Close Reading 26 Seconds of Malick’s The Tree of Life

Here’s a fact about me: I really like close reading.

So here’s a close reading of small bit of The Tree of Life. (Here’s another fact: it’s the only Malick I’ve seen at this point in my life). A lot of what follows comes from a brainstorming session I did for a paper (which I eventually wrote on The Beasts of the Southern Wild instead) about a year and a half ago. I have not watched The Tree of Life in full since then, but I don’t think that will hurt this post much if at all (The Tree of Life really isn’t about it’s plot details so yeah).

Setting the Scene
The Tree of Life (Blu Ray/DVD) or Watch it Now

There are plenty of synopses online so I am not going to bother summarizing the entire film. According to my DVD, the portion of the film I focus on below runs from 1:03:31-1:03:57 (yes, just 26 seconds). The scene begins along with the final paragraph of the following sermon:

“Job imaged he might build his nest on high– that the integrity of his behavior     would protect him against misfortune. And his friends thought, mistakenly, that the Lord could only have punished him, because he’d done something wrong. But no, misfortune befalls the good as well. We can’t protect ourselves against it. We can’t protect our children. We can’t say to ourselves, ‘Even if I’m not happy, I’m going to make sure they are.’

We run before the wind. We think that it will carry us foreverit will not. We vanish as a cloud. We wither as the autumn grass and, like a tree, are rooted up. Is there some flaw in the scheme of the universe? Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away? We cannot stay were we are. We must journey forth. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that. 

Is the body of the wise man, or the just, exempt from any pain? From any disquietude, from the deformity that might blight it’s beauty, from the weakness that might destroy its health?

Do you trust in God? Job too was close to the Lord. Are your friends and and children your security? There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you. No one knows when sorrow might visit his house any more than Job did. The very moment everything was taken from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal. 

Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives. Or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Or does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?

Wow, not sure why I thought I needed to type that out in full oops. 

The viewer hears the sermon as a combination of diegetic and non-diegetic sound (for those who don’t know, this film [and much of Malick] is full of non-diegetic voice-over/narration). When the sermon begins, the image on screen is of Mr. O’Brien playing the organ at home with Jack (his oldest son) watching. Gradually, the preacher’s voice completely overtakes the organ. The O’Briens are now at an Episcopal Church service. The sermon (now diegetic) continues. Eventually, the film cuts to a shot of Jack and Mr. O’Brien alone in the sanctuary (presumably just after the service), and the sermon becomes non-diegetic once more. Jack watches as his father prays. Then, Mr. O’Brien leaves and Jack is shown walking playfully on the pews. The next shot shows Mr. O’Brien outside of the church conversing with some members of the congregation. As the preacher (still heard non-diegetically) utters “Does he alone see God’s hand that sees He gives,” the scene I focus on below begins. The camera is now inside the O’Brien family car behind Jack who is sitting the driver’s seat. Along with the rest of his family (who are also in the car), Jack watches and waits for his father to come to the car.

The Scene Itself 
In The Tree of Life, Malick takes full advantage of film’s potential to advance meaning through the interplay of image and sound. This interplay often involves the pairing of “silent” on-screen images with off-screen sound. For instance, the viewer hears the last portion of the sermon above (in bold), after the church service in which it is delivered has ended on-screen.

The timing of the actions and the shots in the scene that begins at 1:03:31 are inextricably linked with the words of the sermon that are heard along with them. When the preacher reaches the first “see” of his sermon’s final section, the film cuts from the church to the inside of the O’Briens car. Because the sermon is heard “in” both the church and the car, and because the O’Briens occupy both spaces, this cut draws a conceptual link between the family vehicle (always driven by Mr. O’Brien) and the church (led by the pastor/God through the pastor). It is no coincidence that as the family sit in their car waiting for Mr. O’Brien, they are perfectly silent and that Mr. O’Brien is more or less directly in front of them; in the car, they are much as they were in church, except Mr. O’Brien now occupies a position similar to that of a preacher (who, to a certain extent, is supposed to speak for God).

Also, when the scene begins, none of the faces within the car are visible. In the initial shot, the camera occupies a position behind Jack’s head. As Jack watches his father through the car’s windshield, viewers effectively share Jack’s gaze and, framed by the windshield, Mr. O’Brien is the visual focus of the shot (because the men he is talking to are unidentified and are never heard, they more or less fade from the shot). Not only does the beginning of the shot establish a connection between the O’Briens waiting silently for their patriarch and a church congregation, but it also establishes a connection between a church congregation and the film-going audience who sit silently waiting for the film to reveal itself to them.

