The Tree of Life: Suffering, Memory and God
July 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
“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?” Job 38:4,7
These are the verses that open Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, and I thought it fitting to open my reflection on the film with these same verses. These verses are but a small fragment of God’s response to Job when Job inquires as to why he, a righteous man, is suffering. This is the same question that Malick, through his characters, is posing as The Tree of Life hurtles along its unconventional, disjointed narrative. These spiritual questions coupled with the fractured narrative allow Malick to reach a place where he seems to make some conclusions about the nature of God and the world we inhabit and illuminate these conclusions as only a director with the touch of Malick could do.
The main focus of the film is Jack, whose older iteration (Sean Penn) is experiencing somewhat of a crisis in his life as he works in the big city, surrounded by glass and mortar, a sharp contrast from his childhood days in suburban Waco, Texas. This crisis seems to have been set off by the memory of his younger brother who died earlier in life, the circumstances of which Malick never makes clear. The film flits back and forth in Jack’s memory, occasionally dipping into dream states, as he relives the days of his youth in Texas. We see the younger Jack being born and growing up, eventually reaching a kind of stasis around age 12 or 13, where he is played splendidly by Hunter McCracken. The majority of the film takes place at this time, as Jack struggles to become a man, misunderstood and confused by his father (Brad Pitt) and shown grace and faith from his mother (Jessica Chastain).
What sets the film off is the memory of Jack’s brother and his death, a monumental event in the family’s history, one that leaves Jack’s mother devastated. In this state she asks many questions of God, which lead into the film’s most challenging section as Malick shows us the foundations of the world being laid which directly hearkens back to the film’s opening verses. It is in the background of this magnificent visual and aural display that we must ask ourselves where the suffering of this one family comes into play in the universe. Why does or should God care, if, in fact, there is a God? And if He does care, who are we to ask Him questions when He set in motion the entire universe in all its glory and splendor? But we do ask questions, and we continue to struggle with death and suffering, and Malick struggles along with us.
There is a key scene midway through the film as the family attends church and the priest is giving a sermon about the book of Job, telling the people that suffering will come to them in this life because God doesn’t necessarily protect us from hardship. I saw the film twice and I’m still not sure if his words ring hollow at the sorrow we’ve witnessed or if they make perfect sense compared with the glory we saw at the beginning of the universe. I think Malick wants to make us aware of the suffering so we can see the glory after we have passed through the storm. His films all contain some element of this, whether it is the graphic battles of The Thin Red Line juxtaposed with peaceful sunsets and forest creatures or the raging fire of Days of Heaven combined with the majestic fields of grain. If there was no glory, then suffering wouldn’t matter and without the certainty of things being ravaged and claimed by death the glory might not shine as brightly as it does. Or perhaps it is the hope that one day the glory we see will be allowed to go unchecked by death and suffering that drives Malick’s reluctant, mournful acceptance of suffering in this present time.
One balm for this sorrow, at least in the film, is the presence of memory to bring us back to the happy and sorrowful times of our past. The majority of the film is seen through Jack’s memory, detailing important events in his childhood, skipping from moment to moment with no seeming order or narrative. For some this may be a distraction, but this is exactly what memory is; it is fragments strewn across our minds, something we have very little actual control over, as we remember the good and the bad with equal alacrity. In the specific memories that Malick exploits in the film, many of them probably his own, there is a certain sense of universality, at least in the emotions drawn out by the events. Many times I was surprised as I was caught by a wave of emotion brought on by a specific scene that had no direct correlation to any time in my past but I recognized the emotion that it brought forth.
Memory and the emotions associated with it seem to help older Jack arrive at some peace as the film comes to a close. With a typical Malick deftness, Jack has begun to reconcile the way of the world and the harsh competition of his father and nature with the way of grace and love shown by his mother and also through the glory of nature. The closing shots of the film can only reinforce this thought, but I would not want to spoil them for anyone. Malick certainly knows how to close his films.
So where does suffering and memory leave us in terms of God? Who is God? What is He like? It seems that Malick is content to leave us with more questions than answers when it comes to determining the nature of God. There are moments that leave us astounded at their beauty, and Jack’s mother is clearly a model of living in grace and love that is favored by Malick, as he has shown us in other films. Suffering is something that does not undermine God, but just seems to be part and parcel of the world and nature. In Malick’s world there is both glory and death, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness; it’s up to us to love and show grace as we search for the glory.