“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in things that have been made.” –Romans 1
In The Tree of Life, the main character, Jack O’Brien, asks God, “When did you first touch my heart?” He eventually answers this with: “Mother, brother, it was they that led me to your door.”
Here are two questions: 1) When did God begin to draw Jack to himself? and 2) Who did God use in the process?
The film is such a meditative treatise on life and suffering that it’s somewhat difficult to explain its attributes. Many of the scenes are simply the characters living their daily lives with what seem like prayers spoken to God in the background. During Jack’s early years, he plays in the neighborhood with his brothers and friends like any boy: summer nights and catching fireflies.
There’s the devious side of boyhood mischief on display as well. Again, I’m reminded of The Karamazov Brothers and how even the innocent youth can be cruel without guidance and the temperate presence of an adult’s supervision. Jack and his friends break windows and set off a rocket with a frog attached. Individually he breaks into a young woman’s house and steals her undergarments, which he immediately takes to the river and sends down the tow as if trying to absolve himself of the shame of his actions.
For a large portion of the film, Jack’s anger toward his father verges on bitterness. At one point he coaxes his younger brother (the one whose death at war is communicated to the parents at the beginning) into putting his finger at the end of the muzzle of an air rifle. Jack promises he won’t shoot, but once the trusting brother places his finger on the end, Jack pulls the trigger.
Later, the younger brother will forgive Jack in an extremely poignant scene–and it is this forgiveness that begins the process of Jack’s ascension back toward the way of grace.
If Jack’s brother is the catalyst, then the mother is the guide. Her kind words and sensitive nature whisper to him in reassuring tones. She weathers the storm of the father’s heated reactions to any impertinence he perceives, real or imagined. She lays down her life daily to keep the peace and hold the family of males together. She is the sun they unknowingly orbit around.
By the time Jack is an adult (played by Sean Penn), he has clearly retained the kindness his brother and mother instilled within him. Their way of grace also helped the germinating seed of sensitivity grow and persevere. Notice how distraught Jack is as a middle-aged man. It’s not explicitly stated, but he’s most likely dealing with the death of his brother in his later years, and the warring nature against the way of grace still rumbles within his heart. He seems to be as good a man as any, but the heart of every human is a complicated mess.