considers this film, A Serious Man
and the Book of Job:
“The Tree of Life,” meanwhile, is all about that voice. The movie is plainly a meditation on Job. It opens with a quote from Job, contains an extended sequence in a church in which the pastor preaches on the Book of Job, and both the mother and the older brother of the boy who dies explicitly echo Job’s questions as they try to understand, where is God when unjust things happen?
But the film is suffused, almost smothered, by Terrence Malick’s version of the answer from the whirlwind, his depiction of the wonder of creation. From repeated shots of the towering trees of 1960s Waco to abstract compositions of light and water to extended sequences depicting the creation of the world and the evolution of life, Malick’s film wants to show us what the whirlwind told Job: creation is unfathomably grand, terrifying, and wonderful. There’s even a shot of a sea monster! This material infuriated many reviewers, who wanted a narrower focus on the lost paradise of Waco, but what infuriated them is the heart of the movie. If this material feels irrelevant to the story, well, isn’t the voice from the whirlwind on the surface pretty irrelevant to Job’s questions? Job is suffering, and God says: look at the parking lot! This is an answer? No, it isn’t an answer – it’s an attempt to change Job’s perspective. So, too, Malick with our expectations of how a story of a man’s life gets resolved.
(Apropos of trees, I note that the Coen brothers had to digitally remove the trees from their 1960s Minneapolis suburb – because back in the 1960s the trees that now tower over the post-war houses were only saplings. I wonder whether Waco was actually leafier, or whether Malick wished to remember it that way.) . . .
[ snip ]
One of the best things about the vision of creation in “The Tree of Life” is the embrace of the fact of destruction, not only in that final sequence but in the early dinosaur sequence, which ends with an asteroid hitting the earth, wiping out much of creation. More than the brief appearance of the aquatic dinosaur “Leviathan,” this, it seems to me, is Malick’s version of the voice from the whirlwind’s assertion of the primacy of destructive monsters in God’s creation. It is not merely that the gift of life must be returned, and at a time of God’s choosing. God is willing to visit destruction upon His creation on a scale that, from a narrative perspective, cannot be meaningfully comprehended. The walk on the beach can, it seems to me, be interpreted as a dodge that makes this comprehensible – a dodge that The Book of Job declines to take. (There is no reference, in Job, either to a resurrection or an afterlife.) I prefer to believe that Malick didn’t intend an overtly theological interpretation, that this beach exists in man’s mind, not God’s, that the significance is Jack’s mother’s ability, in this imagined space, to fully reconcile herself to her son’s being taken, and therefore for Jack to reconcile himself to his survival, his continued participation in branching, forking life, rather than what I have to call the fantasy that, in the end, Job doesn’t just get a new family, he gets his old family back. Because he doesn’t. We don’t. . . .