Joel Schulz March 5, 2014 1

by Julien Testa – University of Calgary

This paper will argue that much can be learned about Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) when examined through the lens of Soren Kirkegaard’s philosophical concept of despair. Malick expresses these philosophical concerns not only through his thematic content, but through his form as well. This paper will examine how the film expresses despair formally by examining key scenes in which characters encounter their despair. It will firstly examine problems with this approach, namely the problematic relationship between philosophy and film. Specifically, philosophy’s tendency to confuse “films with screenplays”[i] and neglect any formal considerations of the text. I will then outline Kirkegaard’s idea of Christian despair as “a fundamental fear of selfhood”[ii] the highest degree of such is a self which “stands before God.”[iii] I will describe three kinds of despair, which correspond to the crises experienced by the characters in the Tree of Life. Next, I will examine these encounters with despair in the form of a close formal reading of key sequences in which characters experience the height of their despair in order to demonstrate how Malick actualizes despair visually. I will also examine the moment of true-selfhood experienced at the end of the film.

Tree of Life as a Christian Text

The Tree of Life is a coming of age story which follows Jack O’Brien as he reminds his past, especially his relationship with his brother, mother and father. Tree of Life is decidedly a theist, if not an outright Christian text.  This theological aspect of the text irritated many reviewers, who categorized Malick’s religiosity has naive[iv]. David Sterritt, for example, immediately called attention to his reservations about the film’s religious overtones, going so far as calling it “new age”, “mystical” and likened to a fundamentalist “recruiting pamphlet.”[v] I cannot help but feel this approach is condescending to the text, as if its beauty lies beyond its unfortunate and naive themes, that the film is good despite its religious sensibilities. In fact, Sterritt notes that Malick “makes up” for these themes by his aesthetic talent.[vi] What’s more, Sterritt even gets an important narrative element wrong[vii] and even makes the shocking claim that death is somehow absent from the film.[viii] What makes these claims particularly irritating is Sterrit’s insinuation that the film’s aesthetic value is separate from its religious themes. Far from limiting or somehow diminishing the film’s possible meaning, it simply opens up to a different set of concerns and questions. Whether the critic is a believer or not is irrelevant, what matters is what is on the screen, and in Malick’s case that’s God.  Instead of reducing Malick’s theological aspects to mere “cosmology,”[ix] I’m choosing to deal directly with it and to use a religious/philosophical framework in order to explore deeper meanings in the text, rather than to simply dismiss them. I’ve chosen Kirkegaard’s work because it deals directly with a relationship with God, which struggles with and goes through these moments of despair in the face of uncertainty and death – themes and events which the characters in the film all experience.

Philosophy and Film: A Difficult Relationship

As mentioned in the introduction, film and philosophy have a difficult relationship. The problem, as pointed out by Richard Neer, is although many scholars such as Simon Critchley and Hubert Dreyfus are seemingly interested in film as a medium for philosophical exploration, they often treat them as literary works, not visual ones.  In Neer’s words, they confuse movies for screenplays.[x] This is further complicated by the fact that Malick’s films seem to lend themselves so blatantly to philosophical exegesis, because Malick himself studied philosophy and translated a piece by Martin Heidegger, and his films look and sound intensively introspective. The so called manifesto of philosophical inquiries in film was written on Malick’s film The Thin Red Line (1998), yet that same article holds no mention of any formal aspect of the film itself, save for a brief description of a shot of a coconut.[xi] How then, can we avoid reducing Tree of Life to synopsis that happens to illustrate a Danish philosopher’s religious ideas? The solution that I’ve chosen is similar to the one that Neer uses in his article on The New World (Malick, 2005). One that looks at how the film functions and how philosophical ideas are expressed through those mechanisms, rather than trying to force a philosophical framework onto a film. Instead of asking how despair is explained or present in the film, I ask what does despair actually look like cinematically? How does Malick manifest this idea of despair in his film? So while the structure of this essay deals with Kirkegaard first, the bulk of the evidence demonstrating despair in the film will come from analyzing key sequences, rather than a general overlook of the film with a few pithy quotes of dialogue.

