The Tree of Life (2011)
‘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 film takes some stamina. It is long, dense with metaphor, lacking a conventional narrative arc, and somewhat mystifying. Its themes encompass life, the universe, and everything. The film literally spans all time, from the beginning of the universe to now. And, its message is unapologetically spiritual. The director, Terrence Malick, has clearly set out to impart some wisdom to us lesser mortals concerning the human experience, against the backdrop of nature’s majesty. His approach, his obscurantism, strays dangerously close to being somewhat pretentious. I acknowledge it is probably only down to my partiality towards the subject matter that I give the film the benefit of the doubt.
The film’s opening Bible verse really sets the context within which this whole film hangs – Job in the Old Testament is the good and righteous man who endures suffering, and questions God for allowing such evil. As the couple at the centre of this movie wrestle with the death of their nineteen-year-old son, this film asks that age old existential question: ‘Why do good people suffer?’. And, in the end, this film rehashes the unsatisfactory answer – that there is a bigger picture at stake. Crassly put, God has a greater plan in the offing. This answer can be characterised in this way: look closely at a painting, and the smudge you see may not look very inspiring, but take a step back and you will see the beauty of the picture. When it comes to beauty, the nature shots, trees against blue skies, distant nebula, dividing cells, and revolving planets, the film does an awe-inspiring job.
Malick depicts the cosmos as two competing forces, grace vs. nature, love vs. the harsh reality of a world red in tooth and claw, two forces which are in a grand cosmic dance with one another. This dance is expressed throughout the film in the imagery, in the people, and in the poetic dialogue, thus subverting the simplistic duality of good and evil, and thus reaffirming the grand narrative of purpose, even when it eludes us within our subjective present. Ultimately, my problem with the movie is a theological one. I do not believe in Malick’s God; I do not believe in his guarantor of meaning that hangs above creation and gives sense to the senseless.
Heidegger heralds the end of thinking of God in this way, the end of appealing to forces beyond the horizon of our understanding. All in all, I value this Avant Garde piece of art for daring to tackle the subject matter, and for sparking off some conversations.
For more theology in this vein check out my 2016 Advent addresses.