Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Way of nature, way of grace

Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life is one of my top ten favorite movies. The other night I watched his Days of Heaven with my parents. Some of the same themes and motifs appear in both films. Both films, for instance, put forth the stark contrast between competing moral visions in their main characters.

Richard Gere's character in Days of Heaven is a self-interested amoralist who commits a murder in the heat of the moment on the job and flees from the law down south to Texas from Chicago. He flees with his girlfriend and his little sister who follows them. In Texas he plans with his girlfriend to con the farm owner for whom they are working: learning that the farm owner will die soon, she will marry him (since he is interested anyway) and they will thus inherit his property. His girlfriend has a softer heart, however, and she falls in love with the farm owner in the meantime. Eventually the plan goes south and Richard Gere murders the farm owner after he finds out. Running from the law can only last so long: they are found, and Gere's character is shot to death in a shallow river while attempting to escape the police. His girlfriend sobs over his dead body after it is pulled ashore, while his sister looks on devastated but not crying.

Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt play husband and wife in Malick's The Tree of Life. An opening monologue from Chastain in the film sets forth a contrast between the two ways to be in the world. There is Chastain the mother's way of grace, which is a kind of unconditionally benevolent concern for the good of all sentient creatures; it is not insignificant that Chastain's monologue is recited over shots of her interacting lovingly and kindly with farm animals. On the other hand, there is Brad Pitt the father's way of nature, which is a kind of amoral might-makes-right, survival-of-the-fittest determination to accomplish what one desires for oneself. These two ways are before the mind of their eldest son, who around the age of thirteen experiences the birth of evil and malevolence within himself.

One of the strengths of Malick's writing and direction is that the characters find an end worthy of their moral vision. Richard Gere's amoral morality-of-the-jungle leads him to die an animal's death -- killed involuntarily in the attempt to escape a stronger predator. The chase scene through reeds and woods is reminiscent of the kind of termination deer or other wood animals go when pursued by bears, lions, or whatever. This is the inevitable end of all who would live by the way of nature: they overpower whomever they can until finally they find themselves overpowered.

Likewise Brad Pitt's children grow to resent him for the harsh, tough treatment he gives them day in and day out: he takes himself to be toughening his boys so they will resist life in the real world, but they hate that they are being treated so harshly; he attempts to force them into respecting him and treating him with honor, but their response is to speak back to him in contempt.

It is interesting to note a kind of existentialist protest here: on the one hand, plausibly the way of grace leaves oneself open to being victimized by the world; on the other, the way of nature is so contemptible that we naturally are repulsed by it. There is an absurdity here, since life as we want to live it is impossible, and life as we feel forced to live it is repulsive. So the question of God's existence is especially pertinent. It makes sense to live a life in the way of grace, if God can ensure that our life doesn't end in victimization, be it through resurrection or recompense or judgment or whatever; but if there is no such God, there may not be any sense in living like that. We may even pose the question, How could the way of grace even appear, if the blind and cruel processes of evolution are all there are? Why would he have the impression that this world is not good, if there's nothing outside this world?