It’s tempting to see the world of The Tree of Life as one where nobody shits.[i] Granted, for all the beautiful moments, there are ugly ones too – the young brothers in the film see a crippled man, thirsty prisoners, the drowning of a child – but these feel like examples, like the Buddha’s Four Sights (what politicians would call ‘teachable moments’). [ii]
But teaching us what? By the time we’ve got to the ending, where the characters are reunited in the afterlife on a beach, the film has answered a family’s grief over their dead brother and son, RL, by pointing to The Creation on the one hand, and the promised End on the other – a cosmic Putting Things In Perspective.
The afterlife with your loved ones; voiceovers that say, ‘Love everyone!’; shots of angelic figures and natural beauty: the threat of kitsch never leaves this film. True, there’s a wonky kind of radicalism to be admired in making these days an earnest piece of religious art. And not everything that is earnest is kitsch. [iii]
But an earnest answer to suffering, an ending that gives you a triumphant vision of paradise?… In an early scene, RL’s grandmother tries to comfort his mother by saying things like “the pain will pass” and “life goes on.” It’s a testament to the struggle in Terrence Malick between the Artist and the Preacher that the film goes quite a way to answering those platitudes with some of its own.
You’re God’s answer to Job
The Tree of Life starts with Bible verses, Job 38: 4,7: “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?” This corresponds to and pre-empts what RL’s brother Jack says in voiceover: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.”
In response, we get: the creation of the universe and the Earth, then the tree of life, starting with microbes and leading to dinosaurs.[iv] We get a close-knit if dysfunctional 50’s family unit: saintly mother, tough-loving father, three brothers and their childhood memories. Finally, we get the end of the universe and the dead assembled on a beach at dawn, waiting for the light.
More than context, the cosmic bookends of the film try to show the beauty of existence / the connection of everything / how Nature compares against Grace. This is more than Job got. In fact, God in the Bible pretty much ducks Job’s complaints, answering his question with a long series of questions (“Where wast thou…?”). So why is The Tree of Life being more definitive?
It depends on what level you take the reality of its various sequences. RL’s violent end (which is also exemplary) is the problem of evil that sums up the rest and, from a certain perspective, it remains a problem. Malick might have finally got round to filming his theodicy. Question is, does he really buy it?