In the Book of Job, finally answering Job’s anger at his great misfortune, God speaks. Instead of offering an explanation and a justification for Job’s suffering, God utters a seemingly dismissive proclamation: “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?” This verse appears as the opening to Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, “The Tree of Life” (2011), a film wholly poetic and philosophical, yet grounded in everyday joy and grief.
Malick’s work is difficult to categorize because he is an unusual filmmaker. He started out as a student of philosophy, attended Oxford for his graduate studies, and even translated one of Martin Heidegger’s books. Disillusioned with the state of academia, however, Malick switched gears, and went to film school. Almost all of his films are permeated with existential questions, but unlike Ingmar Bergman’s questioning soliloquies, Malick’s visual style creates an atmosphere that can only be described as unutterable poetry—always pointing to eternity and the mystery of life.
“The Tree of Life” reaches a pinnacle of unorthodox filmmaking. It is composed of a series of images that contain a thread between microcosm and macrocosm. The focus is on a middle-class Texas family, the O’Briens, during the late 1950s, possibly early 1960s. The father (Brad Pitt) is a stern man focused on success and striving, and the mother (Jessica Chastain) is a woman of grace and compassion. In fact, Chastain’s narration at the beginning of the film reveals the thrust of the message: her mother always told her that you go through life either by “way of grace or way of nature.” She represents grace, while Pitt’s character represents nature and the force that has no mercy or regard for the other.
Life seems comfortable for this family, but all of that changes when they receive the news that one of their sons has died. Naturally, the entire family is affected. Mrs. O’Brien goes more inward, while Mr. O’Brien becomes more bitter. He is already frustrated at the fact that he didn’t become a successful musician, and seems to have no luck in his other endeavors. Whatever American Dream he is pursuing, he is unable to attain it. This anger turns to coldness, especially toward his three sons. He is a tyrant terrorizing the entire family, and they all live in a state of anxiety. Yet the one who is affected the most is Jack.
Jack is the hero of this story, and in many ways, the film is seen through his eyes only by way of memory. The older Jack is played by Sean Penn, who has grown up to be a successful architect. He is ensconced in a towering glass building yet unable to find a way out. He is haunted by his past, and in particular by the relationship with his father. As a result, his life appears to be empty and devoid of meaning despite his obvious professional and financial success. There is a restlessness in his eyes and existential fatigue remains permanently on his face, for which Sean Penn proves to be a perfect ontological and physical vessel.
As we move through the older Jack’s memories, and the grief that he not so much experienced as observed in his parents, we are thrown into the images of the very creation of the world. Moving images of cosmic proportion, whether with the creation of space, or the emergence of the very first living being, to dinosaurs, meteors, and volcanoes are all in beautiful and unsettling juxtaposition to the ordinary life of one family. The Earth doesn’t care about them and nature is destroyed and renews itself with no regard for her human inhabitants. Yet we are deeply connected to it, and part of this connection is the tree in the O’Briens’ front yard. The tree serves as a majestic metaphor of a constant renewal of life, of our rootedness, and human vulnerability in the presence of those grand roots. Life is fragile yet the strength that we possess as humans renders even the most confounding questions small. Where language fails, emotions and unspoken expressions take over.
Unlike his younger brothers, Jack is unsettled. He’s always looking for trouble. He is affected by his surroundings as he’s fighting two forces in himself: the mother and the father. This existential conflict, however, is always speaking to his awareness of life. In various scenes we witness Jack observing a young boy drowning and a criminal getting arrested. He engages in acts of destruction by throwing rocks at the windows of an abandoned house, he sneaks into a neighbor’s home and steals a woman’s slip only to feel guilt for having done it. He tricks his younger brother, who has a forgiving nature, into holding his finger over the barrel of a BB gun only to hurt him. Yet, Jack also begs for forgiveness. He is not a bad person. He is simply a person, trying to understand his path in life.
We come to understand through the film that we should not view the ordinariness of life in a negative light. How we act with one another in daily life, what we say, what we touch—all of God’s mystery is contained even in that. In one scene, Mrs. O’Brien is cupping her baby’s little foot in both of her hands. She is barely touching it yet the protection, compassion, and grace is fully present in that one ordinary moment. A mother’s love in one movement, in one touch. Here, we find God’s love as well, yet also the ever-present impact of unforgiving nature.
As the film reaches a close (if we can call it that), the older Jack meets his younger self, as well as his parents. In a series of ethereal images, the family comes together in order to help the older Jack become whole again. There are others too, walking, existing, smiling, and living their lives out by their own paths. As much as “The Tree of Life” is about the meaning of suffering and theodicy, ultimately Malick’s vision is about gratitude. In a rare moment of self-reflection and compassion, Mr. O’Brien hugs young Jack, and tells him of the mistakes he made in his life. For all of his chase of success, he failed to “see the glory.” “Don’t do what I did,” he tells Jack, as he steps away from him.
Any attempts at imposing forceful logic on this film will fail. Malick is presenting us with explorations of the ineffable relationship to God, space, universe, and family. There are some things which we cannot comprehend, and yet it is only human to ask questions, even if we are not using words. God hears our prayers even in our silence, our grief, and our silent cries. The inarticulate flame of our relationship to God’s creation and family is a mystery that continues to be.