Alan A. Stone: Imagining Faith
In the movie, one sees, roughly, a family, the O’Briens, dealing with the death of one of their own. Then, nothing less than a depiction of the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on earth. Next, a troubled boy coming of age in the traditional family where father rules, mother loves, and Oedipus stirs. Finally, a vision of the afterlife.
Many critics describe The Tree of Life as a philosophical exploration of the meaning of life; Malick is one of a surprising number of contemporary filmmakers who began in philosophy. He studied at Harvard with philosopher-humanist and film theorist Stanley Cavell, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, translated a volume of Heidegger, taught philosophy at M.I.T. before deciding he was not a very good teacher, became a journalist, rewrote screenplays, and eventually became a filmmaker.
Given Malick’s background and his film’s eschewal of a clear narrative, it’s not surprising that some would see The Tree of Life as dealing with philosophical questions. Malick, however, begins his film with an epigraph, a passage from the Book of Job that suggests something different: “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?”
The traditional understanding of those lines suggests the humbling of Job, a good man put to a test of faith by a compassionless god. The passage can be understood to represent the essence of Malick’s project itself, a dialectic of grand ambition and abject humility. On the one hand, he audaciously depicts creation—we will be there when all the sons of god shout for joy. On the other, he shows us a father, mother, and their three sons, who, like all humanity, inevitably endure profound humbling.