“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?” Such is the Old Testament query that prefaces Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, arguably the elusive master's most thought-provoking – and certainly his most artistically ambitious – effort to date; a flawed, painterly masterpiece that explores in broad, bold strokes mankind's search for God and the fluid relation between Nature and Grace.
The aforementioned question, posed by God to the long-suffering Job, seems to make the point that one man's tribulations are trivial, petty even, in the grand scheme of things; a mere thread in the pattern of the grand design (to paraphrase Stephen Schwartz). Initially, this line of thought appears to be Malick's driving principle. He introduces us to his story's everyman incarnations of Job, the O'Brien family. The sweet mother (Jessica Chastain) and strict father (Brad Pitt) mourn the passing of their 19-year-old son. We also meet their eldest son Jack some decades later (played here by Sean Penn) reflecting on the anniversary of his brother's death. It is here that Malick proposes, perhaps facetiously, that one's life takes either the path of Grace – loving, gentle, and clearly represented in the form of the O'Brien matriarch – or Nature – raw, pure, and clearly represented in the form of the O'Brien patriarch. Where does Jack fit in? Grace? Nature? Oddly enough, the reactions of the O'Brien parents to the news of their son's death are contradictory to Malick's designations, whereby it's Mrs. O'Brien who collapses with natural, heart-wrenching agony, while Mr. O'Brien adopts a more silent, filtered sorrow. Are Grace and Nature so cut and dry?
But remember, the woes of these people are microscopic. A bravura sequence of cosmic grandeur follows the morose prologue, vividly depicting (via some truly arresting visual effects and a fine sound mix) the creation of our sun, our galaxy, and our Earth. Operatic flourishes accompany the kaleidoscopic emergence of celestial orbs out of the primordial ether, the volcanic outgassing of the planet's core, the formation of the oceans, the miraculous machinations of the earliest cellular life, and their evolution into terrestrial flora and fauna. God giveth.
Earth, water, fire, and air.Malick interestingly chooses many images that seem to recall the four ancient elements (earth, water, fire and air), images that resurface in numerous forms throughout the film, evocatively captured in Emmanuel Lubezki's lens. Malick continues to blur the venn diagram overlap between his looming themes with scenes that suggest the gracefulness of Nature and the naturalness of Grace. Grace is Nature, Nature is Grace, God is both. Malick concludes his macroscopic meditation by finally showing us, again with gracefully silent beauty, the asteroid impact that triggered the Cretaceous extinction event. God taketh away.
Having awed and humbled us with the world's birth to which all people are little more than background noise, he then returns to the more intimate, but no less miraculous, origins of the O'Brien family, from the birth of Jack through to his adolescence (portrayed by the terrific Hunter McCracken). This casual yet painstakingly detailed vignette-style segment of the picture is a rich stream of consciousness, laced with internal monologue by our three principles that all seem to be asking “where are you?”. Jack, in particular, struggles to find God in his increasingly frustrating and angst-ridden existence.
Earth, water, fire, and air... again.It may be that Malick is less concerned with addressing God's rhetorical question to Job as he is with asking the same question back. Where is God? The answer will obviously depend on each viewer's individual take on the film. The message I divined from it (no pun intended) is that Jack, essentially symbolic of all mankind, finds God everywhere. He just doesn't know it. God is Grace, his mother is Grace, so God is his mother, who he instinctively loves and knows he is loved by. God is Nature, his father is Nature, so God is his father, who he admires, fears, and loathes. The gargantuan depictions of earth, water, fire, and air so astonishingly rendered in the creation sequence are subtly mirrored in the minutia of the O'Briens' 1950s suburban world. God is elemental. Ubiquitous in His absence. A profoundly comforting thought.
Forgive all the theological pontification, folks, but as far as food for thought goes, The Tree of Life has a lot to give. Much more than any one person can really write about. So I'll bring my ramblings to a close except to encourage you to intake this hypnotic work of art.
**** out of ****