Jack O’Brien’s Secular and Sacred Journeys in The Tree of Life

Here’s another essay from last semester that I’d like to share with you. The assignment prompt from my Sacred Journeys class: analyze a film that answers the question, is there such thing as a secular sacred journey?


Two Journeys Through Life

The Tree of Life (2011) was writer-director Terrence Malick’s fifth film in his forty-year career. The film follows Jack as he grows up with his two brothers and parents in Texas during the 1950s. A former Harvard philosophy student, Malick’s first titles achieved a cult following for their breathtaking cinematography, enigmatic voice-over, and philosophic musings. Though filmgoers knew to expect a unique viewing experience from Malick’s latest, no one was quite prepared for the polarized response. More words were spilled analyzing The Tree of Life than on any other release last year. 95875[r5].pdfSome viewers despised the film so much that the theaters put up signs effectively warning, “Caution: art film. No refunds.” Those who hated the movie had trouble deciphering its nonlinear, impressionistic narrative. Other audience members declared the movie a masterpiece; Roger Ebert placed it on his list of the ten greatest films of all time. For these viewers, the film is a wellspring for dissection and appreciation. Despite its unconventional story, a recent revisit reveals just how structured Jack’s movement through adolescence really is. On the surface, The Tree of Life is about Jack coming to terms with the discovery of suffering and the loss of his innocence. This is his secular journey. On a deeper level, his journey is framed by the statement that one must choose to live according to the way of nature, or by the way of grace. This spiritual dogma drives Jack’s internal sacred journey. Accordingly, The Tree of Life illustrates a template for the secular sacred journey.


Before we establish the mechanics of the secular sacred journey, it is best to define the three parts of this phrase. The secular refers to the non-religious aspects of Jack’s growth. His introduction to suffering and his loss of innocence arise because of his encounters with other human beings, and not with himself or god.

Conversely, it is Jack’s internal process of self-discovery that is sacred. Jack does have a relationship with god, but his belief – if not always his faith – remains unchanged throughout the film. From the start, the movie poses his struggle to resolve his father (nature) and his mother’s (grace) warring philosophies as a godly pursuit. Indeed, the film opens with the mother’s voice-over, emphasis added: “The nuns taught us there are two was through life; the way of nature and the way of grace. You’ll have to choose which one you’ll follow.”[1] The father’s way of nature is survival of the fittest and values selfish wealth and power. Grace is simple, nurturing, and selfless.[2] In this way, Jack’s journey is sacred, assuming his search for spiritual definition is classified as sacred.

The final definition to be clarified is that of a journey. As implied, Jack’s secular and sacred growth occurs internally; he does not physically travel anywhere. Can, therefore, his character development be classified as a journey? This paper assumes yes. Jack moves from one internal state to another during the film. With these definitions in place, we are ready to examine Jack’s journey in The Tree of Life as both secular and sacred.

Stages of Adolescent Jack O’Brien’s Character Journey

55:30 – Jack is exposed to the Mother’s way through life: grace
58:50 – Jack is exposed to the Father’s way through life: nature
1:10:53 – Jack’s peer drowns, Jack questions God’s grace, turns to nature (shots of him looking at women)
1:25:00 – The Father leaves, Jack tear-asses through the neighborhood
1:30:50 – Jack steals into the neighbor’s house, takes her slip
1:34:10 – Jack feels shame for taking the slip, recognizes the extent of his nature
1:37:15 – Jack lashes out at his brothers and tries to engineer RL’s fall from grace to mirror his own
1:41:36 – The Father returns home and Jack turns his anxiety toward his parents. He is further ashamed that he is like his father, whose behavior he despises.
1:47:09 – Jack shoots RL and realizes he has gone too far down the nature rabbit hole
1:49:57 – Jack returns to grace, apologizes to RL, and shows compassion to his burned friend – he learns to love
1:55:59 – Jack reconciles with his father, having accepted both is nature and grace
2:12:00 – Now disillusioned adult-Jack remembers a time (shown in TTOL) where he learned to reconcile nature and grace


The Secular Journey

Jack undergoes a secular journey as his discovery of suffering and sexual awakening cause his loss of innocence. Early in the film, the mother shields a young Jack’s eyes from a neighbor having a seizure on their lawn. Though he would be too young to internalize the incident, Malick establishes the sheltered environment in which the brothers are raised. vlcsnap-2013-01-16-23h40m33s133A number of years later, Jack and his middle brother, R.L. see a man hobbling through the town with a clubbed foot. Jack turns and stares as a quick music cue fades into the soundtrack: Jack sees illness for the first time.During the same visit, the boys watch criminals being arrested by the police. Steve, the youngest, asks in voice-over, “Can it happen to anyone? Nobody talks about it.” Could they also become criminals? This line implies that the boys have only just been exposed to the world’s hardships. Their illusion of purity is shattered.The key turning point in Jack’s recognition of suffering comes when a peer drowns in the town swimming pool. vlcsnap-2011-10-18-21h20m35s247 He implores god: “Was he bad? …Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”While the voice-over intones, we see images of a house on fire cut against shots of Jack’s friend with a burned scalp. Jack wonders why bad things happen to good people, and if this is true, then he sees little value in being good.[3]

Surely, the next scenes show Jack tear-assing through the neighborhood with other boys, breaking windows and shooting firecrackers. Jack begins peering into houses on his block, staring too long at the mothers’ female beauty. The viewer only has to see the actress’ dress flash above her knee before we understand what Jack is thinking. His loss of innocence is complete when he steals into a neighbor’s bedroom and lays her nightgown onto the bed. vlcsnap-2011-10-23-00h32m03s83The next shot tracks Jack, wracked with guilt, running along the river trying to dispose of the slip. It is implied that Jack has had a sexual awakening and is unsure how to react. He wishes he could regain his brothers’ innocence: “What have I started?… How do I get back where they are?” As all adolescents do, Jack must now mark his place in a world with suffering and sin. The mother did her best to keep Jack from encountering this world beyond her lawn (as did the Buddha’s father). Jack’s prelapsarian, sheltered life is contrasted well against his outbursts and anxiety caused by the loss of his innocence. This spiritual confusion does little to pad the landing of his Fall. For Jack to find inner peace, he must experience a sacred journey to choose between nature versus grace.

