Understanding a Father’s Tale in 'The Tree of Life' - Father's Week on BTR


Official The Tree of Life movie poster from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, has become the topic of much scrutiny among critics and theater-goers alike. Mystical and obscure, dialogue is nearly missing from the two-hour drama, which focuses on a father’s experience as stronghold in the world. The movie, written more like a poem, encapsulates moments in time, strung together through a symphonic score composed by Alexandre Desplat. The patriarchic struggle of Mr. O’Brien (played by a compelling Pitt), is the centrifugal force of the narrative, centering on how responsibilities as a father can diverge from personal aspirations.

Marked by Malick’s bare script and discontinuous organization, the music in The Tree of Life becomes the language of the story, and a source of insight into the mind of Mr. O’Brien’s character. While he’s received a series of patents in his career, his work in the industrial field has been lackluster, and he gave up his goal of being a classical pianist in ages past. Now focused solely on his family, the film finds him relentlessly laboring to foster character in his children, and maintain structure in a world controlled by powers beyond restriction. Similarly, the music retains boundaries within a narrative of minimal edifice.

“In general, if there is a lot of music and little dialogue in a film, the score may naturally assume more symbolic and emotional currency,” explains Ron Sadoff, Associate Professor and Director of the Film Scoring Program at NYU Steinhardt. “In the case of a nonlinear structured narrative, the music often features themes that are repeated throughout…Hence, music serves as both a clarifying and unifying element.”

Mr. O’Brien’s first name is unclear and irrelevant; rather it’s his deep and misunderstood layers, unraveling slowly with each passing year, that form the structural upper hand of a family’s existence. His relationship with his eldest son Jack, shown as both a child and adult, carries the magnitude of the tale. As Mr. Obrien endeavors to instill morals and wisdom into his sons, his sense of aggression is similarly passed down and embraced by Jack. The movie’s journey to understand good and evil takes on a unique perspective as Jack misinterprets his father’s frustrations as malicious, and lashes out in response. Additionally, the narrative is interspersed with scenes of craters colliding to form Earth, dinosaurs exploring their progeny, and a series of recurring patterns within life, all parallels to the evolution of human existence.

Mysterious, solemn, and inquisitive, the score provides a continuous foundation to these juxtaposed images of creation alongside tumultuous family passages. More specifically, it embodies Mr. O’Brien’s longing nature to understand the world and encourage a promising future in his sons’ lives, one he never saw come to wholly fruition in his own. Mr. O’Brien is stern with a temper; works hard to support his family; and raises his children in a traditional upbringing while sacrificing his own dream. This lost aspiration elicits the prevailing question of how life should be spent in its brevity. While he primes Jack to take on ambition, it is actually another son who takes interest. Jack, rather, wishes his father away.

Malick cleverly selected Desplat, a French composer, to create the music. Deplat’s techniques, as Sadoff points out, are “often very subtle and sensitively shaded in their sound and emotional import.” Much like the guarded character of Mr. O’Brien.

He’s a father many of us have met, known or perhaps grown up with, and his lack of defined identity blurs the distinction of him as a figure specific to this tale alone. Desplat’s compositions offer a fitting compliment to his protective shield, only letting emotion loose when provoked.

Paul Chihara, professor and Chair of Composition for Visual Media at UCLA, likewise attests to Desplat’s reputation and style, as apt choice for the movie.

“Desplat is a classically-oriented composer,” comments Chihara. “He was trained on piano, taught at the Sorbonne in France, and uses more orchestral arrangements or strings in his work.”

Classical music is sophisticated and conservative, making it characteristic of Mr. O’Brien’s nature. He lives and operates from a refrained stanza, his deficient spirit periodically revealed within the symphonic hymns. Adds Chihara, “Very often music tells the story…Since it isn’t fragmented, it provides the continuity necessary for an emotional build.”

The Tree of Life, then, permits us to understand and relate to Mr. O’Brien and the essence of the film through its subtext.