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Malick’s Microcosm: A Review of “Tree of Life” by Alissa Wilkinson

The old New England Primer, used to educate schoolchildren in colonial America, started much the same way as that other foundational textbook, the Bible: “In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All.”

The little sentence was assigned to the letter A, but it was a lot bigger than that.

There’s plenty about colonial America I wouldn’t want to replicate, but I kind of like this stark beginning to an education. It reminds me that children can handle the tricky stuff just as well as they handle the animals on the ark and Jesus telling the little children to come to him. Good storytellers know this: Pixar, for instance, starts their films with tragedy - something they inherited from Disney - and the fairy tales of old involve princesses trapped in towers and children being fattened up by witches.

Certainly children need affirmation. But kids aren’t dumb. They know from a young age that they’re not perfect, that the world is not perfect, and this line about the fall of man is a pretty good place to start: a longing for a lost Eden.

I began this article while sitting in a quiet city park, and in the hour since I started typing, a herd of elementary school children has stampeded into the park. They’re obviously having an end-of-school-year celebration, and they’re giddy. I’m watching them play with jump ropes and lob wiffle balls at each other. They’ve even got one of those giant multi-colored parachutes I remember loving as a child.

They scream and play and run. They also act like kids: there are cliques and bullies, cool kids surrounded by followers and some that are obviously loners. Watch a crowd of children for a while and you see everything you need to know about human nature.

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Many critics who have struggled to describe Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life have called it a prayer. And it is a prayer, of the sort I haven’t seen onscreen since the stunning Into Great Silence. Most of the words spoken in the film are in voiceover, and nearly all of them are directed at - well, at God, though he’s rarely addressed by name. The prayers and complaints are prompted by a singular tragedy, but they loop around to something grand and great.

In the weeks since I saw the film, though, I’ve wondered if a better word than prayer might be lament. And not just a lament for a lost loved one, but for that lost Paradise - both the first Eden, as well as the one buried deep within our memories.

The most striking feature of The Tree of Life (and probably what won him the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes) is how it tells the creation story. This is a fully sincere and appropriate place to use that now-ironic word: his recounting is epic, and it comes at the center of a narrative that starts and ends with individuals. There are symphonies and solar flares and visions of the beyond.

It’s easy to get stuck on this visual beauty, which serves an important point in the narrative. There’s more going on here, though. This is not merely cosmic; it’s personal, and explicitly recalls the book of Job. God has had enough of Job’s questioning of His character - or perhaps He’s let him go on as a mercy. He comes to Job in a whirlwind and asks - in what also serves as the epigraph of the film - “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (38:4) He recounts his strange, weird, wonderful creations, and concludes, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (40:2)

Job knows his place in the creation now and answers simply, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (40:4-5) When God continues, Job at last concludes that he cannot understand God’s ways.

Yet in the film, as the creation sequence progresses, the voiceover turns this on its head. A bereaved mother turns God’s words back to him: “Where were you?” she asks. Where had God gone when her son was in danger? And God is silent.

So yes, the film is about the whole world. But it’s easy to be wowed by cosmic grandeur. What Malick accomplishes is more significant: The Tree of Life is not just about the creation of man; it’s about the creation of a man, about what our beginning has to do with our ends. A boy is born to beautiful parents; he lives in a lovely home, discovers the world with delight, rejoices in the love of his lovely mother, spends his early childhood in the sun-kissed eternal summer that most of us remember so well.

[ALSO: Brett McCracken reviews “Meek’s Cutoff”]

Then one day, he encounters temptation. And he falls. And his guilt turns him into a sullen, unhappy bully. His innocence is gone, and we know it won’t return, even when he seeks and receives reconciliation with his father - a man whose fallenness haunts him as well - and his little brother, who he wantonly injures and who grants him forgiveness without guile.

In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.

The vistas and beauty of Malick’s creation story fill us with awe, make many of us believe in film as an art form again - and will likely spark not a few young minds to become astronomers and biologists. All worthy work.

But it is when he takes that grand story of creation and fall and stuffs it inside the life of a little boy that we start to understand. Each life re-enacts the first story. Each is created in beauty and falls in disgrace. We’re each a microcosm of the whole story. And redemption is there, if we know how to lament what is lost.

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What do you think of Alissa’s assertions about childrens’ innate awareness of the world’s and their own fallenness? If you saw Tree of Life, what was your reaction to the film?