I had heard many conflicting accounts of this film before I saw it. Some respectable minds had downed their thumbs to it, so I may have been watching it with some pre-judicious eyes. In any case, I came away from the first viewing thinking that while it wasn’t moving or life-changing, it had its virtues.
It is my opinion the genre of the film is that of allegory. It is therefore as an allegory that I’ll approach it.
There are many ways to conceive and talk about allegory. One way is to say that an allegory is a tale that establishes a relationship to another tale. This antecedent tale constitutes its “proof-text.” One of the functions of allegory is to renew the authority and intelligibility of its proof-text. Historically, allegorical proof-texts have very often been sacred (but not always). In the Euro-American Western tradition of allegory, the proof-text par excellence is the Christian Bible. It seems at first glance that this is the case with The Tree of Life. The film opens with an epigraph from The Book of Job. Moreover, the narrative at the center of the film is Job-like: characters deal with the sudden death of a family member. And they deal with it in a Job-like manner, calling God out to explain His penchant for letting terrible things happen to good people. Just as the Biblical proof-text, then, Malick’s film appears to constitute a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God to humankind.
How then does the film exonerate the divine? It’s clearly the burden of those non-narrative sequences to answer this question: the big bang, the formation of the earth, the evolution of life, of multicellular organisms, the nature shots, and, of course, the final “afterlife” portions, where indeed Jack and his mother, like Job, are given back that which they have lost.
Here we arrive at the first puzzling feature. If the movie functions as a theodicy, why does it also depict the formation of the cosmos as an evolutionary process? And furthermore, how do we reconcile the apparently evolutionary basis of the natural world with the depiction of the afterlife, where separated souls are reunited? Is this an insurmountable contradiction? Does Malick want it both ways, scientific and religious?
Renewing the authority and intelligibility of the proof-text involves squaring it with our own time, our own knowledge. As allegorists, we piously wish to preserve the past, but we can only preserve it in an image that speaks to the increased complexity of the present. Thus it appears that the film revises the Book of Job even as it calls us back to it. But this means that the Book of Job is only the ostensible proof-text, the one explicitly announced by the allegory. It means that there is another implicit proof-text or proof-texts silently at work as well, revising the ostensible one, squaring its ancient wisdom with contemporary knowledge. The Book of Job, then, is used to authorize the elided proof-text. The past is used to underwrite a contemporary ideological venture. The ideological venture, here, is that of high modernism. High modernism is the proof-text the authority of which the film seeks piously to renew.