Tim Middleton reflects on theodicy and the search for meaning through the 2011 film ‘The Tree of Life.’
I am not sure what to make of The Tree of Life.
Terrence Malick’s 2011 film is certainly different, and it has received polarised reactions from critics. It won the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or, and it is listed in the BBC’s top ten films of the twenty-first century. Other reviewers, meanwhile, have described it as ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘achingly slow’.
It is also pointedly theological. Words from the book of Job frame the entire narrative: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth… when the morning stars sang together?’ One theologian describes The Tree of Life as, ‘deeply Christian… mesmerizingly lovely, and almost alarmingly biblical’.
The film opens with haphazard fragments of a family’s grief. Sepia tones and hushed commentary add to the bizarre feeling of disconnection. It seems appropriate for the senselessness of mourning. Job’s notorious comforters come to mind as one realises with horror that someone has just told the mother of a dead child (Jessica Chastain) that she, ‘still has the other two’.
After the initial, intense focus on personal loss, the film then leaps to the cosmic scale. A montage of twisting nebulae give way to planetary formation, and volcanic churning. This is the universe in its raw, uncultured originality. Surely human stories are insignificant on a stage of these proportions. Biological forms materialise. Yet the peculiar sense of the disturbingly inhumane is continued by an explicit focus on the weirdest of underwater creatures. These are Malick’s Behemoth and Leviathan in all their Attenborough-esque, multi-coloured glory. But then, these scenes, too, receive an abrupt truncation in the form of an unyieldingly accurate Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event. No mercy for the dinosaurs either.
Another handbrake turn: we are back in Texas, following a marginally more linear progression through Jack O’Brien’s childhood (Hunter McCracken, and latterly Sean Penn) and his increasingly tense relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Apparently formative moments are relayed: the drowning of a schoolfriend, an act of vandalism, and his teenage sexual awakening. Jack’s father and mother are portrayed as simplistic archetypes for the ways of nature and grace respectively: one authoritarian and combative, the other thankful and forgiving. And in the audio, a boy’s ongoing, God-searching refrain: ‘where are you?’
As we judder towards the conclusion, the moment when Jack’s brother must inevitably re-die, the final scenes of the film are the most thought-provoking of all. Human characters are seen in motion on a beach. This tidal zone provides a fittingly liminal setting for a re-enactment of the paradox of life—between birth and death, nature and grace, meaning and chaos—our characters continue their seemingly random, Brownian walks. Assemblages coalesce: bodies exchange looks, one human embraces another, meaningful family units appear to form—only to dissipate again in the continuing flux.
What are we to make of all this? Is Malick intending to answer Job’s opening question or not? Are nature’s grand machinations supposed to validate God to humanity? Or is the trite, visual onslaught (and its glaring insufficiency in comparison to the reality of human misery) supposed to parody biblical theodicy?
The staccato cinematography never stops: the whole two hours consists in only kaleidoscopic crumbs. Even the film’s advertising poster was a mosaic of apparently unrelated images. For some, the disjointedness of the postmodern might all be too much. My own perplexity, however, was something much more banal. If I am brutally honest, I was a little bored.
But when I began to reflect on this a little more, it struck me that boredom was just possibly precisely what I was supposed to feel. Malick’s point is that different vignettes make different sense. The shards of meaning are from separate mosaics. When you zoom out to look for a cohesive whole, the sense is lost. The longed-for God’s-eye perspective is simply boring. We make sense of the human condition from within the world, not by attempting to abstract ourselves from it. Furthermore, if we had all the reasons and justifications at our fingertips, then there would be no hope of real transformation. We would already know the best that could ever happen—and that is a depressing thought indeed. No, we must remain open to what is beyond. And Job’s beyond is not necessarily our own beyond.