Is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life a pretentious mess or a profound masterpiece?
A deeply religious meditation on grace, nature and the mystery of suffering, or a philosophically confused, contradictory muddle of themes and images?
Here is a film that not only asks, with unusual insistence, why God allows suffering, but contemplates God’s own answer to that question in the Book of Job, amplified by the sweeping vistas of the natural world available to modern science, the Hubble telescope and Hollywood special effects: God did all this; who are we to think we can judge or question him? It also asks why a stern, bullying father hurts his children. Is God like that father?
The Tree of Life blends an impressionistic portrait of a Catholic family living in a suburb of Waco, Texas, in the 1950s (and glimpsed in later decades) with a majestic procession of images from distant galaxies to microscopic organisms, exploding volcanoes to wounded dinosaurs. There are also surreal images and flashes of magical realism. Some critics have felt that Malick would have done better to omit the IMAX eye candy and focus on the human story; others have argued that it’s the cosmic grandeur that works and the banal human story that bogs it down.
The Tree of Life is probably the most polarizing film from a director whose slow, contemplative style — developed in five feature films over nearly four decades, from Badlands (1973) to his most recent, The New World (2005) — has won him ardent fans and firm detractors. The Tree of Life premiered at Cannes to sustained boos as well as applause and went on to win the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. It has been, for the most part, rapturously received by critics, but walk-outs have been common. Many Christian viewers and critics have embraced it for its overtly religious content, but some have argued for pantheistic or New Age readings.
Occasionally, with certain films, I find it helpful to step back and look through a sociological lens rather than a critical one. For instance, what does the phenomenal success of a film like Titanic tell us about the society that embraces it? With The Tree of Life, I find myself stepping further back, contemplating it through an anthropological lens, as much as an artifact as a work of art. The riddle of existence is not a riddle the universe poses to us, but one we pose to ourselves, as Malick does in The Tree of Life. We are the riddle, and the very fact that we ask the questions we do is one of the best clues we have to the answers we seek.
The questions in The Tree of Life are posed in Malick’s trademark inner monologue voice-overs, with characters carrying on a running cross-examination of God: “Where were you?” “Who are we to you?” “Why should I be good if you aren’t?” Early on, a telegram arrives bringing word that one of the O’Brien boys, now 19 and perhaps in the military, has been killed. In a flashback we see the O’Brien brothers as children dealing with the accidental death of a playmate. What sort of God presides over such a world?
The first question, though, comes from God himself. An opening epigraph asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7).
This withering cross-examination, taken from the beginning of God’s response to Job’s complaint, anticipates the film’s most remarkable movement: a lengthy sequence, accompanied by soaring choral work (including Zbigniew Preisner’s Lacrimosa or Requiem), contemplating the formation of galaxies, stars and planets, as well as the origins of life on earth, from microbes to jellyfish to dinosaurs.
The sequence highlights the “tree of life” in the Darwinian sense, a tree whose branches eventually bring together the O’Briens (an earthy Brad Pitt and an ethereal Jessica Chastain) and produce their three boys.
Yet The Tree of Life strains toward something beyond Darwinian ruthlessness. “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life,” Jack’s mother notes in the film’s first minutes, “the way of nature and the way of grace.” Nature “is willful; it only wants to please itself, to have its own way. … It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” Grace, by contrast, “doesn’t try to please itself; it accepts being slighted, accepts insults and injuries. … No one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
For Jack O’Brien (played as a boy by terrific newcomer Hunter McCracken and fleetingly seen as an adult played by Sean Penn), his mother represents the way of grace, while his father is the way of nature. Jack’s early life is seen through a scrim of Edenic glory, an aura of bliss and play in which his mother’s joyful personality dominates. Eventually, though, his father’s sternness dominates his life. Mr. O’Brien is the lawgiver: Here is the line between our property and the neighbors’; don’t cross it. You slammed the door; now close it gently 50 times.
Mr. O’Brien says grace at meals, prays in church and mentions tithing every week. Yet his worldview is essentially Darwinian; more than once he tells the boys that you can’t succeed if you’re “too good,” since people will walk all over you. Even his play is Darwinian: He teaches his boys the hand-slapping game and forces them to learn to fight. His real god may be money, and his faith is self-determination. As his professional aspirations slip away from him, he quarrels with his wife and terrorizes his children. When business takes him out of the house, it’s like a holiday for the boys and their mother.
It’s harder to say how Mrs. O’Brien embodies the idea of grace. She’s an archetypal mother, gentle and forgiving, but also passive. When tensions boil over in one excruciating family supper and Mr. O’Brien lashes out at his sons, his wife is unable to protect them or restrain him; instead, he restrains her. It’s queasily persuasive, but we seem to be firmly under the boot of nature, with no sign of the transcendent power of grace.
Young Jack likes his mother better than his father, but as time goes by, he finds more and more in himself what he hates in his father. An inhumane act involving a frog; bullying games with his unprotesting younger brother, whose gentleness mirrors their mother as Jack’s cruelty mirrors their father — these moments sting like guilty childhood memories, all the more in connection with the younger brother, destined to die at 19. (Much of this may be autobiographical; the director grew up in Texas and had a brother who died.)
Malick’s camera wanders and swoops restlessly through these vignettes, capturing moments of power that never coalesce into a narrative or create a sense of characters transcending the individual scenes. The individual moments have only the power of the archetypal situations they evoke. Take any one of them out of the film, watch it in isolation, and it would play exactly the same.
I don’t mind that we don’t understand the O’Briens’ lives (exactly what Mr. O’Brien’s work situation is, for instance). It does bother me, I think, that their voice-over monologues don’t convey a sense of their inner worlds, as the voice-overs did in The New World. Here, they only introduce or perpetuate free-floating themes that would be more powerful if they were more grounded in narrative reality. I’m not drawn into Jack’s story, much less that of the father or mother, who never seem entirely real. I do think of my own childhood — how I could have been kinder to my own younger brother, for instance.
Malick’s moral themes stretch back even to the prehistoric sequence. A beached plesiosaur—Job’s Leviathan, perhaps — contemplating a gash in its side: the problem of evil in a prehuman form. A meteor strikes the earth, presumably wiping out the dinosaurs while ushering in a new era of life on earth. In a much-discussed scene, a predatory dinosaur, coming upon a smaller dinosaur lying wounded near a stream, places its foot firmly on the other dinosaur’s head before moving on. In the film’s schema of “nature” and “grace,” is this “nature” asserting its dominance, or “grace” sparing the wounded creature’s life?
In the end is a coda flashing forward to contemplate the death of the universe. When nature has exhausted itself, does grace have the last word? It’s here Malick leaves himself most open to disparagement from religious and non-religious critics alike. Yet most viewers, regardless of religious persuasion, will probably accept Malick’s coda if they have been on board for enough of the preceding two hours.
The vision of the coda isn’t necessarily a Christian picture (there is no suggestion of a divine encounter, or of judgment — of the film’s “two ways” potentially leading to different destinations). Yet, with the rest of the film, it offers a genuinely religious vision — a vision of creation and man’s place in it that is spiritual in the best, not the worst, sense.
I’m not sure that Malick has succeeded in evoking the idea of grace in the way he seems to have wanted. But I think that the workings of grace are evident in the film nonetheless, and that for receptive viewers, unbelievers as well as believers, the film may offer an unexpected occasion of grace.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Family tensions, including brief abusive roughness between the father and his sons and wife; some sexually charged material (Jack becomes aware of females, including his mother, and, in a transgressive scene, sneaks into a neighbor girl’s bedroom and takes a guilty interest in her nightgown).