I immediately zoned in to the opening scenes of Terrence Malick’s new movie, “The Tree of Life,” when the haunting quotation appeared from Job 38.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” God asks Job.
Every good seminary graduate watching this movie, and especially those of us who saw “The Thin Red Line,” knows what’s probably coming – mystery and unexplained mystical reflection.
This movie is an exercise in disappointing usual movie expectations. The story of an average family in Waco, Texas, haunted by a tragedy is never fully resolved, never completely explained. It dissolves into mystical reflection.
The tone of “Tree” often reminded me of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which from the time I originally saw it until now I have no clue what it means. “Tree,” however, is superior to “2001.” And the Job reference set me up to enjoy it.
Perhaps, I reflected later, the lack of biblical competency in our current time accounts for the reactions of viewers leaving the theater with us.
“Huh? You mean we paid $7.50 for that? I didn’t think that nature scene would EVER end. I hate movies like that.”
The book of Job ends similarly. Job finally gets his day in God’s court, and God never breathes a word of his wager with Satan, his faith in Job or the purpose of life.
He backs Job into submission with a long rehearsal of creation, full of wonders in the sky, mysteries in the earth and giant monsters that send shivers down the human spine.
“If you were there for all of these things,” God says to Job, “I will tell you how it all fits together. Otherwise, trust me.” And Job does. What else can he do?
“Tree” left me unsatisfied at first. I wanted all the storylines of part B – the microcosm story of the family in Waco – resolved and explained, and they are not.
I realized as I continued to reflect on it that this was a good thing. The movie is like actual life – with prayers and sinful thoughts interwoven, bad people (Brad Pitt’s father character) also capable of beauty and tenderness.
The movie is a stream-of-collective-consciousness ride that carries the viewer in and out of cosmic, primeval and intimate thoughts of the most ordinary sort. It soars at times, especially visually.
The long interlude about the universe, creation and evolution of the world is one of the most brilliant film sequences I have ever seen. I don’t know how else to describe it. And you won’t enjoy it unless you quit worrying about the smaller storyline of the people in Waco.
A lot of people will not like this movie. Not because they are not smart people, but because they don’t go to movies for these kinds of experiences. For some people, movies are simply for fun, and that’s OK. I go to predictable romantic comedies for the same reason.
But “Tree” is more like every time I have stood by the south rim of the Grand Canyon and looked without speaking, or walked inside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Anything you say at those moments feels inadequate.
Malick’s visionary exploration (and I have avoided saying much more about the story in Waco so I will not spoil it) is stunning.
It’s a movie that perplexed me, but I have kept thinking about it – always a sign of a great film for me.
If you know the book of Job well, particularly those final chapters, I think it will make more sense to you – that things don’t, can’t, won’t make “sense” as we insist they do, but some instinct in us says, “They will and they do.”
The small story of the little family is well-acted – a frustrated musician-inventor husband played by Pitt, who turns in another great performance in his growing catalog of great performances; Sean Penn as grown-up son Jack, whose inner struggles as a child are a significant part of the story; Jessica Chastain as Pitt’s graceful, loving wife, who is the embodiment of grace and faith counterpoised against Pitt’s character, with his more brutal “nature” view of life.
You may not like “The Tree of Life.” You may choose to wait and watch it on cable, which would be a mistake unless you have a home theater screen; the nature images in this film are IMAX material. The filmography is that good.
And if you just want to be entertained, save your bucks and see something else. No one should think badly of you.
But if you want to walk into a cathedral and sit down for a while and listen to the universe, you may find this film worth your while. And when you walk out, it will walk with you.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material.
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt: Mr. O’Brien; Sean Penn: Jack; Jessica Chastain: Mrs. O’Brien.
The movie’s website is here.
Gary Furr is pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.