A Strange Review: The Tree of Life

This was written back in 2011 when the film first came out and was intended for the First Things blog. (The reflection, not the film, which would have been weird.) Why it wasn’t ultimately published there is a great mystery that has driven the greatest minds mad. So I’m publishing it 10 years later to ensure its irrelevance, which is like my thing.

Is Brad Pitt God?

I was wondering whether to send this to Entertainment Weekly but decided against it, as I don’t mean “God” in the movie idol sense. In The Tree of Life, a film that has engendered much huggah-muggah, both rapturous and angry, just as Inception did last year and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey did many moons and monoliths ago, Brad Pitt plays a middle-class 1950s father with three kids, a wife, a house in the burbs, and a burning desire to be both good and great. A praying man, an loving patriarch, a conscientious worker, he is also covetous, unpredictable, and given to a certain amount of emotional brutality and violent outbursts of temper that can send family and china flying out of rooms. In short, he is irascible and, as it becomes increasingly apparent to his eldest son, Jack, a brooder given to an inwardness that rewards him with a wisdom beyond his years, a bit of a hypocrite.

Does my father/God love me? Does he hate me? Does he care what I want? Why does he have all these rules to which he does not seem subject himself. “He says don’t put your elbows on the table,” Jack reports of his father, “but he does.”

Pitt’s imperious and pious and spontaneously affectionate father is a brute of nature striving to drink in the grace that will heal his spiritual blindness, awakening him to all he has been given and enabling him to let go of what he is so earnestly striving to earn but will never have. He tells his kids that they are masters of their own destinies, a fact belied immediately by the father’s own dead dreams and what we know to be the fate of at least one of his sons. This proves a wonderful parable of the Law/Grace distinction but also where, apparently, the God analogy ends, no? God, after all, does not covet what he does not have. What exists that is not his? Worshippers, perhaps. He both threatens and woos, brutalizes and heals.  But why must his good intentions, like Jack’s dad’s, come wrapped in so much terror? Are we so wayward that there is no other way to subdue the wills of his children? And if so, whose fault is that?

“I don’t do what I want to do, and I do what I hate,” Jack says, echoing the Apostle Paul. And so he is trapped by an obdurate human nature, the product of much evolutionary violence and chaos. Why does God judge us for sins that a fallen nature cannot help but commit? Why does he seem to make us pay for what he insists is a gift of unmerited favor?

“I guess I’m a lot like you,” Jack says to his father at the climax of a moving scene of awkward but heartfelt reconciliation. So have we projected our own worst tendencies onto God, creating him in our own image, as many a sociologist has opined? Or are we reflections of God’s own inner turmoil, trapped in the  desire to destroy his broken creation and to be reconciled to it?

But who wants a neurotic God? 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? runs the quote from Job that opens Terrence Malick’s strange and beautiful and frustrating film. I was nowhere, no one, no place. And so we must leave it at that, and hope for better world, many more sons, and a great, great increase of joy.