Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Job 38: "The Tree of Life" and the Voice from the Whirlwind

In my heart of hearts, I consider myself a true cinephile.  My credentials are sterling: I trashed Titanic when it won the Oscar, I claim to understand the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and for many years, I wrote reviews of movies made for teen girls for a newspaper I like to call "the Grey Lady"--The Kalamazoo Gazette.  (Is that nickname already taken?)

So it was with chagrin that I recently realized I had never seen anything by Terrence Malick, the reclusive American auteur.  (I may have slept through Thin Red Line in college, but even I won't count that.) 

And thus, it was with head humbly dipped that I trooped down to the Kendall Square Cinema last week to salvage my reputation and watch The Tree of Life, Malick's most recent film and a newly minted Palme d'Or winner.  (If you don't know what that is, I'm not going to tell you; I'm a real movie guy.)

Tree is a hybrid film.  Half mid-century, father-son drama, half cosmological speculation, it juxtaposes scenes of family life in rural Texas with sublime panoramas of the universe in flux--stars, planets, suns, and nebulous gas clouds.  Brad Pitt--playing an overbearing father of three--shares the screen with a small herd of CGI dinosaurs, if not at the same time.  This idiosyncratic fusion has caused some viewers to walk out of the theater after minutes.  (Though I've got a name for them--pansies.)

Now first, know that Tree isn't nearly so avant garde as those early exiters would have you believe; we're not watching David Lynch here. Nonetheless, any honest effort to interpret the film must reconcile its two major strands: the celestial and the domestic.  But with a little help from the Bible, I believe that it's not so hard a job as you might think.  Here's why ... 

Malick opens the film with a brief quote from the book of Job.  The translation he chooses reads, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (38:4,7)

He then dives into his tale.  The opening fifteen minutes are dominated by two images: first, a mother (played by the luminous Jessica Chastain, shown above) receiving word that her son, a soldier, has died; second, a stellar explosion that most reviewers read as the Big Bang.  The rest of the film plays out both moments.

In one half, Malick delivers the pre- and post-history of that military death.  In the other half, we get a de facto history of the universe, from the first explosion to the primordial goo to early fish creeping onto land to velociraptors to ... well, I could go on. 

It is the book of Job that bridges the gap between the two.

Job, of course, is the story of a man afflicted by God.  After losing his riches and then his children in a string of not-so-freak accidents, Job sits down in a pile of ashes to lament his sorry state.  And the next thirty-five chapters of harrowing debate boil down to a simple question: Why? Job, you see, is a good man, a righteous man, and a man of God.  That his life should be so devastated seems, to him, tragic--or at least tragically unfair.

However, the miracle of the book is that Job, unlike all who suffer today, receives an answer from the deity.  In a passage that many simply call "the voice from the whirlwind," God takes four chapters (38-41) to respond in detail to Job's complaint.  They open with the following verses, from which Malick takes his epigraph:

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will you question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings started for joy?" (Job 38:2-7)

These verses--and the hundred-odd that follow--give Job a God's-eye view of his own suffering.  "Your torment feels big," God seems to say; "Well, let me show you big."  So God takes Job to the beginning of the universe, challenges him with the mystery of life, escorts him to the peak of the world and to the depths of the abyss.  And Job is hushed by the comparison.

Malick, I believe, does the exact same thing with us; he shows us poignant loss and weighs it against the whole universe.  Halfway through, I was ready to retitle the film Job: The Movie; the answers that Malick provides to the thorny questions of human suffering are downright Biblical.

Ah, but are those answers persuasive?  I'll leave that question for another day. 


  1. Job plays a part but I see it as Genesis for the most part. The creation of the universe follows the first chapter and the human story line follow chapter 4. The older brother is jealous of the middle brother. The older brother is worldly the middle brother is saint-like. And the 3rd brother is hardly mentioned at all. The older brother even lures the middle brother to a field in order to hurt him. And also the middle brother eventually dies.
    That added to the fact that the tree of life is mentioned at the end of chapter 3 of Genesis leads me to believe the human side of the story is based on that book.

    1. Creation is a critical part of Job 3. Which Job actually works towards an anti-creation request. It is also evident later on in the "where were you when". So Genesis is part of this movie, but it still seems to revolve greatly around the understanding of God's divinity throughout suffering. A critical theme of Job.

  2. Sadness in truths on a worldly level... profound truths on an honest to God heaven sent perspective .. the simple facts of life and questions bourne out of the effects and affects of LOVE: transmitted and received and or also... deficit of love... misdirected or mismanaged and one's recognition of the understanding and misunderstanding


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