As part of a Commonweal symposium on Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life, Karen Kilby argues that “theological issues around loss and death in particular are right at the heart of the film”:
How can the suffering of the innocent, the sudden, pointless loss of life, be reconciled with the love of God? The question surfaces early in the film in connection with the death of the middle son in the family, but its centrality is signaled still earlier, in a quote that stands at the very opening of the film: “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?”
To see how these lines can be taken as a kind of key to much of The Tree of Life, one needs to recall their place in the Book of Job. They come near its end. Most of the book has been taken up with an extended debate between the afflicted Job and his three friends. Repeatedly Job defends his integrity, rejecting the view of his “comforters” that some transgression must be at the root of his sufferings, and repeatedly he demands that God should appear. He wants to stage a trial: he wants God to show up and justify himself, to provide an answer to the question of why the innocent suffer. And then suddenly, shockingly, God does appear, speaking from a whirlwind. But the great oddity of the book of Job is that what follows is a massive non sequitur.
God pays no attention to questions of the injustice of the world, shows no interest in the suffering of the innocent in general, or in why Job in particular has been stricken. In fact, he seems to show no interest in humanity whatsoever. Instead he dwells boastfully, almost bombastically, on the sheer magnitude of creation, the terror and splendor of it.
What if one assumes, though, that it is not a non sequitur: what if God’s speech is not a rebuke of Job, or a rejection of his question, or a change of subject? What if one assumes that it is, in fact, somehow, a genuine answer? This, it seems to me, is part of what Malick is trying to imagine in The Tree of Life. “I want to see as you see,” prays the young Jack, and perhaps the film itself is trying to see as God sees: What does the world look like if God’s speech is not a rejection of Job’s question, but truly an answer to it?