The film starts with God in Job 38:4,7
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
At one point one of the boys asks his mother “Tell us a story from before we can remember”. And that is what Malick does. He briefly dips his toe into a real life story before quickly jumping out again, as if to give human suffering some perspective, to a view of the universe before mankind. Set to this music, we are treated to a breathtakingly beautiful collage of images portraying the birth of the universe. Without any apology for leaving the plot behind he draws the viewer into something akin to an extended car or perfume ad but with our planet and life advertised as the product and ends up with something which could be described as worship.
So what’s the movie about? I don’t want to spoil the story but in a way the story doesn’t seem to matter. There is a plot but it is not really the focus. Language and dialogue is almost under-emphasised perhaps in case it gets in the way of telling the story.
We learn about events from Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) - the only character in the movie with a first name. And gradually we unravel a story about him (and his parents) struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother. It is largely filled with glimpses into his childhood memories. Jack’s perspective on his brother’s death is filtered through the prism of his upbringing. I guess we are all products of our childhood. We see scenes of his father’s anger (Brad Pitt), Jacks jealousy towards his brother, his rebellion against his father (echoes of Cain and Abel), and his mother’s grace and unconditional love. Apparently Malick grew up in a similar small American town and his younger brother committed suicide when studying the guitar in Spain which at least helped me make some autobiographical sense of the plot.
But the rest of the movie is also a celebration of life - we see birth, beauty, grace, hard work, mercy and forgiveness. There are scenes of love: romance, brotherly love, and parental love. But yet like ‘The Thin Red Line’ (also directed by Malick) it is uncompromising in its portrayal of this fallen world. It does not hide the ugliness and brokenness of human nature too - anger, cruelty, death, temptation, failure, jealousy, resentment and grief. We cannot escape the pain of this life - at least not yet.
It has been described by others as ‘a poem’, ‘a prayer’, ‘a hymn to life’ or ‘a psalm’. Perhaps it’s a lament - some of the pieces on the soundtrack are requiems. It is deeply Spiritual and yet it does not provide easy answers about the meaning of life. We all have a story. And in that sense, I suppose like any movie, we identify with the experience of life. But we also identify with the deeper questions from the narrator voice-over, literally crying out to God for purpose and answers. “Why? What are we doing here? Where were you? You let a boy die. Why should I be good when you aren’t?” Like the rest of us, it is a journey of faith. And on the surface of the movie there aren’t a lot of answers.
It seems like a view of God from Job’s perspective. “Life is tough. Don’t question me.” But there are some subtle hints that Malick believes there is more than that. At the end of the movie, in a moving role reversal of what God has done for us, we hear Mrs O’Brien whisper “I give him to you . . . I give you my son”. She has come through her grief to a place of accepting and faith. And the director invites us to do the same.
One of the songs played during the final credits is listed as Hymn 87: Welcome Happy Morning. (HT).
"Welcome, happy morning! Age to age shall say:hell today is vanquished, heaven is won today!
Lo! the dead is living, God for evermore!
Him their true Creator, all his works adore!Thou, of life the Author, death didst undergo,tread the path of darkness, saving strength to show;
come then, true and faithful, now fulfill thy word,
'tis thine own third morning! rise, O buried Lord!Loose the souls long prisoned, bound with Satan's chain;all that now is fallen raise to life again;
show thy face in brightness, bid the nations see;
bring again our daylight: day returns with thee!"
I can’t say for certain what Malick believes but I believe that it is only because of Jesus we have hope. We have hope for the future. Death is not the end. The resurrection is real. The Bible doesn’t teach “pie in the sky when you die” or that we will play harps on clouds forever. Instead for those who take that step of faith we can look forward to resurrected life in new physical bodies as part of a new worshipping fellowship on this earth which will be completely restored. I believe we will be able to enjoy many of the good things we already enjoy here including music, art, food, nature, beauty, work, discovery, creativity - all done as worship of our Creator.
And because of Jesus we also have hope for forgiveness and the redemption of our past no matter what they hold. There is some suggestion that Jack comes to a realisation of this in his soul searching. I believe in a God who rescues people. Ultimately Jesus’ death reveals the depth of God’s sacrificial love for us when he completely dealt with our sins and our shame at the cross. The resurrection and the subsequent coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost demonstrates the power of God to conquer death, break the hold of sin and defeat the power of the devil. And we are offered that chance to share in that death and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is a picture of this – we go down into water/death and up into resurrection life. Jesus came to bring freedom which means we don’t have to live in our old world life anymore. “If anyone is in Christ – he IS a new creation.” 2 Cor 5:17
And finally, Jesus gives us hope for today. Our salvation is ‘worked out’ in our ordinary every day lives. The church is called to be a loving community of people who enjoy the benefits of reconciliation with God, inward peace with themselves and renewed relationship with each other. We are enabled to take this resurrection ‘new creation’ energy and let it loose on the world. Into all areas of life. In church and outside. Politics. Economics. Law. Medicine. Culture. Art. Music. Literature. The environment. The list goes on. We get to live life now to the full in the sure hope of God's certain future!
The tree of life is described twice in the Bible. Initially in Genesis 3:22 after the fall when relationships are broken and sin enters the world. Adam and Eve were thrown out of the garden so that they would not eat from the tree of life and live for ever. And it is mentioned again at the end of the Bible after Jesus comes back in judgement, there is a picture of the new world in Revelation 22:1-2.
"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."
This is when the fall is reversed and the power of God’s love finally makes ‘all the bad things come untrue’. And it is love we are called to start practising now. It’s our duty. Our destiny. Love demonstrates resurrection life. People who truly hope will be people enabled to love and forgive in a new way. Conversely people who are living by rule of love will be people who are learning more deeply how to hope.
It is a sad movie but one which inspires me to hope. Did I mention it's beautiful?