Kierkegaard and Despair

Kierkegaard’s concept of despair comes from his text, Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening. This section will not be an a summarization of his entire text, it will instead focus on key concepts which relate directly to the idea of despair as experienced by the characters in Tree of Life. The cause of despair in this context is an imbalance of the relations of opposites which constitute a ‘human being’. The choice of words here is not accidental, ‘human being’ and not ‘self’. For Kierkegaard, a self is not simply “responding to one’s name,”[xii] it is something that must be achieved. In order to achieve this true selfhood, one must rid oneself of despair. The only way to get rid of despair is to go through the different stages of it, a dialectical process in which you gain self-consciousness with every step you take, intensifying the despair as you proceed[xiii]. The opposite of despair is faith.  Despair then is a “corridor” to faith[xiv]. But what is this self which one will become as one goes through this corridor? While Kierkegaard never explains in depth what this true self looks like, he does describe it as “standing before God” or being “self grounded transparently in the power that established [you].”[xv] What this means, although somewhat ambiguously, is a self that accepts the absurdity and paradoxes of faith (the impossibility of salvation, yet all is possible through God[xvi]), and recognizes our dependency on an eternal God.[xvii] As stated above, a human being is made up of a series of relations, respectively: infinitude and finitude, and freedom (or possibility) and necessity.[xviii] Infinitude being the capacity for imagination and fancy, and finitude being a well structured or ordered worldly life[xix]. Freedom (or possibility) meaning what one might do; the plans and choices that make up one’s day or life, and necessity the conditions in which one lives in the present. Someone who is only concerned with possibility spends all their time thinking of what might be while ignoring what is. They fail to take concrete steps to actualize their possibility; in Kierkegaard’s words they “exhaust [themselves] foundering about in possibility, yet it never moves from where it is.”[xx] Those who have only necessity live in a material world, and since they cannot conceive beyond that they cannot or do not conceive of a God in which everything is possible, they cannot conceive of salvation. The self is more than just the sum of these various relations, it is the “relation which relates to itself.”[xxi] To illustrate this point, we must imagine a relationship between two objects, A and B. The actual relationship between those objects constitutes a third object, the relation itself, which we will call C. C does not relate to A and B, it relates only to itself[xxii]. This relation is then the dialectical synthesis between A and B. This however, is not the existentialist self-created identity, for Kierkegaard proposes that the relation C had to come from somewhere, and if we made it ourselves we couldn’t possibly be in despair (because the only measurement we have is ourselves, which becomes a tautology) so this relation must come from something which grounds this self. That grounding force is God. So to achieve true selfhood, you pass through the despairs (caused by imbalances in the relations which make up a human being) in order to stand and answer directly before God.

Kierkegaard’s book becomes a veritable taxonomy of despair, as he takes popular cases and tries to explain what kind of despair they are suffering from. Instead of going through every case of despair, we will examine only the two major ones which all of despairs come from: wanting to be oneself in despair, and not wanting to be oneself in despair.[xxiii] The lowest (meaning furthest from faith) form of despair is not wanting to be self. This is ignorance of the idea of the eternal within you – you do not wish to be self, you are afraid of holding yourself up to an impossibly high standard. Often people set ideals which they wish they could be. Kierkegaard provides an example of someone who wants to be great and powerful: someone who says “Caesar or nothing” is ultimately in despair because they do not want to be themselves, they want their self to be something else, that of someone great[xxiv]. Once one accepts the ideal, the despair of wanting to be oneself is an active refusal to stand before God, wanting instead to “be their own master” to be their own self instead of God’s.[xxv]

Kierkegaard admits that the complexities of actual life and people rules out absolute categories.[xxvi] People suffer from mixtures of different despairs and often mix and match between them, so any comparison between the despairs, which Kierkegaard outlines, to ones experienced by the characters in Tree of Life will not be exact. Malick’s characters are not archetypes of philosophy, nor can we reduce them into becoming mere symbols. They are meant to be complex characters, and so our application of despairs onto them will be imperfect matches. What is important to note is that despair is not something that just happens like a sudden fear – the despairer is constantly in despair.[xxvii] It is only the consciousness of their despair which causes them to reflect upon it or indeed give them a chance to move beyond it. The moments of crisis in Tree of Life are moments in which characters become conscious of their despair and reflect on it, rather than suddenly being plunged into it. I will analyze each character’s despair, starting from thematic concerns provided mainly by the films exposition and dialogue, then examine how Malick visualizes these moments of despair formally.

