A Gathering Voices post by Ed McNulty
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 18 min.
Job 38:4-7; Matthew 5:45b
Terence Malick’s new film is a difficult but rewarding one for people of faith. He begins with a quotation from the Book of Job, and might well have included Matthew 5:45b as well. As in The Thin Red Line, he explores the big questions of life, of good and evil, beauty and joy, and especially why bad things happen even to those who are trying to live their lives according to God’s will.
The film is a series of shots from the life of a family and from nature, micro and macrocosmic in scope. The family is the O’Briens living in Texas during the 1950s. Almost abandoning the narrative structure of commercial films, Mr. Malick forces the viewer to decide whether to pay close attention and piece the narrative together, or to give up in confusion and despair. Those who choose the former are richly rewarded, one of the joys being a visual ride near the middle of the film that explores the history of the universe, the most exciting visual sequence since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey. Indeed for people of faith, perhaps better, as they will relate it to God’s question to the suffering patriarch in Job 38:1, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
The O’Briens consist of a strict father (Brad Pitt) who represents the way of nature (or law), and a nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain), who opens up the world of grace for the surviving son (his brother’s death early in the film leads the distressed and father to raise questions while fellow mourners ply them with pious platitudes (this is similar to the funeral scene in Rabbit Hole.) Mr. O’Brien’s remark about the unfairness of his son’s death is followed by the above-mentioned cosmic trip, starting with the Big Bang, spiraling gasses and galaxies, nebulae and star clusters, the sun and the earth, microscopic life, fish, plants and mountains, and dinosaurs. Quite something to behold, as well as it should be, with the master of special effects Douglas Trumbull being in charge (he worked on 2001)!
The latter half of the film shows the pensive older son Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) thinking over his past relationship with his father and mother. He now realizes how frustrated his father must have been not to have achieved his dream of becoming a professional musician, settling instead for a career at a power plant, raising his family, and playing the organ at their church. His mother, however, had sensitized him to the wonders and joys of creation, and the importance of being aware of and celebrating the beauty of the moment—there is a lovely scene in which a butterfly lands on her hand and she gazes at it in rapture. We often see flashbacks to her and the two brothers dancing with her, sometimes indoors, and sometimes outside amidst the coolness of a lawn sprinkler.
Those church leaders able to convince a group to watch such an unconventionally made film should have a glorious time exploring together the wonders and joys of God’s world, and the importance of the kairos moment when nature seems to spill over with the presence of the divine. (The group should sing at the end “This Is My father’s World.”) The darker side of nature, of suffering and death, so present in Mr. Malick’s film make this a fine film to use with a study of the Book of Job. It follows the Cohen Brother’s Job-inspired film A Serious Man, but, unlike that film, emerges on the brighter side of the realm of suffering and death.
For my review raising far more issues in the film (because it’s three times as long, go to www.visualparables.net