Fredric Jameson once wrote that for Marxism all the disparate human cultures that have populated the earth since the evolution of the species constitute different solutions to one and the same problem: the problem of wresting a realm of freedom from the realm of necessity. Necessity is that which cannot not be. And for us, necessity has at least two faces: one natural and one historical. Simply put, natural necessity is the necessity of eating and of not being eaten: it is the necessity of incessantly securing the survival of our organisms in their biophysical space. Historical necessity, on the other hand, refers to the shapes our lives come to take in time. It refers to the empirical impossibility of changing the past. It refers to the necessity of having always to work with what the past transmits to us in any given moment. Historical necessity is reflected in the character armor that comes to encrust us. It is the record of the innumerable refusals of our desire and of our reactions to those refusals.
In Malick’s film, historical necessity is thematized in the death of R.L., Jack’s beloved brother, the O’Brien’s second son. When Jack and his mother cry out to God in Job-like fashion, they are really railing against historical necessity. They protest the curtailment of a life, the curtailment of potentiality, of promise. R.L.’s untimely death means the lack of fulfillment. It means an increase in the store of unfulfillment and incompletion that engulfs and haunts the world. The death of their beloved son and brother raises a terrible question in their minds: is that it? Is there no redemption for this ocean of dead possibilities, of potentialities refused? What would it matter if one individual fulfills her promise when 10,000,000 more never get the chance?