Ten years ago this week, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life released in theaters. It was—and will likely remain—the most anticipated movie release of my life. It was my favorite director telling an epic story not only about his childhood in Texas, but also the birth and death of the universe, all through a biblical lens (as the title would suggest). My personal hype was off the charts in the months leading to the release. It lived up to the hype. In my initial review of the film for Christianity Today, I called it a “magisterial symphony of sprawling scope and grand vision.” In a 2018 essay I declared it the best Christian film ever made.
When it released in theaters I took about 30 of my closest friends to watch it at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood (the most iconic screen to watch the most iconic movies). I hosted a post-film party and discussion at a nearby hotel that went late into the night. Over the top? Yes. But it was fitting for an over-the-top beautiful masterpiece like Tree of Life. Back then I had more margin in my life to “go big” on things like hosting parties and film screenings. In May 2011 I was 28, single, and had just started dating Kira, who is now my wife. The season was spring, but that was my life stage too.
‘The Father’ and the Forces of Time
A decade later; 10 years older. Spring is transitioning to summer. I’m a husband now, and a father of two boys. And like it did then, my life stage now is a lens through which I interpret films. The Tree of Life hits me differently now than it did a decade ago, largely because I’m a dad. It’s true of other films too.
I recently watched The Father, the film for which Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar as best actor this year. It’s a heartbreaking, too-real look at aging. Anthony (the character purposefully shares the same name as the actor playing him) has dementia and the film puts us in his shoes, as we watch his daughter (Olivia Colman) and others try to help him sort through the puzzle of past memories and present realities. The film brilliantly puts audiences in the same confusion Anthony experiences. As we watch, we become painfully aware: this will happen to our parents one day. It will happen to us.
Every human life is a progression of seasons. The newness of spring. The prime of summer. The past-your-prime decay of autumn. And then the final season: barrenness and death.
Deciduous trees go through this cycle annually, as the world turns. But humans go through it once. Ours is a brutally singular journey—a one-shot deal. For this reason, time can feel like a too-fast foe. We blink and a decade has passed. Can’t our spring and summer be a bit longer? Solomon was right in Ecclesiastes 3: A time to be born and a time to die (v. 2); dust to dust (v. 20); the pull of eternity set in our hearts (v. 11). Time’s finitude feels cruel and unusual.
I’m in a sweet season right now. My boys are a delight. My wife and I sit in our backyard as our boys play under the avocado tree, and the force of time momentarily abates. But it won’t last. Just like that another decade will be gone. I’ll be 48 and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life will be 20. And then another decade, and another.
In some ways, The Father and The Tree of Life could not be more different films. Malick’s epic is sprawling in scope, spanning the globe and the history of the universe (including dinosaurs). The Father is an intimate drama set mostly in an apartment. Directed by Florian Zeller, the film is based on his acclaimed stage play of the same name (Zeller has also directed plays called The Mother and The Son).
But the films have much in common too. Both are about memory and the mixture of both painful and healing remembrance. Both are about the stabilizing force family can be in a hostile universe. Both are about grieving the death of a loved one, and the various letting gos that constitute a life.
The final words of The Tree of Life are iconic words of release, spoken by Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) in a prayer to God (that could just as easily be words spoken by God, back to her): “I give him to you. I give you my son.”
One of the final lines in The Father also speaks to release, but in a more reluctant sense: “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves.” Indeed, the final minutes of The Father are a painful, grievous exhale as Anthony comes to terms with the fact that he can’t control the degeneration set in motion (“I don’t know what’s happening anymore”).
Life in time is constant release. A constant goodbye. An onward march of endings—some we can bear, and some we can’t.
Life in time is constant release. An onward march of endings—some we can bear, and some we can’t.
The Tree of Life is full of endings. A boy dies young. A star dies in a supernova. An asteroid hits Earth and ends the age of dinosaurs. One ending in particular—when the O’Brien family packs their car and drives away from their beloved Texas house for the last time—always gets me.
I remember the same experience, driving away from my boyhood home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. I cried as I looked out the back windshield, feeling an ache in my gut. Life’s transience. A moving scene in The Tree of Life captures this ache well, and the words we hear from the mother in this moment are among the film’s most memorable: “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
How do we cope in a world of constant loss and relentless speed? We love.
One of the other memorable lines in The Tree of Life is a paraphrase of Dostoevsky, again spoken by Chastain’s character: “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”
Love every leaf. We must love things in their precious fragility; otherwise we’ll be too paralyzed by the reality of their impermanence. To love God and love what he made—creation, especially his precious image-bearers—is to do what we were created to do (Mark 12:30–31) and thus to flourish in a world of contingency. Absent that love, all we can do is worry about what we’ll lose, and how fast we’ll lose it.
The breathtaking final scene of The Father finds Anthony in the tender, motherly embrace of his nurse (Olivia Williams). He’s losing it, but she soothes him. She holds him and suggests going on a walk in the park, “just the two of us,” because “it’s sunny outside.”
“We have to go while it’s sunny,” she tells him. “We have to take that chance. Because it never lasts long when the weather’s this good, does it?”
Indeed. It doesn’t last long. So take someone’s hand, and go for a walk in the warmth of the sun. Love every leaf. As if to underscore the idea, the final shot of The Father lingers over the rustling of green, verdant leaves outside Anthony’s window. You can almost hear the words of Simon and Garfunkel singing in the distance:
I was 21 years when I wrote this song
I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on
And the leaves that are green turn to brown
Holding each other in love and tenderness doesn’t stop time, but surrounds it with grace and hope. The final words of The Father capture the hope of something beyond: “Everything will be all right.”
Between Two Trees
It’s spring now, summer soon, but then it will be fall. The cycle goes on. Summer never lasts. In the meantime, we live in the tension of life between the two trees: the Tree of Life in Eden (Gen. 2:9), and the Tree of Life in eternity (Rev. 22:2). Another tree—the cross of Christ (1 Pet. 2:24)—gives us concrete hope that our present “momentary affliction” will one day give way to an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:16–18).
For now, we live, and we love, in the ruins; in a fallen and fragile world where anything might be lost at any moment. We decay. It’s painful to watch. We gradually lose our leaves—our loved ones, our memories, our bodily functions.
But look at the trees, and the leaves, around you. Look at nature’s seasonal renewal cycle. It testifies to a hope that one day, those of us in Christ will live in springs once again, and perpetually.