With a shot just after the “sees that He gives,” bit of the sermon, the camera abandons its position behind Jack to occupy one somewhere just in front of him. At first, Jack is looking out at his father, but with the words “He takes away,” he turns to the passenger seat to his right which is occupied by Mrs. O’Brien (Jack’s two younger brothers are in the backseat) who is shown from an angle (close, low) similar to that from which Jack is shown. As Jack turns to his mother, the camera follows his gaze. Jack’s mother is perhaps the only truly comforting presence in his life; she is nurturing and gentle. Thus, that Jack looks from his father to her as viewers hear the pastor’s sobering assertion that God “takes away,” seems to suggest that, if Mr. O’Brien is like God, it is because he takes away, because he stifles, because he is tyrannous; on one level, Jack seems to be looking to his mother for sympathy and comfort. When the camera first turns to Mrs. O’Brien, she is looking down at her lap, but with the “see God,” of “Or does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him,” she looks up at her husband outside the vehicle. As Jack looks silently out at him, so does she. (Perhaps with the sermon they have just heard echoing in their memories), Jack and his mother seem to look on Mr. O’Brien with a single gaze. In this way, the shot showing Mrs. O’Brien also indicates that, if Jack fears and feels oppressed by the strict Mr. O’Brien, so does she.

Shortly, the camera returns to a position behind Jack so that his gaze and the viewer’s/the camera’s become one. From this point to the scene’s end (or, at least, to the end of what I discuss in detail here), Mr. O’Brien is the only member of the family whose face is seen. His conversation over (and the sermon nearly at an end), Mr. O’Brien begins walking toward the vehicle. As he approaches the car, Mr. O’Brien motions for Jack to vacate the driver’s seat (which he clearly does, though he is not shown doing so), and the camera moves back with him. As the preacher’s voice completes its final question—”Does not also he see God who sees God turn His back?“—Mr. O’Brien closes the car door and takes his place at the steering wheel. In doing so, he literally turns his back on his sons and the film’s viewers (I think you see some of where I am going with this). Moreover, once Mr. O’Brien is inside the vehicle, neither his wife nor his sons are visible. He dominates the space. Only he is seen. And only he is heard.

The closing of the car door is the first real diegetic sound of the scene. By the time Mr. O’Brien begins to speak (just after entering the car), all non-diegetic sound has vanished from the scene (while the sermon is heard, so is some soft piano music, and when the sermon ends, so does the music). Starting the car, Mr. O’Brien says to his wife, “That’s a friend of mine. He owns half the real estate in town.” With Mr. O’Brien’s concise explanation complete, the scene is over.

More Thoughts Hooray
As far as I can tell, a primary function of this scene is to establish—for Jack particularly—a conflation (or perhaps, a confusion) of his father and God. The instances of coincidence between the actions of the characters on screen and the words of the sermon turns the preacher’s voice into something much more than just any other non-diegetic auditory element in the scene. The sermon practically narrates the shots I am discussing.

Whenever Mr. O’Brien is visible in the scene, the viewer’s gaze and Jack’s are virtually one in the same, and what they see is a man not too different from the God of the sermon. With “Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives,” Mr O’Brien holds out his hand, giving to the men he is speaking with so that they can shake it. With “Or does he alone see God who sees God turn his face towards him,” Mr. O’Brien turns towards the vehicle and his family, and eventually looks directly at Jack. With “Does he not also see God who sees God turn his back,” Mr. O’Brien sits with his back to Jack and viewers alike. In this scene, any line between Mr. O’Brien (a man who ‘loves’ his children, but is markedly overbearing, cold, and damn near impossible to satisfy) and “God” is blurred considerably; with this, the scene gives viewers a pretty clear picture of how young Jack sees his father.

For young Jack, omniscience and omnipotence above merge with his cynical, imperfect, and controlling father below. As becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses, Mr. O’Brien expects his children, especially his eldest Jack, to offer him the same fearful reverence and total obedience that one might a deity. For Jack at least, the result is a conceptual fusion of what he imagines God is with what he knows his father to be. According to The Tree of Life, Jack sets himself to end up harboring deep resentment for God and father alike by blending macrocosmic ideas with a microcosmic (and deeply flawed) man. If Jack grows up bitter and confused (and the film makes it pretty clear that he does), associating God with his father (and vice versa) seems to be part of the problem.

As I describe above, for the first part of the scene I am discussing, Mr. O’Brien is shown through his car’s windshield. Though not exactly filthy, the windshield is far from clean. It is covered in water spots; hardly noticeable when the scene begins, they become hard to ignore when the camera moves closer to the windshield as Mr. O’Brien begins to approach the vehicle. As viewers of The Tree of Life may not at first notice the imperfections on the wind shield, so too may they not immediately recognize all of Mr. O’Brien’s (or anyone’s) flaws. Importantly, the water spots also obscure and distort Mr. O’Brien’s image, emphasizing the fact that Jack does not see his father clearly. It may be the case that, because he does not properly understand or fully know his father, Jack conflates him with God. It may also be the case that Jack is unable to see his father clearly precisely because he thinks of him as God. (It may also be that the picture of God painted in the preacher’s discussion of Job is part of the problem, but I am not going to get into that at the moment).

