Everything that follows is from Joel...
Sorry for the wall of text, but I’m got tired of trying to piece the film together when I wrote this on Monday, and don’t really have the desire to edit what follows.
The only position on the film that, without seeing it a second time, I’m willing to go to the wall for is its insistence that both grace and nature are essential ingredients of our universe – it does not ultimately present grace as necessarily preferable or superior to nature. The way of grace, while initially very attractive, has problems. When taken to the extreme, i.e. in isolation from the way of nature, it hinders growth, development, and maturity. It obstructs evolution. Acts of compassion, forgiveness, and selflessness – I won’t say ‘love’ because I think true charity involves both grace and nature: the love of God is a consuming fire – are among the greatest acts humans are capable of, but without the backdrop of the way of nature they are essentially meaningless. Also, I interpret the selflessness attributed to the way of grace in the film to be something that is basically amoral – although it definitely has moral implications for people who find it in themselves.
In contrast, the way of nature is a large part of the reason we are all in graduate school. It’s the reason we don’t still believe in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. It provides the hard-edge, the impulse to create something of your own, as well as the (dangerously) impassive drive for personal perfection. As with selflessness, I interpret the selfishness which characterizes the way of nature as a largely amoral force. For although the way of nature is responsible for much of the brutality seen in the movie, it is also identified with the beautiful pipe-organ and piano music played by Brad Pitt’s character and the skyscrapers designed by Sean Penn’s character. I take from this that there is at least some good in the way of nature which is not derived from the way of grace.
If I had to choose between a world completely based on the way of grace or a world completely based on the way of nature I would definitely choose the former, but the film doesn’t give us that option. It drops us into the middle of the story – into history. The purpose of the film then, as I see it, is to question how we got here and why we do what we do from the perspective of someone who is stuck in the middle of a story he didn’t write and of which he is ignorant of its beginning, ending, and purpose. From this perspective it’s pretty easy to see the parallels with Job.
This is also why I think the way of grace as seen in Jessica Chastain’s character isn’t an unqualified good. If we lived in a completely docile world, then her character might represent the ideal. But that’s not the world we’ve got.
Okay, so if Malick isn’t setting up nature and grace as being completely opposed and isn’t claiming something along the lines of grace eventually triumphing over nature, what is he doing? Short answer: I have no clue. Here are some things I’ve been thinking about, though.
I think I’ve already mentioned the interesting way in which the way of grace and the way of nature come together in the parents to create life, so I won’t dwell on that here. I will say, however, that as I interpret the movie, the terms “nature” and “grace” could almost have been replaced by “cosmic masculinity” and “cosmic femininity” in a more primitive, patriarchal society without doing too much violence to the film. And looking back on the film there are several images, such as the meteor hitting Earth, which, in a very-weird-way-which-I-don’t-really-want-to-think-about could be interpreted as sexual symbols. And then there are Sean Penn’s skyscrapers… I love continental philosophy.
Actually, forget that last paragraph. I think I might be wrong.
Also, I think some importance should be given to the final shot of the film – a bridge – as an image of the good that comes from ways of grace and nature working together.
And I think the shot of the meteor hitting the earth also could represent this kind of creation through the coming together of competing forces.
The productive coming together of nature and grace can also be seen in the scene where the father accompanies on the piano the music that the middle child is playing on his guitar.
I have a lot more I’d like to write about how nature and grace when seen from the proper perspective and balanced correctly in one’s life give one access to the tree of life, but I don’t feel up to writing it all down. If you want to talk about it further, let me know.
Okay. I’m sick of writing. And I’m pretty sure everything I’ve written is only half-right. It’s an intentionally messy film and we’re probably not supposed to be able to find a single, uncomplicated “moral” in it. I think the film itself may be best example of the ways of grace and nature coming together to produce something meaningful and beautiful. Like a symphony or a Gothic cathedral. While both forces are competing, they are also complimentary, and when they come together, the greatest monuments to life are produced.