What does the climactic scene in ‘The Tree of Life’ mean (and why does it evoke the final episode of ‘Lost’)?


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[Spoiler alert: This post discusses the meaning of a key scene in ‘The Tree of Life.’ If you’ve not seen the film, read at your own peril.]

For filmgoers who’ve seen ‘The Tree of Life,’ there’s perhaps no scene as intriguing as the climactic one, in which the O’Briens (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and the kids) as well as others reunite on a windswept beach. Of the many water-cooler moments in Terence Malick’s existential drama, it’s probably the one that’s most often argued about. Are the characters alive? Dead? Is it the future? Heaven? Or is the scene just something that’s unfolding in the mind of Penn’s Jack O’Brien?


Fox Searchlight, which released the Malick movie, last week convened a number of religion and academic experts in Los Angeles to discuss the film and the meaning of several scenes, including that final one. (They didn’t always agree.) What follows is a rundown of a few of their interpretations on that beachside reunion. Please leave your impressions below.

Dr. Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Citing Malick’s Episcopalian background, Johnston sees the scene as a product of the Episcopalian belief that the afterlife makes things that are broken whole again. ‘Part of the ability to process pain ... comes from the experience that the world is whole again.... That’s what Malick is saying. He’s going back to his Episcopalian tradition. Black, white, poor and rich, we will be together again [in the afterlife].’

David Wolpe, conservative rabbi, Sinai Temple. Mentioning the end of the ABC television series ‘Lost,’ another beach-heavy piece of entertainment whose finale featured a reunion of characters who might or might not be dead, Wolpe said he saw the final scene as a way of contextualizing (if not explaining) human suffering. ‘God couldn’t [explain] suffering in Job, and Malick couldn’t do it in ‘Tree of Life.’ What [God and Malick] can give us is a moment of beauty ... [a chance] to escape your corner of the universe.’

Sister Rose Pacatte of the Pauline Center for Media Studies. For her, the beach was a representation of a bridge between this world and the afterlife, a ‘lean imagining,’ she said, and ‘a metaphor of crossing over.’ Water, which figures heavily in that scene, is an ideal image to symbolize the crossing over because it represents the creation of life in Catholic theology.

But perhaps the most resonant description of the beach scene came from Scott Young, executive director of the university religious conference at UCLA. ‘I’m not sure I have an interpretation for the end of the film,’ he said.

— Steven Zeitchik