Terrence Malick's new film "Tree of Life" opens with a quotation from Job. That quotation holds the key to the film and in some sense, the key to our attitude toward life.
In Job 38: 4,7 God asks Job "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?" These verses are part of a difficult puzzle that has preoccupied believers and scholars about the book of Job. In his film, Malick is offering us a powerful answer.
Job, despite his righteousness, loses everything -- his wealth and his children. In despair he wishes to know why such things have befallen him. God does not exactly answer Job -- rather at the end of the book, God appears from the whirlwind and plies Job with a string of rhetorical questions. The questions seem designed to prove to Job that he lacks both power and insight. Curiously, however, God never directly addresses Job's agonized question.
Why does God not simply say to Job "This is why you suffer?" What is the larger point God is making? There are endless, powerful and provocative speculations about this question. The one that Malick is proposing is presaged in the opening quotation.
God's recounting of the wonders of nature can be seen in one of two ways. One possibility is that the immensity of the natural world, in its merciless indifference, has nothing to do with the concerns of human beings. The desert does not care if you pray, and the rushing cataract will not pause for pity. Nature shows its blank, grand face to us, and we are nothing. Indeed Job recants of his protest, proclaiming "for I am but dust and ashes."
In the wake of the terrible loss depicted in the film, the loss of a child, Malick offers coruscating images to remind us of this indifference. In their sweep and range they awaken us anew to our insignificance. But gradually we see that each image, from the cell to the cosmos, is not only grand, it is beautiful. The second half of the quote from Job, how the morning stars sing, remind us that the appreciation of wonder and beauty is also possible. We may lose our ego in nature's indifference, but we may also lose it in nature's magnificence. Do we see the world as heartless or as sublime? The drama of our life and death is fleeting, but it is played out on a stage of unparalleled wonder. Pain which can be so consuming, is not all; part of the secret of life is enlarging our hearts.
The agony of the parents, the periodic cruelty of the father -- all are the powerful but passing dramas that for the moment entirely preoccupy us as we watch the movie. But then we are drawn back to a world so much bigger than our hour upon the stage that we know again how essentially small is each human story.
The great Dutch writer Harry Mulisch died this past year. Once asked the secret of life, he responded "make the puzzle bigger." Malick makes the puzzle bigger, and so expands our sense of the intricacy and beauty of the world. In reworking Job for the 21st century, he teaches us anew of the grandeur of the world, and the grandeur of God.
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The Day of Judgment, prophesied for last weekend, has apparently been postponed, but moviegoers eager for rapture can find consolation — to say nothing of awe, amazement and grist for endless argument — in “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s new film, which contemplates human existence from the standpoint of eternity. Recently showered with temporal glory at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, this movie, Mr. Malick’s fifth feature in 38 years, folds eons of cosmic and terrestrial history into less than two and a half hours. Its most provocative sequences envision the origin of the universe, the development of life on earth (including a few soulful dinosaurs) and then, more concisely and less literally, the end of time, when the dead of all the ages shall rise and walk around on a heavenly beach.
At the beginning and the conclusion — alpha and omega — we gaze on a flickering flame that can only represent the creator. Not Mr. Malick (who prefers to remain unseen in public) but the elusive deity whose presence in the world is both the film’s overt subject and the source of its deepest, most anxious mysteries. With disarming sincerity and daunting formal sophistication “The Tree of Life” ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them. In this case a boy, in whispered voice-over, speaks directly to God, whose responses are characteristically oblique, conveyed by the rustling of wind in trees or the play of shadows on a bedroom wall. Where are you? the boy wants to know, and lurking within this question is another: What am I doing here?
“Here” in this case is Waco, Tex., in the 1950s, a slice of earthly reality rendered in exquisite detail by the production designer, Jack Fisk, and the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. Their evident devotion to Mr. Malick’s exacting, idiosyncratic vision — the care with which they help coax his ideas into vivid cinematic reality — is in its way as moving as the images themselves, which flow and sway to equally sublime music. (The score is by Alexandre Desplat. He holds his own in some pretty imposing company, including Couperin, Brahms and Berlioz, part of whose great “Requiem” underpins an ecstatic celestial climax.) The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality.
Embedded in the passages of cosmology, microbiology and spiritual allegory is a story whose familiarity is at least as important to the design of “The Tree of Life” as the speculative flights that surround it. The world of neatly trimmed lawns and decorous houses set back from shaded streets is one we instinctively feel we know, just as we immediately recognize the family whose collective life occupies the central 90 minutes or so of the film.
The particulars of these people — Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien and their three sons — and of the place they inhabit are drawn from Mr. Malick’s own biography, but they also have an almost archetypal cultural resonance. This is small-town America in the ’50s: Dad’s crew cut, Mom’s apron, the kids playing kick the can in the summer dusk.
