The Tree of Life: written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack O’Brien), and Hunter McCracken (Young Jack) (2011): Seeing Terrence Malick’s Oscar-nominated film in a theatre might have killed me — or at least put me to sleep. But watched in four installments over about two weeks, it’s a riveting meditation on life, death, and theodicy (aka The Problem of Evil). As with the Coen Brothers’ jauntier but no less problematic A Serious Man, The Tree of Life takes many of its cues from the Book of Job, the section of the Bible most often discussed when discussion turns to the question of why an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God allows evil to exist in the world. The Book of Job also features the famous bar bet between Satan and God over Job’s faith, along with a Satan who can appear to many skeptics as God’s employee rather than God’s adversary. It’s the Old Testament, Jake.
In The Tree of Life, adult Sean Penn in the here-and-now muses on his childhood and the pointed difference between his loving mother and his demanding, somewhat tortured father during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The movie isn’t so much episodic as it is musical (and music, classical music, is a huge component of this film), as themes and variations and lietmotifs play out both visually and on the soundtrack.
It’s a magnificent, tough movie, though much softer than Yahweh’s reply to Job when Job cries out for an explanation (God sez “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?”, a Divine reply which Stephen King once paraphrased as, “Shut up, fuckface, and take what I give you.”
Malick, ambitious and visually oriented, actually shows us God’s reply rather than simply restating it, in a lengthy sequence that races through the beginnings of the universe all the way up to the development of life on Earth and beyond. This sequence would be splendid on a big screen. Really, this sequence would make a great ‘Introduction to Scientific Cosmology’ movie. And later on, we see the Earth end, burned to death by the dying, expanding sun. It’s a hell of a movie, and startlingly humane. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain — as the mother and father — do outstanding work, as does the child actor playing Sean Penn’s character. Highly recommended.