Father’s Despair: I wanted to be loved because I was great.

The character of Mr. O’Brien, Jack’s father, plays in an important part in the dialectical play between himself and his wife, Jack’s mother. It is noteworthy to point out that although Jack’s father was at first positioned as a more resilient character (when Jack’s brother dies, it is the mother who is crushed, nearly defeated, not the father), this slowly is shown to be a ruse. Malick constructs Mr. O’Brien as a walking contradiction, a paper tiger. A man who seems to be invincible, yet is full of turmoil and inner strife. Indeed, the complexity of his character could be the subject of an entire essay, but will be limited here by examining his despair in a Kierkegaardian sense. Mr. O’Brien’s despair is two fold: he wants to be someone else (the despair of not wanting to be oneself) and despair from a lack of infinitude. Mr. O’Brien paints a portrait of the person he wishes he was: “I wanted to be loved because I was great, a big man.” To wish he was something is admitting that currently he is not that person. He wishes he was something else and he admits his failure, “I’m nothing.” He is not that self, and he despairs over the self that is not the self he wishes to be, that of a great man. Kierkegaard uses a similar example of a man who wishes he was great. “What he cannot bear is that he cannot be rid of himself,”[xxviii] so he despairs over the self that he is. His second despair, that of neglect of infinitude, manifests in a different way. Called “despair of narrowness”[xxix] by Kierkegaard, these are people that live an earthly existence, basing their identities on their material belongings. They “ascribe infinite value to the indifferent.”[xxx] They dwell on the various divisions and differences between men; they become spiritually “emasculated.”[xxxi] Mr. O’Brien constantly reinforces the idea of borders and separation, showing his son as a child the dividing line between his property and his neighbors, talking about the rich and their money, how they got there and how much they have compared to others. He stresses a material view, to be strong; to conquer “can’t be too nice.” What’s ironic about this supposed strength is that it is contingent on worldly things, in other words, things which are finite. Mr. O’Brien’s world is shattered when he loses his job, because he had nothing firm, nothing eternal to anchor him from the tides of uncertainty. This is the moment in which he becomes conscious of his despair, and consequently when it is heightened: when he loses his job and must tell his family of his transfer. But what does this encounter with despair look like?

The sequence which I am going to analyze occurs once Mr. O’Brien gets the news that the plant is closing and he must go home to tell his wife. Two distinct visual motifs recur in this small sequence, contradictory editing/camera movements and isolating framings. The first is established nearly immediately in the sequence. Mr. O’Brien is looking at a brick building; the camera starts facing him then a jump cut to his back. This happens again when there is a shot looking up at light filtering through a grated floor, then a cut to a track behind Mr. O’Brien where the camera eventually tilts down and looks downwards through the floor, as if looking for the camera from the previous shot. These contradictory camera movements and cuts are reinforced by Mr. O’Brien’s voice-over “I wanted to be loved because I was great. A big man. I’m nothing.” He presents himself as a “big man” yet feels as if he is nothing, in fact worse than that a “foolish man.” The entire film positions him as a strong ogre like character, and now the camera reflects an inner conflict within him, conflicting motions of upwards ambitions and depressing realities. Throughout the entire sequence, Mr. O’Brien is framed in total isolation. This is demonstrated harshly by a shot where he is framed against a blackened doorway, while arriving home head down. In the same sequence, Mrs. O’Brien is shown walking with Jack’s brother, greeting other people smiling. This is juxtaposed with Mr. O’Brien looking forlorn within his home alone. The sound drips away to only a sad series of piano notes (made even more telling by the fact that Mr. O’Brien once wanted to be a great musician) and his voice-over. This reduction of sound foregrounds a spiritual, almost mediative, pace, and is used as a way of showing Mr. O’Brien’s spiritual strife. These contradictory shots are like the tensions and oppositions which make up Kierkegaard’s human being, each pulling in a different direction. If camera movements and edits in classical cinema are goal oriented, and the art cinema a psychologically motivated camera, then I posit that Malick’s camera is instead a spiritual camera, one that attempts to mimic the movements of a character’s soul in the search of selfhood. During the shot in which we are positioned in front of Mr. O’Brian, we move erratically from the left, beginning on his shadow, to the right where he is centered. There is an abrupt cut, and suddenly we are behind him at a low angle. The way the camera moves in the first shot is as though it was inspecting the wall for something. The abrupt cut creates a new angle, in which Mr. O’Brien is again starring into the sky looking for something. Even when this move isn’t mimicked exactly by the characters, there is still a sense of reaching in Malick’s camera. The shots inside the factory are an example of this. First, there is a track forward looking up through the grated floor at the sky, then the cut back to Mr. O’Brien following him at waist height until the camera abruptly tilts downwards to the floor. These two shots reflect a spiritual move on behalf of Mr. O’Brien; the upward motion of ambition, cut with a downfall out of the light, hence into despair.

