American director Terrence Malick is a philosopher by training. A graduate of Harvard, and having pursued doctoral studies at Oxford, Malick taught philosophy at the MIT and, in 1969, the reputable Northwestern University Press published his translation of Martin Heidegger's Vorn Wesen des Grundes.
The Tree of Life is the fifth film of Malick and was awarded the Palme d'Or in 2011 at Cannes. It begins with words attributed to God: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? [Were you there] when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Job, you may recall, has his oxen, donkeys and camels fall out of his possession, and those servants in the vicinity are killed. Fire falls from heaven and consumes both Job's sheep and his shepherds, while the house of his eldest son collapses and kills all within (including every daughter and son of Job). Job's body is struck with malignant ulcers, and his friends turn on him, believing he is being punished. Job, however, knows that God has no grounds to punish him, and though Job refuses to curse God, he does seek an explanation. God responds with questions which remind Job of who God is, and who Job is in relation to God and the cosmos.
Job receives no explanation, and is certainly not informed that he has been the chief character in a cosmic wager between God and Satan, and thus the problem of evil remains. With Job in mind, the viewer is drawn into the early narration of Mrs. O'Brien: “The nuns taught us there are two ways though life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
The viewer needs to be conscious of, and distinguish between, three early glimpses of the O'Brien family history in The Tree of Life. In one moment we see, as the narration of Mrs. O'Brien is unfolding, her and her husband, and their three young sons. It is the 1950's, and they are living in Waco, Texas. The family --- all of them --- are seen in prayer and in play. They are happy, or, at the very least, appear a typical family of the era. Another moment observes Jack, an O'Brien son, now rather middle-aged and depressed. A third moment occurs somewhere in between the previous two, and has the viewer with Mrs. O'Brien, and then her husband, receiving the news that one of their sons is dead.
Mrs. O'Brien, who we have heard vow to remain true to the way of grace whatever comes, now finds herself challenged in a Job-like way. We overhear her wondering: Was I false to you? Lord? Why? Where were You? Like Job, we hear: Answer me.
Before engaging with her queries, it is worth noting that besides the inner wrestlings of Mrs. O'Brien, the son Jack is in need of healing. Father we hear him saying. Mother: Always you wrestle inside of me. His father, Mr. O'Brien, is dominated by the way of nature, and teaches his children that it takes fierce will to get ahead in the world, noting that if you're good, people will take advantage of you. Mr. O'Brien's way slowly becomes that of his son Jack. We see Jack, as a growing child, witness the death of a friend in a swimming pool. It is a significant event in his own wrestling between nature and grace, and we hear him asking God: Where were you? You let a boy die. You'll let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren't? The adult Jack, however, seems not to have been satisfied by his allegiance to nature. We note his observation that the world is “getting greedier,” and we overhear him saying that he thinks of his dead brother every day.
I think that Malick, an Anglican (Episcopalian, I suppose), wants to engage with the poverty of the way of nature in two major ways. When Mrs. O'Brien is seeking an answer from God, Malick disturbs his unfolding narrative by launching into what is, perhaps, a 20 minute sequence wherein life emerges. The universe springs into being, while stars and galaxies spin through space. A planet foams with volcanic fury and, to quote another, seas “toss, amoebas squiggle through translucent polls, sea-fronds wave, underwater creatures swarm, vegetation spread, and dinosaurs stalk through forests.” Malick seeks to present the the poverty of the way of nature in a second sequence. We see the adult Jack walking through a door and meeting the mother and father and brothers of his youth. Reconciliation occurs. Key to this sequence, I think, is the relationship between the Agnus Dei of the background, the eucharistic posture of Mrs. O'Brien, and her words i give you my son.
Returning to the first sequence, there is both violence and beauty in the emergence of life. The majesty of the creative act can, perhaps, be seen as paralleling God's questioning in Job, but the act itself can never be an answer to Job's situation. This is because, turning back to The Tree of Life, the presence of violence (a bloodied and beached behemoth, potentially violent dinosaurs...) invites, rather than answers, questions surrounding the reign of death. In these early moments there is both nature and grace. The sequence does, however, help the viewer understand how just as Jack's specifically depressed adult state assumes a childhood with specific moments which conditioned his development, so also life in general assumes a past which has had some say in the emerging present.
Again, this cannot be an answer to Job, or to Mrs. O'Brien (or to anyone else subject to death, for that matter), even if it is true. As a result, the Incarnation sequence, while also not answering why those who have chosen the way of grace can still come to a bad end, does indicate an identification on the part of God with those who hurt.
Worth noting is that The Tree of Life does not demand a particular confessional allegiance from its viewer in order to be appreciated as a work of art. It is a film, to quote Ebert, of “vast ambition and deep humility.” There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, Ebert recalls, but now there are only a few. Malick, in Ebert's view, has stayed true to that hope ever since his first feature film in 1973, and I suppose it is for the viewer to decide how close Malick comes to succeeding.