Solitude from mere outward condition of existence becomes very swiftly a state of soul in which the affectation of irony and skepticism have no place...After three days of waiting for the sight of some human face, Decoud caught himself entertaining a doubt of his own individuality. It had emerged into the world of cloud and water, of natural forces and forms of nature. In our activity alone we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part.
Joseph Conrad, Nostromo
Terence Malick's The Tree of Life consistently defies expectations of coherent narrative, instead implanting myriad images implacably in the mind. One could be haunted by this film. As David Thomson wrote in his review in The New Republic: "Less than a framework of story, we have a situation, and this is itself not just fair, but an enlightening novelty. Most of us do not feel that we are living stories (at least not until later); we believe we are getting on with a situation."
As the movie's epigraph from Job suggests, the situation is one of inevitable suffering and loss, albeit experienced in a perpetual haze of existential glory. The tone of the work is continually exalted, which probably accounts for its controversial and varied reception. For those predisposed to its message, irony is silenced; the sacred is always a puzzle to the intelligentsia.
The situation in The Tree of Life, is, most mundanely, that of a family in 1950's Texas, but really Malick is concerned with the situation of human life and its vexed relation to life, broadly considered. Much has been made, both derisively and respectfully, of Malick's depiction of the history of the universe and the pre-human earth (dinosaurs even!), but I'm not sure why. Narratively, this is merely the use of a very wide-angle lens, and a salutary use at that--there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Manhattan. Indeed, a few aerial shots of early hominids would not have been out of place. Psychologically, the "family romance" may seem endlessly interesting, but neither man nor woman lives by interpersonal relationships alone. There is that which preceded us and that which will outlast us.
In the first few minutes of the film, as we get our first impressionistic views of the O'Brien family, a female voice-over poses the contrast of nature and grace, asserting that the way of nature is domination and self-indulgence, whereas the way of grace is care and endurance. Much of the film unforgettably documents the necessity of nature--deep space, inscrutable water, arboreal visions, scathing light, barren rock, towering glass and steel--but the realm of grace is uniquely human. Consciousness is dualistic not in substance (body and soul, brain and mind) but in moral experience, in what we have no option but to choose.
Only human beings, in all of life that we know of, can fail the test of grace, and we see the risk and stakes of such failure in the boy, Jack, of 1950's Waco and the contemporary man, Jack (a ravaged Sean Penn). Violence and predation antedated humanity by many millions of years, but only with the first glimmer of consciousness did the storyline of Cain and Abel come into the world. We see it in the boy Jack's sullen resentment of his father and his acts of petty boyhood mayhem (breaking windows, mistreating frogs, stealing lingerie). Similarly, only humanity is prey to despair, of which contemporary Jack appears to be a classic example, suffering Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death."
Some reviews I've read seemed to infer that the culminating beach scene was some kind of Rapture-like representation of the end of the world, but to me it seemed a symbolic depiction of redemption, as Jack somehow breaks through his granitic alienation. The idea and the ideal of the sacred presume that amid seemingly endless tawdriness or trauma there are still spaces and times of grace if we can only find them.