Mother’s Despair: Was I false to you?

On the surface, it might be odd to claim that Mrs. O’Brien suffers from any kind of despair. Malick paints her as a near angelic creature, in her own words, a follower of the “way of grace.” This is doubly so in the eyes of Jack, who in one memorable shot, actually visualizes her hovering above the earth as if she were dancing. Granted, Mrs. O’Brien’s despair isn’t as prolonged or as acute as her husband’s, but it is still present near the very beginning of the film. Just after her voiceover explains the two ways (Grace and Nature) we cut to a letter being delivered to her doorstep, announcing, we later discover, her son’s death. Mrs. O’Brien is devastated by the news, understandably so, and her prayers become mingled with doubt, “was I false to you?” she asks, as she walks aimless down her street. This comment comes directly off the back of another, in which she states that those who follow the way of grace can come to no harm. The parallels between this crisis of faith and the Biblical story of Job are obvious: grace or virtue will not protect you from the calamities of the world. Kierkegaard uses the example of a young woman who loses her beloved: “she despairs over herself. This self of hers…since it is destined to be a self without ‘him’ is now an embarrassment…this self has become, now that he is dead, a loathsome void.”[xxxii] By staking her selfhood through another self, she despairs over herself because of its isolation now made apparent by the death of the other self. She blames God, or at least, questions God as to why He took her son; “what did you gain?” She no longer accepts the absurdity of God, and begins to despair over her self, her connection to that God.

A larger part of her despair is a sense of loss, in this case the death of her son. This sense of loss is expressed in three separate ways: in montage, in composition and in sound design. The sequence which displays Mrs. O’Brien’s confrontation with her despairs occurs near the beginning of the film, and happens when Jack’s brother was 19 (so after the main events of the film). The camera begins from a lower position, like a dog trailing the mailman as he walks up the doorway. We then cut to a stationary shot of Mrs. O’Brien inside her house, accepting the letter. The camera follows her from a steady close framing until she reaches the kitchen and reads the letter. Then suddenly, a series of jump cuts as the camera slowly begins to pull away and upwards, looking down at Mrs. O’Brien. The cuts are jarring and sudden, and they coincide with Mrs. O’Brien’s full understanding of the message of the letter, the flow of her life, her self is cut or interrupted violently. The camera pulls away, looks down on her, which creates a sense of leaving, or abandonment. It pulls away, as the cuts and camera become quicker and gradually more unstable, as if it were abandoning her to her grief. The scene is shot in near silence apart from a few diegetic sounds (her footsteps, letter opening etc.), but other than that, the room seems to echo a heavy silence, and the scene cuts suddenly just as Mrs. O’Brien begins to cry. This entire sequence is meant to signify a shift from a stable self, to a self that has lost its grounding (the love of her son). It does this by emphasizing emptiness, both in space in composition (the camera backs away from her and moves upwards, reducing her size emphasizing the empty room around her) and in sound (no music, no voice-over, little to no diegetic sound). The editing represents a sense of interruptions, the cuts end up seeming violent in contrast to the early sense of stability established by the scene’s smooth tracking when she initially receives the letter. The cuts are jarring and violent because her self is being ripped away. She lost something and is now becoming isolated, face to face with her despair. Again, we see the return of this “spirited camera,”[xxxiii] one that wishes to track the internal spiritual movement of its subjects. In this case, we get two important techniques: a drifting camera and a series of jump cuts. The drifting camera occurs after she reads the letter and the camera begins to depart away from her and upwards. The shift in angle creates a menacing space; she looks trapped as if she has fallen into a hole. Whereas before we were framed very close to her as she walks into her kitchen, this distance is her spirit as it moves away from self and therefore away from God. The jump cuts here work as the literal “cuts” which rip her spirit from her, which then drifts away causing her spiritual despair.

