In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Saint Paul enunciates that we see the world through a glass darkly. In The Tree of Life, Saint Malick looks at the world through a lava lamp lite-ly. His cinematic experience is meant to be nothing less than The Way and The Light. But all he does is rivet together an ambiguous parable and a trippy slide show. He would have us all believe that we can transcend the epistemological challenge caused by natural distortion identified by Saint Paul. Direct communion with God's grace is possible, lo and behold, through a Davey and Goliath cartoon on acid.
I haven't liked a Terrence Malick movie since Badlands back in 1973. That film tells a tale about the banality of evil on a very modest scale, making good use of the basic historical facts, strong performances and the absence of metaphysical messages.
For heaven's sake, Days of Heaven (1978) ranks up there with Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980) for the most infintesimal numerator of filmic goodness over the most gargantuan denominator of directorial pomposity. The film is dramatically still-born and never does come alive, consistently aborting itself on behalf of a mandate to imply thematic profundity by way of bank-calendar cinematography.
The Thin Red Line (1998) is considerably better, but ultimately more bothersome for the way it mashes together its quasi-pantheistic reverence for nature and its pseudo-Heideggerian anguish for authentic Being in the context of the existential context to contextualize all existential contexts - war.
Fortunately for me, I was otherwise disposed doing something better - getting stretched on a rack perhaps - when The New World (2005) was required viewing for those still grappling with the ethical-cultural pronouncements of Disney's Pocahontas (1995) but too impatient to wait for Cameron to explain the moral purpose of civilization with respect to The Other in Avatar (2009).
Unfortunately for me, I was no longer trapped in an Iron Maiden when The Tree of Life was recently screened at my house. Hence, I was subjected to its wonderous blend of retro-2001 special effects guaranteed to thrill the stoner set, left-over-Jurassic Park CGI inverted to pacify the pacifists, Planet Earth-wannabe eco-porn to green the hearts of even the most red-blooded predators in the audience, and a nice little family drama that raises narrative incoherence to a point of high metaphoric principle.
All of this in the service of throbbing theological revelations that offer themselves to the public with so much pretentious force, well, Malick's philosophico-artistic grandiosity is something to see. Good thing The Tree of Life comes down on the warm, fuzzy side of natural evolution as eschatology confirming God's benevolent plan for us in the end. It's so nice to know that we won't have to deal with the Book of Revelation afterall.
But of course, The Tree of Life takes its cue from the Book of Job. Even though I am Jewish only ethnically and not religiously, I must say that Christians tend to be fish out of water when it comes to this chapter of the Old Testament. Thing is, it's hard to understand the point of view of the loser when you're on the winning team; you know, officially endorsed by the state since the Third Century AD. Sure, sure, nobody has a monopoly on feeling abandoned by God. But for all his individual subjective angst about this, Kierkegaard remains objectively on the winning team. Job is in the contrary position and his personal abandonment is nothing less than the sign for the negation of his team as The Chosen People. Or, at least their status as such is brought into radical doubt. This, in turn, brings the existence of God into radical doubt.
It is this larger social/historical/ontological doubt that underscores The Book of Job. Bad as it is, the wrath of God is the anger of a God still present. It is the possibility that He is actually the ultimate absentee landlord that causes true terror for the terrestrial tenant in the ancient shtetl. This extrapolates universally to our species as a whole. Perhaps humans are not The Chosen Species because there is no God doing any chosing. And away we go with why the Book of Job resonates with such philosophical power for us today.
Malick means to calm the terror of terrestrial tenants the world over, but he actually doen't even begin to confront this terror head on. He is simply on the wining team.
Personally, I am rubbed the wrong way by Mallick's mush-headed spiritualism less because it is spiritualism and more because it is mush-headed. He is allowed to have faith in the grace of God and allowed to promote it too. But he simply doles out his New Age monotheism for the masses as a sort of feel-good cinematic antidote to that terrible sensation inside that God deserves to be questioned, judged, doubted. As does Job. Hey, as does Larry Gopnik, however implicitly and humourously, in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. So just preach your promises of heaven, Terrence, and stop posing as a philosopher who faces the void, body and soul.
Yet, I expend too much critical energy on the substance of the film when it is even more the style of it that irritates the hell outta me. Just as it bugs Jerry Seinfield more as a comedian than as a Jew that his WASP dentist has coverted to Judaism and now delivers schtick to his patients trapped in his chair, it is not as an atheist but rather as a cinephile that Malik really pisses me off. It was after seeing Tarkovsky's mis-en-scenealternatives to the montage paradigm of Eisenstein that I first attempted to theorize the image in motion pictures. Not too much later, it was after seeing Malick that I found it necessary to differentiate images of conceptual and aesthetic worth from stunning yet superficial visuals.
Malick's movies are pretty, Lord knows, they are easy on the eye. But they are not really beautiful. And they certainly are not the sublime visions they present themselves to be. For the sublime must dialectically admit the ugly. Malick appropriates the light, always the lovliest light, in every shot, such lovely light - for eye candy.
I have very few quibbles with your take down of Malick's latest New Age Opus. I will admit that I found the family drama portion of the proceedings, and Brad Pitt's performance in particular, engaging (if not exactly spellbinding.) If the movie had jettisoned the portions dedicated to fuzzy headed metaphysical pretension, and focused on the rickety relationship of the emotionally frigid and occasionally abusive father and his sons (and wife), there would have been plenty to praise here.
But, alas, Malick is incapable of leaving well enough alone. His need to see everything in Platonic terms, to search for the transcendent in the mundane (this in and of itself is not necessarily an unworthy pursuit, I want to point out. Except when in the hands of T. M.) He needs a loving god, and a Hallmark beach at sunset afterlife to compensate for the way that this world lets us down. It's all so soft and squishy, and while he may aspire to be a cinematic version of his philosophical predecessor, I find his work less Plato than Play-Doh.