable sense of grace.” - Marcelo Gleiser, NPR

What’s the answer? As with most everything gained from watching The Tree of Life, that’s up to the viewer. But Malick proposes that both grace and nature are part of our lives, part of existence, and both exist in harmony. There’s no stopping either of them, and life is about the acceptance of each as one complete concept.