Terrence Malick’s spiritual epic The Tree of Life is one of the most ambitious films of all-time. The film explores the deepest questions about the origins of life and the creation of the universe, but it’s also centered on an intimate coming-of-age story of a young boy’s defining childhood influences. In the decade since its release, The Tree of Life has been adorned as a future classic; it received three Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, appeared on the Sight & Sound list of all-time great movies, and appeared on famed critic Roger Ebert’s personal list of ten favorite movies. With all this praise, let’s break down the ambiguous ending of this stunning movie.
The film opens by showing the birth of the universe and proceeds to tell the origins of Earth’s natural environments. The formation of early life shows the evolution of sea creatures, plants, and later dinosaurs, but the story then flashes to a small town in Texas in the 1960s. The couple, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), raise three children: Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), and the three boys wrestle with the warring influences of their father’s aggression and their mother’s compassion. Later scenes show an older Jack (Sean Penn) reflecting on his adolescence.
The film’s ending may leave some viewers scratching their heads, as Malick often opts for ambiguous endings within his diverse filmography. The older Jack is haunted by a tragic series of incidents in his childhood. He sees a vulnerability within his father for the first time, who admits that he’s disappointed about the direction of his life and his inability to follow his true passions. It scares Jack to see his generally austere father break down in tears, and that inital shock comes back to him when he recognizes that his own life is taking a similar direction.
It’s also during these pivotal youthful flashbacks that Jack experiences death for the first time; two of his close childhood friends perish within accidents, and as a result, Jack feels more matured. He grows spiteful towards his father, who had just opened up to him, and begins to track his brutish behavior and grows more cynical. Jack also lashes out at his mother; instead of feeling empathetic for how she managed to raise her sons amidst a difficult marriage, he criticizes her for supposedly tolerating his abuse.
Jack’s guilt over his cruel words returns to him as he rides the elevator during the final sequence. He also remembers an incident of youthful abandonment when he took advantage of his mother’s passiveness. When his father is gone on a business trip, Jack breaks into the home of his crush and steals her nightgown. His newfound criminality and sexuality frighten him, and his guilt intensifies when his father returns and reveals that he’s lost his job. Not only does Jack never go through the consequences of his crime, but the painful move remains forever tied to the end of his childhood.
This residual guilt is an important part of Jack’s character, as he seeks to atone to his mother. During the final scene, he has a vision of an adolescent girl leading him across a tundra amidst a cosmic event. Within his vision, he encounters the young version of himself alongside many of the dead who have returned to life, including his family.
Jack gets to embrace his family one last time, but getting to embrace his mother as he enters the afterlife gives Jack closure on his youthful misdeeds. Mrs. O’Brien dispatches Jack to the next stage as she’s accompanied by two angelic like figures that take him away. Mrs. O’Brien says “I give him to you. I give you my son.” Jack smiles before he is returned to his normal office job and his dream concludes. It can be implied that at this moment, Jack has accepted both his past and his eventual fate.
There are many ways to interpret this ending, but it’s hinted that Malick is simply completing his metaphor on the cyclical process of renewal and rebirth by moving further within the timeline. As Jack is guided, the sun can be seen expanding into a red giant and then shrinking into a white dwarf, hinting at the eventual end of Earth itself. It seems that Jack is seeing his own journey into the afterlife, thus explaining why figures from his past are reappearing.
Malick’s films often incorporate voiceovers and Jack’s voice can be heard throughout the film, so it’s entirely possible that the entire story is grounded in Jack’s perception of events and his interpretations of his own memories. In his youth, books on dinosaurs and astronomy can be seen in Jack’s bedroom, so perhaps the “birth of the universe” sequence is based on Jack’s understanding as well. This would explain some of the more covert Biblical imagery, as the O’Briens can be seen going to Church.
The ending can be interpreted as an optimistic one. It reflects that while all life must end, be it Jack or the Earth itself, it will eventually be replaced by something new. Jack’s death and the implosion of the sun are both seen as a thing of beauty, and he is left content as his vision fades and the enigmatic lights flicker in the distance. It indicates that Jack, like the viewer, isn’t meant to understand everything about existence, and he accepts his own personal journey.
It’s unlikely that cinephiles will get a definitive answer on the film’s meaning. The notoriously reclusive Malick rarely gives interviews or does public speaking events, and he’s never attempted to explain The Tree of Life. It’s clear that Malick enjoys these thought-provoking existential questions; his next film The Way of the Wind will recreate chapters of the Bible starring Géza Röhrig as Jesus and Mark Rylance as Satan.