What Does The Ending Of The Tree Of Life Really Mean?

Just this past week, Dolan Reynolds wrote an article dissecting the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, in this...

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Just this past week, Dolan Reynolds wrote an article dissecting the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, in this article, I will be confronting the ending of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. While The Tree of Life is a more emotional, earth bound, and spiritual film than 2001, what unites both films is their philosophical examination of the evolution of mankind and their questioning of our place in the universe, as well as where we’re heading as a species.

2001 is considered a landmark in the history of cinema, and while The Tree of Life is still a fairly recent film, I can see it becoming a landmark in itself as time goes on. Like 2001, it pushes the boundaries of narrative cinema and lends itself to many interpretations. Which brings me to the ending of Malick’s film. As the title of this article suggests, this won’t be the “be all, end all” of The Tree of Life interpretations. This is just me asking myself as well as figuring out what the ending of Malick’s film represents, by itself and as part of the larger whole.

I think the key to understanding the ending is understanding the perspective from which this film is largely told. There’s a term in the theatre called a “memory play.” This applies to plays in which the protagonist of the play recalls his or her past, with the past events then taking place on the stage. In a memory play, past and present often exist in the same space. Think of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menargie.

I would argue that you could call The Tree of Life a memory film, since a significant amount of the action comes from the mind of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), as he reflects on his life in 1950s Texas, where he and his brothers live under the gaze of their stern father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and their ethereal mother (Jessica Chastain). You can argue that the opening scenes, where Mrs. and Mr. O’Brien are told of the death of their son R.L, in military service, some years after the 1950s set scenes, as well as the origin of the universe sequence, are not told from Jack’s persepective, but this is really Jack’s story.

It’s the story of Jack trying to reconcile his feelings toward his often cold and domineering father, as well as the opposing teachings of his father and mother. This highlighted by something younger Jack (Hunter McCracken) says in his narration: “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

These opposing teachings are introduced in the beginning of the film through Mrs. O’Brien’s opening narration. She talks being taught about the two ways of life, the way of grace and the way of nature. Mrs. O’Brien says:

“Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

As the film goes along, we begin to see that Mrs. O’Brien represents grace and Mr. O’Brien represents nature, with the boys having to choose between these two ways of life.

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