It may also be important that water is the substance responsible for dirtying the windshield (rather than mud or bird shit). Given the emphasis on sight at the end of the sermon, I do not think that the water spots and their possible effects on visual perception should be ignored.The water spots obstruct the view through the windshield, but not so completely as to make their removal urgent or clearly necessary. Water spots are not opaque and from a distance they can hardly be seen. In theory, they could be allowed to build up almost indefinitely. They obstruct Jack’s view inconspicuously, without him realizing that it is obstructed at all, preventing him from identifying any perceptive mistakes that they cause. Jack does not realize that he is wrong to perceive his father as if he were God, so he cannot fix the problem. He does not realize that his misconception will cause him pain in the future either.

That water spots indicate that water was once present may also be significant. The Tree of Life is overflowing with water (haha I’m hilarious). The frequency with which water appears in the film is almost overwhelming. I am definitely not going to try to declare exactly what water ‘means’ or ‘represents’ in the film, but it is (at various points) rather explicitly connected to both birth and death. Between birth and death, there is life. o’rly? So, for Jack’s view of his father to be interfered with by water’s residue, may be for it to be obstructed by his life. Perhaps Malick is trying to say that for a son to see their father as a God is just part of life. Or maybe he is trying to say that Jack’s life in particular (where he lives, the way he is raised, who he lives with, etc.) are to blame for Jack’s cognitive fusion of the God talked about in church and his father. The water spots on the windshield also seem to warn viewers against adopting Jack’s perspective. Mr. O’Brien is not God and God is not Jack’s father (and, perhaps, he is nothing like him); if things appear otherwise, clean the windshield and look again.

The portion of the sermon heard during this scene is phrased as a series of rhetorical questions. Moreover, they are questions that contain their answers. According to the voice asking the questions, no, he who sees that He gives is not the only one who sees God’s hand; yes, he who sees that He takes away sees God’s hand too; no, he who sees God turn His face towards him is not the only one who sees God; yes, he who sees God turn His back sees God too. The questions are worded in a way to make disagreement with the implied answers difficult. And, when the listener seems to himself to provide the answers himself, he believes them with conviction strengthened by narcissism. However, while it loves to ask questions, The Tree of Life is not in the business of providing answers. If the viewer finds himself accepting Jack’s view of his father in this scene, the water spots ask him to reconsider, to look at the questions more closely.

In the portion of the film that follows this scene/part of a scene I have been focusing on, young Jack’s resentment for his father increases. The more Jack learns about his father, the angrier he becomes with him, and the more confused he becomes about God. The more aware Jack becomes of his father’s imperfections and his capacity for hypocrisy, the more he gets pissed with God.

In the scene directly following the one I have been discussing—a scene which also takes place exclusively inside the O’Brien family vehicle—Mr. O’Brien preaches the following: “Wrong people go hungry, die. The wrong people get loved. The world lives by trickery. If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good.” But if God controls everything and is perfect and good, how can it be true? But if Mr. O’Brien is God, and God knows everything, how can it not be true? And if God says not to “be too good,” well, what does that mean?

About a minute and half further into the film, there is scene in which Mr. O’Brien attempts to teach his sons how to fight. Jack resists the lesson. Despite his father’s repeated demands that he strike him, Jack hesitates—should one hit the equivalent of God?—but, because he hesitates to strike a person who, in his mind has become the equivalent of God, the equivalent of God hits him and shows obvious disappointment.

About seven minutes later, Jack and his brothers witness a boy drown at a local pool. The first person who seems to notice the boy is in trouble is Mr. O’Brien; he runs to try and help the boy, but is too late, and Jack looks on as he fails to revive him. A few scenes later, Jack asks of the deceased, “Was he bad?” And after an interval of silence, he continues “Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen.” All of this is heard by the viewer as voiceover narration; these are Jack’s thoughts. Importantly, no addressee is specified. Jack could be addressing God, or the cosmos, or some combination of the two, but it is just as likely that he is addressing his father, the man who did not notice the drowning boy quickly enough, the man who failed to save him. By, confusing God with his father and vice versa, Jack is set on a path which, according to The Tree of Life can lead only to frustration and further confusion.

Though he definitely seems to love them in his own way, there is something quite oppressive about the way Mr. O’Brien interacts with his wife and children throughout the movie. That they are negatively impacted by his presence becomes quite clear later in the film when Mr. O’Brien goes on a long business trip. Free from patriarchal influence, Mrs. O’Brien and her children are much livelier, freer, and more joyful. I had planned to talk a bit more about Mr. O’Brien, but this post has gotten too long. Specifically, I was going to point out how he seems to confuse love with fear and discuss how his understanding of God (the God of Job presented in the sermon) may be partially to blame for many of his character flaws. Maybe I’ll get to that another day.

Until Next Time
Perhaps this isn’t a particularly revelatory close-reading, but I may use this post as a jumping-off point to talk about other shots from the film in the future. Or maybe not.  Also, I recently realized it has been over a month since I have watched a movie that I hadn’t seen before (this is highly unusual for me, it seems my job hunt has distracted me). I plan to change this soon; when I do, I may post a review of whatever I watch.

As always, feedback is welcome. Thanks so much for reading.

Have a scene in The Tree of Life you’d like me to discuss? Leave a comment and let me know. 

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