The poetics of nature vs. grace dominate Malick’s latest opus
The film starts off with a bit of Scripture (Job 38:4, 7), which asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
Where were we, indeed, that is the question that Terrence Malick’s latest, The Tree of Life, dares to pose and better yet seeks to answer, but neither the question nor the answer matter much in the overall scheme of things. The effort is the point and purpose of the exercise, the meaning of life itself.
Malick sees us caught in the eternal struggle between the brutality of nature and the grace of spirituality and the ongoing battle rages internally in our hearts and minds. Young Jack O’Brien (Hunter McCracken) understands the dual sides of this conflict because he has representations in his parents. His father (Brad Pitt) is a harsh man, a man’s man of the 1950s who wants to teach his sons to follow in his footsteps and become men like him, strivers who control their lives, provide for their families and want for nothing. Yet, Jack also sees in his mother (Jessica Chastain) the innate goodness, the naïveté of a life captured in the light of grace and wonder. That she is loving and largely submissive marks her as a woman of her day and age, but no less a figure of transcendent understanding.
The adult Jack (Sean Penn) wanders through a world of glass and steel, the glorification of the clean and cold eyes and sensibilities of men and women who have achieved status and success in the world. It is what his father wanted for him, but Jack realizes he has lost sight of the other side and maybe lost the war for his own soul.
The Tree of Life breaks up these two elemental points in Jack’s life with an excursion back to the beginning, the very beginning, in fact, before life on the planet, prior to the point at which the earth’s foundation was laid and surveys the journey forward to provide a poetic grounding or an internal consciousness. And it is thanks to this section that the film evolves into a prayer or meditation, again without an answer. There is the combustible union of God and evolution, the male and the female, nature in its green glory and the pristine beauty of modern architecture.
This is Malick doing what he has always done, not a radical departure. He has always shown us the world and all forms of its beauty; he has always questioned the idea of nature and God and the brutality in the world. Badlands let the killer run free for a time and here in Life, young Jack, when his father is away, succumbs to the temptations of his baser urges and is frightened by this potential when it is unleashed.
It could be argued that performances are incidental in Malick’s work. So often we hear the stories of actors excited to work with the master only to realize that most of their work lies on the floor of the editing bay. Likely that is what happened to Penn here. He wanders through a few landscapes and mumbles largely to himself. But, then again, somehow, against the odds, Pitt proves able to not only hold the screen, but he comes to embody the force of nature that the film seeks to define. He is the swinging fist, the rough hug, the demanding presence that we want to appease and just maybe, he is the perfect stand-in for the mercurial Malick himself.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi