This framing device opens, in turn, into a much broader frame still, in which Malick delivers a literalized version of God’s “where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” response to Job — a line that supplies the film’s epigraph, and inspires an extraordinary tour of time and space. We see the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, the birth of life on earth. The springs of the sea churn and the morning stars sing, Leviathan (in the form of a plesiosaur) emerges from the deep and the treasures of the snow (the glaciers of an Ice Age, that is) spread out to cover the earth. Finally, the universal gives way to the particular, and we reach the birth of Jack himself — a boy swimming upward from underwater, and then emerging as an infant in the Texas sunshine.
All of this (I think) is part of the adult Jack’s epiphany, which carries forward to a mystical vision of eucatastrophic reconciliation on a beach, scored to the strains of Berlioz’s Agnus Dei. The trouble (as so often in Malick’s movies) is that the adult Jack has no story of his own: He’s a past without a present, a set of memories without a personality. Penn is stranded, like so many of the fine actors who thronged the cast of The Thin Red Line, with murmurs of dialogue but no character to play. And since he’s the movie’s Job figure, the character who’s supposed to mediate for us between Waco and eternity, Malick’s grand metaphysical vision sometimes seems to float untethered from the human drama at the movie’s core.
The New World, similarly, closed with an epiphany, a kind of ecstatic vision of the old world and the new. But there Malick was working with a story strong enough to keep his visions rooted (almost in spite of themselves) in the fertile soil of character and plot. This time the visions are even more ambitious and extraordinary, but the soil is sometimes too thin to sustain them.
But this should be taken as a quibble, not a harsh critique. I don’t want The Tree of Life to overshadow Malick’s previous (and greatest) film, but neither do I want to detract from the brilliance of this effort. There is nothing like this in contemporary cinema, to put it mildly — nothing so beautiful, nothing so God-besotted, and nothing that so movingly captures how the whole of time and space can be implicated in the joys and sorrows of a single human life.