The Sacred Journey

Jack is emotionally damaged because he cannot find an internal balance between his father’s way of nature and his mother’s way of grace. As stated earlier, this disconnect is a religious one. Without understanding Malick’s literary references, the viewer understands that the characters are spiritual people. The mother playfully twirls her son and points to the sky – “that’s where god lives.” They go to church every Sunday, say grace before meals, and pray to god. Jack questions, “Are you watching me? I want to know what you are.”[4] The cinematography also illustrates this spirituality. The camera is ever reaching, tracking closer to the heavens, panning upwards to greet god.

Despite his faith, Jack has reached a crisis point. Jack believes his mother can make him “good, brave.” Behind his back, however, the father advises: “Your mother is naïve. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world… If you’re good, people take advantage of you… The world lives by trickery.” vlcsnap-2011-10-23-00h29m35s0With these conflicting messages, it is inevitable that Jack will become a confused and damaged adolescent. After his loss of innocence, Jack begins to lash out, testing the way of nature. It is as if he knows that his theft and sexuality renounce grace, so he decides to externalize his feelings.

Jack puts survival of the fittest to the test. R.L. has previously followed the way of grace, and Jack experiments to learn whether his brother could succumb to nature – to the Fall – as he did. One day, R.L. and Jack are shooting BB guns in the forest. Jack again decides to test his brother’s trust and asks R.L. to place his finger over the muzzle. Jack pulls the trigger. As R.L. runs away, the viewer comprehends that this is the moment Jack descended too far down the path of nature. Jack realizes this as well: “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.”

Jack’s sacred journey continues as he resolves to create balance in his life. Jack apologizes to R.L. for shooting his finger and is forgiven. The film’s score picks up and marks the shift in Jack’s hopeful tone. In another scene, he plays outside with his friend who was burned in the house fire. vlcsnap-2011-10-23-00h29m10s143Jack puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder in a tremendous show of compassion and grace.[5] The viewer understands that the gesture is more for Jack’s benefit than for the boy’s. Jack has matured to face suffering and offers grace in return. He literally comes to terms with his nature by joining his father pulling weeds, a chore to which he was previously resistant. Despite integrating the way of grace into his life, Jack tells his father, “I’m more like you than her.” His secular journey anxieties are calmed by his sacred journey. Malick concludes Jack’s sacred journey with his mother’s advice; the differences between nature and grace melt away as long as Jack can simply love.


The Tree of Life is a deeply personal film that affects viewers differently. Those who admire the film have found themselves emphasizing with Jack’s secular and sacred journeys. Perhaps they, too, have had the same anxieties. Terrence Malick pulls off an incredible feat by crafting such deep meaning into a film. His use of the secular and sacred adds to our understanding of what a journey can be. Secular journeys are directed outward as the protagonist interacts with those around him. Sacred journeys, however, can be internal with the hero finding the best way to live. The Tree of Life shows how these two journeys can coexist. The secular discovery of suffering and the loss of innocence must first occur before the protagonist can undergo his spiritual journey to reconcile his place in the world. By this template, Life of the Buddha, Gilgamesh, and Dante’s Inferno are all secular sacred journeys.


Works Cited

Malick, Terrence, dir. The Tree of Life. 2011. Film.

Olivelle, Patrick (translator). Life of the Buddha. 1st ed. Canto 4. New York: New York University Press: JJC Foundation, 2008. Print.

Wesley, John. “Thomas À Kempis – The Different Motions Of Nature And Grace.” Restart. 29 2011. Web. 08 Dec 2012.


[1] Analysts discovered that the film’s depiction of the differences between nature and grace reference almost verbatim Thomas À Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. He writes, emphasis added: “My child, pay careful attention to the movements of nature and grace, for they move in very contrary subtle ways, and can scarcely be distinguished by anyone except a man who is spiritual and inwardly enlightened” (Wesley).

[2] Malick beautifully personifies each parent’s philosophy in mirrored scenes. The mother, for example, playfully slips ice down her sons’ shirts to wake them up, while the father rips off their bed sheets to start the day.

[3] These scenes where Jack discovers the suffering in the world are reminiscent of those in Life of the Buddha. Just as the Buddha discovers sickness, old age, and death, Jack witnesses the seizure, the man with a clubbed foot, convicts, his drowned peer, and his burned friend. The similarities between these “sights” are meant to bolster the argument that Jack is on a journey (as was the Buddha) and are a testament to Malick’s literacy that he could draw such a parallel.

[4] In one of the most honest moments in the film, the viewer eavesdrops on Jack praying at his bedside. These are his innermost thoughts: “Help me not to sass my dad. Help me not to get dogs in fights. Help me be thankful for everything I got. Help me not to tell lies.”

[5] Detractors might find these spontaneous displays of emotion to be too on the nose, but they are necessary as milestones on Jack’s sacred journey.

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