Jack’s Despair: Why should I be good, when you’re not?

Jack’s despair is in some ways a synthesis or combination of his mother and father’s despair. Kierkegaard notes that despair has nothing to do with age,[xxxiv] and Jack is in fact closer to true selfhood, which he achieves at the end of the film. Jack himself is by far the most complex character in the film, and consequently he suffers many moments of despair. I will examine only one such case, the despair of defiance which occurs after Jack witnesses the death of a boy at a public pool. “Was he bad?” Jack asks soon after the incident, before asking why he should be “good” when God seemingly is not. His rebellion against God is coupled with a rebellion against his father and with his group of young friends they begin an odyssey of minor acts of meaningless destruction, just to show that they can do it. “They say you can’t try stuff. They do,” one member of the gang tells Jack, as he whispers in his ear that his parents are keeping him “ignorant” like the proverbial snake in the Garden of Eden. Jack’s despair is the despairing to be oneself – he wishes to be without a master.  He wishes to break away from his “author,”[xxxv] to neglect this eternal part of him and become his own master, his own self. He ignores or tries to destroy his dependency on God. His despair is the most acute of all, for he is aware of God, is confronted by him and yet turns his back on Him. This borders on what Kierkegaard describes as a “demonic” despair[xxxvi], the worst of all despairs, in which you have the most consciousness of self (and therefore God) yet choose to look away from him. It is “wanting in despair to be itself for itself” instead of a selfhood that stands before God, it wishes to be a selfhood that stands before itself.[xxxvii] Jack’s mischievous behavior with other children is his moment of facing his own despair.

Jack’s encounter with his despair, like that of his mother and father, comes with a traumatic event, in his case, the death of another. This sequence occurs when a boy drowns in a public pool Jack and his brothers are playing in, and will cover three distinct spaces: the pool, the funeral, and Jack’s home afterwards (although his latter space is confused somewhat by temporal manipulations).  The scene is built up of children (Jack and his brothers included) playing idyllically by the poolside, the camera although not steady, sways whimsically. A drastic shift occurs when a boy suddenly goes limp, and a loud whistle is heard. The camera, positioned behind Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien suddenly becomes agitated as Mr. O’Brien stands up realizing something has gone wrong. What follows is a series of shots which directly match the eye line of Jack, establishing a high angle relationship, as if looking up helpless. What this establishes is the importance of this event on Jack, and the pool sequence ends on a close up of Jack’s stunned face. Like in both Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s sequences, the sound in the film gradually gives way to a dull hymn and is generally muted, establishing a sort of numb surprise which stands in sharp contrast with the idyllic scenes earlier which although free of music, were full of diegetic sound. The funeral space, which again is filmed from Jack’s eye line, sees him isolated compositionally in a very important movement. While walking away from the church, Mr. O’Brien puts his arms around his sons, and Jack breaks away, facing away from him back towards the church. If we see the idea of a father as a God, then we have Jack literally turning his back on God. Later, when we see Jack and his brothers playing in the cemetery, we hear Jack’s voiceover ask “was he bad?” and we cut to a rather haunting shot of a boy buried underground, a mental image of Jack’s imagination.