To some extent this tableau — words can hardly do justice to the honeyed sunlight streaming through kitchen windows and refracted through the spray of garden hoses, or to the loose-limbed rhythms of children at play — offers an idealized glimpse of a lost Eden. But it would be a mistake simply to bask in (or to sneer at) Mr. Malick’s nostalgia for the vanished world of his Eisenhower-era childhood.
In his view, rooted in an idiosyncratic Christianity and also in the Romantic literary tradition, the loss of innocence is not a singular event in history but rather an axiom of human experience, repeated in every generation and in the consciousness of every individual. The miraculous paradox is that this universal pattern repeats itself in circumstances that are always unique. And so this specific postwar coming-of-age story, quietly astute in its assessment of the psychological dynamics of a nuclear family in the American South at the dawn of the space age, is also an ode to childhood perception and an account of the precipitous fall into knowledge that foretells childhood’s end. It is like Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” transported into the world of “Leave It to Beaver,” an inadequate and perhaps absurd formulation but one that I hope conveys the full measure of my astonishment and admiration.
The center of the film’s universe — Mr. Malick’s eyes and ears and alter ego — is Jack O’Brien. We first meet him, in the person of Sean Penn, as a middle-aged architect who lives amid gleaming skyscrapers and clean, ultramodern surfaces and who is haunted by the death, many years earlier, of his younger brother. The opening scenes take us briefly back to Jack’s youth, acquainting us with his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and allowing their grief over the loss of their son to cast a shadow of tragedy over everything to follow.
What follows most immediately is the creation of the universe, which arrives (no matter how many times you have read about it) as something of a surprise. How did we get here? There is a scene in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” in which Nicolas Cage’s terminally blocked screenwriter, looking for a place to begin a new script, is cast back to the origins of the universe, which after all is where every story commences. Mr. Malick enacts a more earnest, grander version of the same insight, acknowledging the expansive, regressive logic of simple curiosity. “Where are you?” Jack asks, of his brother and God, and the scale of his longing demands a cosmic response.
But that response will only make sense if it touches down, once again, in Jack’s own experience. In a lovely, surrealist touch, he is imagined emerging from an underwater house and swimming toward the sunlight on the surface, and then he is an infant, cradled in his mother’s arms. Before long a brother arrives, and then another, and the world makes room for them.
There are very few films I can think of that convey the changing interior weather of a child’s mind with such fidelity and sensitivity. Nor are there many that penetrate so deeply into the currents of feeling that bind and separate the members of a family. So much is conveyed — about the tension and tenderness within the O’Brien marriage, about the frustrations that dent their happiness, about the volatility of the bonds between siblings — but without any of the usual architecture of dramatic exposition. One shot flows into another, whispered voice-over displaces dialogue, and an almost perfect domestic narrative takes shape, anchored in three extraordinarily graceful performances: Mr. Pitt, Ms. Chastain and, above all, Hunter McCracken, a first-timer who brings us inside young Jack’s restless, itching skin.
“The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005) — films that heralded Mr. Malick’s re-emergence after two decades of silence — took established genres and well-known moments in American history and turned their commonplaces into something new and strange. The Pacific theater in World War II and the British colonization of North America (the war movie and the western, more or less) became unlikely but curiously persuasive settings for meditations on the human connection to and estrangement from the natural world. “The Tree of Life” does something similar in a more intimate, less self-consciously epic register, staking out well-traveled territory and excavating primal, eternal meanings.
This movie stands stubbornly alone, and yet in part by virtue of its defiant peculiarity it shows a clear kinship with other eccentric, permanent works of the American imagination, in which sober consideration of life on this continent is yoked to transcendental, even prophetic ambition. More than any other active filmmaker Mr. Malick belongs in the visionary company of homegrown romantics like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and James Agee. The definitive writings of these authors did not sit comfortably or find universal favor in their own time. They can still seem ungainly, unfinished, lacking polish and perfection. This is precisely what makes them alive and exciting: “Moby-Dick,” “Leaves of Grass,” “The Bridge” and “A Death in the Family” lean perpetually into the future, pushing their readers forward toward a new horizon of understanding.
To watch “The Tree of Life” is, in analogous fashion, to participate in its making. And any criticism will therefore have to be provisional. Mr. Malick might have been well advised to leave out the dinosaurs and the trip to the afterlife and given us a delicate chronicle of a young man’s struggle with his father and himself, set against a backdrop of rapid social change. And perhaps Melville should have suppressed his philosophizing impulses and written a lively tale of a whaling voyage.
But the imagination lives by risk, including the risk of incomprehension. Do all the parts of “The Tree of Life” cohere? Does it all make sense? I can’t say that it does. I suspect, though, that sometime between now and Judgment Day it will.
“The Tree of Life” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Birth, death, the end of the world.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa; music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Jack Fisk; costumes by Jacqueline West; produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
WITH: Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Fiona Shaw (Grandmother), Irene Bedard (Messenger), Jessica Fuselier (Guide), Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), Laramie Eppler (R. L.) and Tye Sheridan (Steve).