“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Job 38:4-7
The verse from Job above is the beginning legend for Terrence Malick’s new cinematic exploration of the meaning of life, the universe, and suffering through the experience of family and loss. This is another poetically pondering, visually strong, story weak, humanly cold metaphysical film in Malick’s portfolio of increasingly distant filmmaking. I must say, his films usually bore me with their self-absorbed pretention and lack of storytelling. But, despite all its weaknesses, this one had some strengths that made the overly long 2 hours and 15 minutes more worthy and grew on me long after my initial viewing. It is the emotional journey of a family in the 1950s struggling with the death of their eldest of three sons, the youngest of which grows up (Sean Penn) and ponders the event on the anniversary of his brother’s death many years later.
Eventually, the movie enters into a 15-minute cinematic panorama of the universe that illustrates a Biblical concept of creation. We are introduced to a myriad of supernovas and condensing star galaxies all the way down to microbial ocean life on earth, up an evolutionary chain of complexity to fish and amphibian, through dinosaurs, including an extinguishing meteoric crash on earth and ultimately to the birth of a human baby. All of this is accompanied by a soundtrack that is at times haunting ambience and at times operatic angelic chorus. It is all quite spiritual, stunning, and grand, though arguably an awkward tangent in terms of drama and story. I would counter that this is not mere metaphysical aesthetic posturing, but rather an actual rooting of the smaller story of our suffering in the bigger story (metanarrative) of the universe created by God. For that reason, this ranks as profound art.
The theme of the movie is telegraphed through the interior thoughts of the mother of the family played as a silent long suffering housewife by Jessica Chastain, as she ponders, “There are two ways in life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have two choices which to follow.” She then describes grace in Christian terms of selflessness and sacrifice, while the way of nature is selfish and concerned with its own survival. She and her husband, played by Brad Pitt, become the symbolic living versions of these worldviews. The father, incarnating the “nature” side of that equation, raises his three boys by being firm to the point of harsh, making rules and punishing with a distantness that even deadens his loving affection for his sons by requiring them to kiss him goodnight as one of the rules. He teaches them how to fight, and he teaches them how to become strong in life, in a survival of the fittest mentality. “You make yourself what you are. You make your own destiny.”
Yet, all along, the movie is accented with multiple interior dialogues as voiceovers expressing the inner emotional questions for God, depicted at times as a flowery ethereal flame: “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate,” “Always you were calling me,” “Lord, where were you? Who are we to you?” This is certainly the authentic struggle of every one of us has who has faith in God yet honestly tries to face the hard realities of the world’s suffering and pain. And in some ways, the pondering voiceovers are exactly what those of us do experience in our quiet moments that correspond to the long drawn out beautiful cinematic scenes of this film. It just doesn’t work well as drama.
We see the eldest son’s coming of age as he teases a girl he is attracted to, sneaks into the neighbor’s house to examine a woman’s lingerie with characteristic male curiosity, and becomes ashamed before his mother in an analogy of the loss of innocence. And then he joins a gang of young boys who walk around with destructive tendencies, breaking windows, tying a frog to a bottle rocket, and finally defying mother. In today’s extreme movies about gang rapes, school shootings, and teen sex, this is a refreshingly sensitive portrayal of the essential truth of the loss of innocence and coming of age that youth experiences.
The father, though he is a 50s cliché of the hard working chauvinistic male who has no intimacy with wife or kids, has redemption in the end as we hear his own inner journey of repentance after his son dies and he loses his job. “I wanted to be loved because I was great. I’m nothing. I dishonored the glory. I am a foolish man.” The mother ponders, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good, wonder, hope.” And in her prayers we hear, “Keep us, guide us till the end of time.” “I give him to you. I give you my son.”
This is a deep exploration of a biblical spiritual journey with faith in God and suffering that resonates deeply. The movie’s biggest weakness is that in the end it is so interior and isolated in its visual reality and so lacking in the real intimacy of human drama that it tends to leave one sadly dissatisfied. One examines an intellectual spirituality that addresses the human-to-divine connection aesthetically, while lacking the human-to-human connection that is equally necessary to redemption of the human condition. It is not enough to experience a Gnostic monastic idea of God; we understand his fullness through humanity as well, in human connection and community. It is the point of the Incarnation, God and man. After all, it was God who said, “It is not good for man to be alone” after creating Adam in fellowship with himself. The Tree of Life illustrates that we need community—and that Terrence Malick needs community to take his storytelling one step closer to the truth.