This occurs again when Jack asks his mother if she will die. There is then a cut to a glass coffin with her body in the forest. These psychological point of view shots emphasize the traumatic effect Jack’s encounter with death is and the powerful effect that it has left on him. The scenes themselves are somewhat ironic or contradictory: children playing in a cemetery while imagining a dead boy, playing while Jack’s voice-over speaks of the child’s death, etc. There is even a sense of historical irony as a truck spewing DDT passes by and the children begin to play with it. A modern audience knows that they are essentially playing with a poisonous pesticide, the scene becoming a morbid affair under cut by the children’s laughter. What these contradictions show is Jack’s confusion and frustration with the banality of death: how can we just carry on with our lives when we might die at any moment? How do we know when God may choose to take us? These contradictions mimic’s Jack’s spiritual strife – the world begins to seem nonsensical to him. Finally, the DDT fog is telling because it literally surrounds Jack in a fog, and it coincides with his voiceover declaring, “why should I be good when you’re not?” The clarity of youth begins to dissipate into the grayish reality of death. This moment predates Jack’s later turn to his gang of troublemakers, his rebellion against his parents and consequently of God. Although this sequence seems to lapse into a camera which is decidedly psychological (the non-diegetic inserts strongly suggest this), I think that the reality is more complex. The images themselves may come from Jack’s mind but the camera movement within those shots represents his soul’s emotional relationship to those thoughts. In the shot of the boy underground, the camera tilts down to the boy and then pushes in – in an almost emphatic way, as if Jack were realizing that one day he’ll be like that boy. The shot with his mother in a coffin has a similar feel, although when we cut close, the camera glides along the glass, as if stroking it. The move is tender and is indicative of Jack’s soul reaching a truth – the certainty of death.

True Selfhood: It was they who led me to your door.

As noted in the section detailing Kierkegaard’s despair, the idea of true selfhood is never actually described at length like the sickness of despair is. This may be because Kierkegaard himself believes that this kind of selfhood is so difficult to achieve that he himself has not achieved it, and so is at pains to describe it. From what is included in the text, Kierkegaard sees selfhood as an individual who stands and answers directly to God,[xxxviii] and someone who has faith by accepting the contradictions and absurdities of the world and acknowledges their self’s dependency on the being that grounded them in the eternal, i.e. God. The film’s narrative structure can be seen as a parallel between an individual’s struggle through despair into true selfhood. Near the beginning of the film, we see a grown Jack struggling with the memories of his brother’s demise. Then we cut to him wandering in a desert, led on by a mysterious woman in white who beckons him to “come join us.” The same angelic women dressed in white are featured in the birth scene, where young Jack is seen in an Eden like meadow and ushered into the world by these angelic figures. He comes to a doorway, and seems to struggle as he peers through it. Near the end of the film (after the father’s encounter with his despair) we return to Jack in the desert and the mysterious doorway, only this time he crosses that threshold. Once he does, he appears on a beach, with figures from his past, present and those angelic women. He encounters each: father, mother, brother, friends, his younger self, etc. fondly. He is accepting the tensions, contradictions in his life, the struggle between his mother and father (at one point remarking “mother, father, forever you wrestle inside me”), between his younger self and older and comes to peace with them. He accepts them. The “door” he refers to being led to was at the end of the corridor of despair, “they” referring to those moments of despair. However, this isn’t heaven in the literal sense, Jack hasn’t died. We cut to him outside his work place, smiling to myself. The process is internal, not psychological but a spiritual process.

