The Devil enters Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in the guise of Toscanini. Black-browed and burning-eyed, the Prince of Evil looms on RCA’s album cover for Brahms’s Fourth—this is the 1950s, when records were played on serious furniture—lifting his hands as if commanding the spirits of the air. A typecast Satan, this Toscanini, whose idol is raised up by a beef-fed paterfamilias (Brad Pitt) the better to intimidate his sons. You’d think the demon of selfhood—the unquiet spirit who perverts love and refuses grace—might have taken some other form, since the immediate job is to mislead an overbearing crewcut engineer in Waco, Texas. Yet when the phonograph’s rumblings distract Dad at the dinner table, moving him to leap up and proudly brandish the album cover, it’s clear that the tempter has slipped into the room.
The proof? Everything had been rapturous until now. It was all gravity-free, handheld-camera views of boys tumbling across an emerald lawn, or romping through velvety twilight streets to a surge of Smetana. Life was good, and the original, all-spawning singularity stood upright and shining in God’s cosmos, and the molten flares of stars thundered and roared, and vast cascades plummeted into the depths of the picture frame. Translucent animalcules swam toward the light and coalesced, dinosaurs scampered quizzically along the lush riverbeds of Cretaceous Texas—so imbued with divine charity that roving carnivore would not stoop to maul prostrate herbivore—and Mom, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty embodied by Jessica Chastain, was always gazing up at a sun hung perpetually in the highest branches of the trees. Only when that damned Toscanini came into the picture did her green-eyed son Jack (Hunter McCracken), skinny and on the cusp of puberty, adopt a sullen glare when forced to look at Dad, all the while standing with his elbows stuck out as if he were being restrained from behind.
What kind of crazy movie is this, that goes from Big Bang to last things, and in the protracted middle dwells on a season of spiritual trials for a mid-twentieth-century Everyfamily? An ineluctable movie, I’d say, since it’s made by the author of Badlands and Days of Heaven; a movie that demands to be seen and discussed, since it just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; but, for all that, still a movie. To what genre can I assign it?
The first category that comes to mind is not cinematic but literary; The Tree of Life is a psalm or prayer. The few lines of dialogue spoken within its scenes shrink to insignificance beside the whispered voiceovers—from Mom, and from the adult Jack (Sean Penn)—addressed directly to God. “I will be true to You, whatever comes. You spoke to me from the skies, through the trees, before I knew You, before I knew I loved You. What are we to You? How did I forget You?”
But it’s a stretch to identify a filmmaker’s voice with characters’ voices, so maybe I should revise the category and call The Tree of Life a sermon. Its text, shown on screen at the very start, is God’s rebuke to Job: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Deep into the 1950s meditation (I can’t really call it a story), when Everyfamily goes to church, an elaboration on these words rings out from the pulpit, in the longest continuous stretch of speech in the film.
So, to be more precise, The Tree of Life is a sermon about finding reconciliation within a world filled with suffering. This actually is a movie genre—a surprisingly resilient one at that. I might cite any number of cinematic theodicies, the greatest of which is Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest; but that’s no apt comparison for Malick’s film. Even when dealing with the most common experiences, Malick is a spinner of fables, not a close student of the here-and-now like Bresson; a gestural painter, not a hammer-and-chisel artist. Malick’s supercharged style of theodicy, if not his narrative sense, is more like that of the recent thriller The Adjustment Bureau. Or, if I may speak of theodicies that avoid mentioning God, I would liken Malick’s approach to Gaspar Noé’s druggy, kinesthetic submersion (in Enter the Void) into the spiritual flux that surrounds our lives, or Kubrick’s voyage in 2001: A Space Odyssey into a space-time far greater than our human concerns. If you stay for the closing credits of The Tree of Life, you will not be surprised to find Kubrick’s own Douglas Trumbull listed as visual effects consultant.