When I was 13, I read the Bible. It was an act of compromise. We were not a religious family, and I’d developed an aversion to Christianity, as some young men are known to do. To earn that aversion, I read, and read, for months on end, sometimes amused (God is clever), often bewildered. By the end, I had more respect for the Book, and less for those that would follow it. If ever there was a text that proposed moral problems without answering them, this was it, thought I, and as a tool to learn what God may want of us, perpetually useless.
Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life opens with a quotation from one of the most confounding Bible tales, the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” That’s God asking the question to his unfailingly faithful subject, perhaps pointing out how little Job can understand in the face of such glory. In the film that follows, however, God is a silent observer over matters grand – the emergence of the universe and life itself – and microcosmic, the joys and grief of a pre-‘60s Texas family. Though the film seems to adopt His viewpoint, it is one of omnipotence, not necessarily compassion.
In the first and final acts, Malick examines the universe with a lead fist, starting with the big bang, to the emergence of Earth’s ecosystem, and dinosaurs. Here, he wanders in computer-generated abstraction, providing an uninformative and unfocused take on Planet Earth-style HD nature photography. He also punctuates these images with opera, failing to properly underscore the action the way Kubrick did in 2001, an obvious but inescapable comparison. Meanwhile, the seeds are planted for the (family) tree; voiceovers introduce us to the O’Brien’s, Jack (Sean Penn as an adult, newcomer Hunter McCracken as a child), Mother (Jessica Chastain), and Father (Brad Pitt).