Framing and setting are both immensely important in manifesting this idea of a self before God. We begin in a desert, Jack standing at a doorway hesitating. The camera then tilts upwards to reframe into a high angle, the sky occupying a large portion of the frame. Finally, Jack crosses the threshold and after a jump cut into the middle of a women’s dress, the screen abruptly cuts to black. We then slowly see a small black dot behind an enormous palate of fire and a blazing light; a speck before something infinite. Jack’s voice whispers, “keep us”, as we cut to a closer shot of the small black sphere (a planet perhaps?) as it slowly merges with the edge of the light. This is almost a literal visual representation of a small individual (there is only one sphere) before an eternal being, something which grounds all others. A very strong visual pattern begins to emerge within the frame, that of light. Light breaks through doorways and windows; candles are lit in the dark by children, etc. Finally, we get a shot looking up through a hole in the earth, dug like a grave with a woman extending her arm, reaching downwards. In the top right of the frame, an arm extends from behind the camera, reaching towards the woman’s. It is a powerful image, one that speaks of resurrection, an intensively personal resurrection at that. There is a series of shots which show us doorways, stairways, corridors, and a strange shot of two bodies wrapped in cloth. The camera slowly tilts up away from the bodies to the sky which eventually fills the frame. All of this leads to Jack finally emerging on a beach, where he encounters figures from his past and present, including his dead brother. The transitions between settings is telling: a desert (devoid of life, alone, isolating) to a series of shots from a variety of different places which end with the shot of the bodies and the resurrection scene, to finally a beach. The beach is sparse; there are no trees or buildings. Individuals are surrounded by nothing but sky which occupies a huge amount of the screen. The sky has already been established as “where God lives”, and it is telling that in this moment of true self hood figures are framed up against an enormous sky. The camera is often positioned in a low angle, looking up at a character and the sky. This again reinforces the idea that they are now directly before God, with nothing in between them. Although like the previous scenes there is little diegetic sound during this sequence, music plays a much more important part. The music is triumphant, swelling and revelatory, rather than sparse downbeat and remorseful. This sequence’s framing foregrounds both human individuals and the sky, creating a visual representation of Kierkegaard’s individual before God. The soul during this moment of selfhood is not in despair, and Malick’s camera reflects this. Gone are the frantic movements and intimidating angles, and although the cutting is relatively quicker than in earlier scenes, it isn’t due to alarm or trauma but rather to a redemptive joy, working in concert with the sequence’s triumphant score.


Malick’s films are indeed deeply philosophical (and theological for that matter), but these themes and ideas are not expressed simply by dialogue or voice-over. Malick’s cinema is one that expresses deep philosophical concerns through his form, through a camera which parallels its characters spiritual search for God in often despairing worlds. In the case of Tree of Life, I have used Kierkegaard’s idea of Christian despair as a way of exploring these themes and as a way to place them in a larger philosophical context, and to demonstrate how one can use philosophical ideas in correlation with film analysis without either neglecting the formal elements of the film, or forcing the film to conform to an a priori concept. But rather as a way of furthering one’s understanding of a film.

[i] Richard Neer, “Terrence Malick’s New World” Issue # 2, June 12th 2011.

[ii] Alastair Hannay, introduction to Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening by Soren Kierkegaard (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 4.

[iii] Hannay, Introduction, 7

[iv] David Sterritt, “Days of Heaven and Waco: Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life” Film Quarterly, Vol. 65 No. 1 (Fall 2011) 52

[v] Sterrit, “Days of Heaven,” 52

[vi] Sterrit, “Days of Heaven,” 52

[vii] Sterritt, “Days of Heaven,” 53. Sterrit claims that Jack’s brother drowns in the pool, when in fact it was just a friend.

[viii] Sterritt, “Days of Heaven,” 57.

[ix] Sterritt, “Days of Heaven,” 52

[x] Neer, “Terrence Malick”

[xi] Neer, “Terrence Malick”

[xii] Hannay, introduction, 7

[xiii] Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death, 72.

[xiv] Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death, 98.

[xv] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 79

[xvi] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 69

[xvii] Hannay, introduction, 8-10

[xviii] Hannay, introduction, 22.

[xix] Hannay, Introduction, 5.

[xx] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 66

[xxi] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 43.

[xxii] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 43.

[xxiii] Hannay, introduction, 11.

[xxiv] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 49-50.

[xxv] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 100.

[xxvi] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 78

[xxvii] Hannay, introduction, 4

[xxviii] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 49.

[xxix] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 63

[xxx] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 63

[xxxi] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 63

[xxxii] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 50.

[xxxiii] Sterritt, “Days of Heaven” 55.   This is ironic given Sterritt’s disdain for Malick’s theological sensibilities.

[xxxiv] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 90

[xxxv] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 99.

[xxxvi] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 103.

[xxxvii] Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, 99.

[xxxviii] Hannal, Introduction, 25

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Soren. Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening. Translated by Alastair Hannay. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Neer, Richard. “Terrence Malick’s New World”, Issue #2, June 12, 2011.

Sterritt, David. “Days of Heaven and Waco: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 65, No. 1 (Fall 2011) p. 52-57

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