When Terence Malick's new film The Tree of Life finally ended (after several tries), half of the audience hooted with derisive laughter; the other half, in which I include myself, sat in stunned silence, contemplating the immense sadness of this supremely daring film. Whether you will find yourself among the hooting or the humbled—or somewhere in between—you will not be alone.
The Tree of Life begins with a quote from the Book of Job—one of God’s answers to that greatest of questions which Job poses to Him: Wherefore the injustice of undeserved suffering, wherefore in the midst of life do tragedy and evil find us out? The question with which God answers Job and which Malick quotes—“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”—is, of course, meant to humble and to silence. But what Malick left out of the epigraph—and what the rest of his movie essentially replies to—is the command that God speaks next to Job: “Declare, if you have understanding.”
The Tree of Life is no more or less than Malick’s declaration, his understanding of the great question that the Book of Job poses and the question that God asks and to which there is seemingly no answer. In an incredible act of hubris, Malick replies to God on both a breathtaking macrocosmic level—actually showing us God laying the foundations of the earth—and on a deeply moving microcosmic one, and in both instances the understanding that he comes to is the same. We—all of us, children, parents, worlds, stars, galaxies, and universes—share the exact same fate. We are born; we grow into being, from innocence to experience; and then, sooner or later, we suffer the near-annihilation of profound loss. People we love are destroyed, not by purpose but by the mischance that is built into the woof and warp of the universe. What God asks of us is to accept and to persevere as best we can (if we can) holding on to love and faith even knowing that we will be permanently scarred by the unwarranted blows of fate and, of course, eventually annihilated ourselves. There is nothing singular or personal or punitive about this cycle of existence; the fate of Job is quite simply the fate of everything.
Most reviewers seem to have been puzzled by the gorgeous concatenation of special effects, Hubble-like images, and Jurassic creatures that Malick inserts a third of the way into what starts off as the story of the small triumphs and joys, bitter frustrations, hard but important lessons, and eventual tragedies that befall the O’Brien family in Waco,Texas in the fifties —a father, mother, and their children, one on the cusp of adolescence whose lives are so closely and authentically observed that, speaking as a child who grew up in the fifties in a working-class neighborhood not unlike that of the O’Briens, I have never seen its like.
This is precisely and profoundly the way the world looked, the way it felt, the way it mystified and intrigued and disappointed and exalted, the way it stayed the same and yet inexorably changed, the way it delighted, the way it confused, and the way it hurt to a child in the conformist 1950s. It is the truest realization of childhood--from a child's point of view- ever committed to film.
To interrupt this amazingly observed, Job-like story of obedience, discovery, and dissolution with some kind of trippy light show (like the “beyond-infinity sequence” in 2001) in which we witness God laying the foundations of the earth has struck many as incredibly pretentious. All I can say is that I did not see it this way. To me the function of this divagation worked perfectly in the context of the film, for its entire point is to show that even God’s creation—the world and the life that inhabits it—is subject to the vagaries of fate—in this instance, the great extinction brought about by the meteor that ended life in the Jurassic period. Malick’s declaration in The Tree of Life is s a simple truth that is complexly, beautifully, audaciously expressed: The selfsame fate, the cycle of being and destruction, that befalls men befalls…everything. It is not theology exactly, but it is, in fact, a curious form of consolation—to declare that the cycle of our lives is the cycle of the lives of all things God has created, to assert that He is there but the worlds He created are as subject to mischance—to the laws of a nature that He himself created—as we ourselves are is to say that periodic destruction is simply the way His act of creation works.
It is also, of course, a heartbreakingly sad pereception. Although the world and the dreams of Mr. O’Brien, the Job of this tale, are eventually broken apart—and children and parents alike must endure the heartbreaking loss of their childhood home—and although the O’Briens are subsequently visited by an even crueler blow of fate from which none of them fully recovers, Malick finds hope in the persistence of love and of what I take to be the possibility of an afterlife (or, at least, dream life), where what we loved and lost is restored as we loved it most,. Had I not forced myself to man up at the close of this movie, I would’ve burst into tears of sadness and wonder.
That a mere movie could bring me to this (and to all the memories of childhood that it vividly conjured), that it could dare to offer a vision of how life works for all things, of how God works (of all that he commands and all that, by the very violence of the act of creation, he does not), that it dares to offer the consolations of philosophy to our Job-like questioning is unique in my moviegoing experience.
All of Malick’s film are about the big questions—the war (as a character in Thin Red Line puts it) at the heart of nature between love and hate, good and evil, man and man, innocence and experience, sometimes united in a single character like the childlike sociopath Kit in Badlands, about whom the last things we hear, in its wonderful finish in the clouds, are the state trooper saying in helpless, perplexed, vaguely amused wonderment at this terrifying specimen of humanity: “You’re quite an individual, Kit.” To which Kit, who has murdered many men and women, replies in his appallingly innocent way: “You think they’ll take that into consideration?”
Whether it be his haunting recasting of the Abraham, Sarai, and Pharoah story in the quasi-Biblical Days of Heaven, or his war-movie-cum-Passion-Play The Thin Red Line or his coffee-table-book vision of paradise lost in The New World, all of Malick’s films are also as God-haunted as a sacred grove, filled with a natural beauty that is more than merely beautiful—but then nothing is merely beautiful (or merely anything) in Malick’s films. Everything is invested with spirit, with power, with God, with meaning, with us.
Because he’s always toying with big ideas and shamelessly unafraid to express them (in voiceover and image), Malick’s films are not easy to digest (or particularly enjoyable to watch). Some of them don’t work at all. Badlands does, famously. Days of Heaven mostly does (its ending is particularly memorable). The other two, not so much. Even in The Tree of Life, there is overreaching. The film certainly ends too many times; and its ambitions, though misunderstood I think by reviewers and many moviegoers, have put some people off. And yet, as audacious as it may be, The Tree of Life is, IMO, an almost uniquely great film—an answer to the unanswerable Book of Job, a Consolations of Philosophy turned into film art.