A young son in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life asks his mother, "Tell us a story from before we can remember." Malick begins his story even earlier by telling the story from before we can remember. With visually arresting imagery and a mesmerizing musical score, a lengthy opening sequence traces the history of the universe, from initial explosion and expansion through the formation of galaxies and planets to the formation of earth and the development of life on what the philosopher Charles DeKonnick calls a "poor little planet born of a catastrophe."
With the exception of its final, disappointing segment, the film is a truly astonishing achievement, an ambitious artistic exploration of questions rarely formulated by religious believers: How are we to think about cosmology, about the place of human existence in the capacious orders of time and space? What matter to us, to the universe, or to God is our occupying of a speck of seemingly insignificant space in an incomprehensibly vast universe? What we know of modern cosmology and paleontology makes the Psalmist's question even more weighty: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Psalm 8:4). As one character puts it to God, "What are we to you?"
Malick's opening gives dramatic weight to the film's epigraph from Job: "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?" (Job 38: 4,7). Those questions frame the story of the O'Brien's (starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents), living in Waco, Texas in the 1950's. The film offers vivid depictions of the three central characters: Pitt and Chastain as husband and wife and Hunter McCracken as Jack, the oldest of their three sons (played as an adult by Sean Penn). Not only does the film envelop these individual lives in a cosmic drama of creation, it also continually interjects a vertical perspective into their linear story line. Emmanuel Lubezki's always stunning cinematography here takes the form of mildly disorienting strong vertical camera angles. The suggestion is that we need to look up and down in addition to before and after to get our bearings on events and persons.
In Malick's hands, the violation of linear narrative unity is neither a postmodern repudiation of the possibility of meaning nor a celebration of the dissolution of personal identity and the absurdity of human life. It opens up the possibility of another perspective on the action, one descending from above, from the God who transcends the entire order of time and space and yet mysteriously intervenes. To underscore this point, Malick locates the majority of the scenes of the O'Brien family outdoors, in the open air, rather than in confining buildings. The camera's attraction to trees and sunlight bestows upon ordinary events and characters an extraordinary beauty.
Complementing the sparse dialogue between characters is their interior monologues. The characters' interior conversations occasionally contain comments on other characters, as when Jack expresses wrath toward his father, but more often than not, their intended audience is God, whom they beg for help and to whom they pose questions and express doubts or remorse. There are also voiceover commentaries intended primarily for the audience, the chief example of which is Jack's mother's early statement:
The nuns taught there were two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. Nature is willful; it only wants to please itself, to have its own way…. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. Grace doesn't try to please itself, it accepts being slighted, accepts insults and injuries… No one who follows the way of grace comes to a bad end.
Some critics have attempted to discern examples of the distinction between nature and grace in the film but Malick does not supply simplistic typologies. The father, for example, clearly has some of the self-assertive qualities associated with nature but he is also an affectionate father, with concern for preparing them for a difficult world. Furthermore, the opening sequence of creation is so wondrous as to merit the description of grace or gift.
And of course the last part of the mother's statement takes us back to a basic theme of Job—bad things happen to good people. Indeed, the entire story of the O'Brien family begins with catastrophe, with the parents receiving word of the death of one of their sons. The shock of death comes again in a scene in which the family witnesses the accidental demise of a child from the neighborhood. That loss prompts internal questioning of God: "Why? Where were you? Why should I be good if you aren't?"
The Job theme resurfaces in a homily at the family's church. The priest underscores the gap between our ways and His ways, between success and suffering in this life and divine judgment. This is a lesson that Pitt's character has to learn the hard way. Mr. O'Brien is a strict father, a lawgiver, and can be violent when his authority is questioned. But he is also physically affectionate toward his sons, hugging them and asking them for kisses. Male assertion in the father calls forth counter-assertion in the first-born son, as Jack begins to establish his own authority in the world—something he exercises in a small act of vandalism and in mistreatment of his younger brother.
The film is superbly penetrating study of the interior life and development of male children. One of the best scenes depicts Jack's growing anger, even feeling of hatred, toward his father—voiced first in an interior monologue and then externally in defiance of his father. The tensions are often subtle and always credible, as is the moment of recognition and reconciliation toward the end.
Having taken us from the beginning of the universe to the shattering event of a child's death and then back into the origins of the O'Brien family, Malick provides a vision of the family reunited in some other life. The final segment is silent and grim, surprisingly lacking in joy or any sense of community beyond the nuclear family. There is no encounter with a personal God. Compared to what has come before, heaven ends up less inviting than a hot summer yard in Texas.
Some critics have found the final scene problematic but most object to Malick's fusion of what they are calling an IMAX nature film with the story of the O'Brien family. But Malick's film is a corrective to the contemporary Christian tendency to avoid nature and science altogether. In flight from the doctrine of evolution and in fear of what Pascal calls "the silence of these infinite spaces," many Christians have little to say about the physical cosmos or our bodies.
The danger, as writers as diverse as DeKonninck and Walker Percy saw, is angelism, the temptation to think of ourselves as if we were not animals—as if we were not part of a grand, terrifying, and mysterious universe, crafted by the same God who created us. The wonder inspired by encountering the vast power of nature should increase, rather than diminish, our awe of God. It also should increase our appreciation of what it means to be a creature. As DeKonninck said, "We will only be able to understand ourselves when we understand the universe. Our present is filled with the past."