Music and Image in Malick’s The Tree of Life

I may be going out on a limb here, but this baroque harpsichord piece, Les Barricades Mistérieuses (which I recorded for the above sequence), and which features twice in Terrance Malick’s masterpiece, The Tree of Life, represents by its title, the heart of the film’s multi-layered message. The film, which is deeply personal and strives for universality, has struck a nerve or a chord, causing some people to walk out midway, dismiss it as corny or overreaching, and others, like myself, to see it several times and respond in writing to the richness of ideas, emotions, cinematography and scope.  This scope, which spans the birth of the universe with the big bang, the evolution of life on earth, the intimate vulnerabilities of a family in the 1950s through to a place of immortality, grace and forgiveness, gives us the eyes and ears of a mysterious creator observing the four pure elements of its creation–earth, air, water and fire–as humans harness them in various ways.  The cinematography, out-of-time sequences, whispered and sometimes inaudible prayers, and the music, all reinforce a mystical reaching for transcendence and cosmic understanding of human suffering and mortality.

The Mysterious Barricades is part of a secular collection of pieces, but seems to represent for Malick, that unseen line– between Nature and Grace, or perhaps between our reptilian, instinct-driven brains and our self-awareness of choice, or between competition and cooperation. Through exquisite cinematography in which every frame feels carefully chosen, we sense the unseen – the heat of the candle, the quality of the air blowing through the curtains, the smell of a summer rain, the nuances of heartbreak and hope that the actors convey with such subtlety and realism.

As with any piece of great art, interpretation is always multi-dimensional. Great art calls the viewer to question his or her reality, awakens something within the psyche which will be different for each viewer, and not always something that one wants to have awakened. I think that one of the main reasons that people leave the movie mid-way is that it so powerfully conveys a vulnerability and fragility that is rarely effectively conveyed with such a sense of the universal and rarely conveyed in the more commercial sphere; that it gives the audience the power of seeing the big picture as a god might see and hear the sufferings of human life, and the natural beauty and abundance that can be found in the the present moment. With the film’s expansiveness of time, proportionally scant use of dialogue and typical plot structure, it exposes the underlying challenge I hear Malick making which is unexpected in a secular setting–to take on the mantle of wisdom and compassion for one another, choosing Grace over Nature.

For those hoping for a summer escape into a plot full action and intrigue, sexy scenes with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, one-liners and a clear take-away message, this movie could understandably be a jolt to the system.

Once I gave myself over to Malik’s exploration of nature and grace and his symbolic use of the elements, forest, river, birds and music, I found the film riveting, provoking, full of a richness and density I had never experienced in a film before. It has inspired me to read more poetry, listen to more music, understand more about history and myth. As a filmmaker, it inspires me to become a better editor. For sound editing, it sets the mysterious bar, the mysterious barricades, somewhere up in the clouds. Good to have aspirations!

Taking my cue from the title of the film and starting to scratch the surface of Malick’s cosmology and use of symbolism in image and music, I found a few which I would like to share, acknowledging that my interpretation could be completely off base and might change with another viewing of the film.

The music (complete list) which Malick chooses  seems to support quite literally the many symbols he develops throughout. To guess at a few:

The River  (also heard in the piece by Smetana, Le Moldau, “the river”)

We first see this stretch of river with the infamous dinosaur scene where the larger dinosaur intimidates the smaller one, squeezing its head to the rocks, then showing restraint having established its rank, before loping off. The same stretch of river, now at high water level, appears later in the film in the 1950s,  reminding us of the act of intimidation and insistence on rank which are mirrored in Brad Pitt’s relationship to his family (he grips the heads of his children in several places in the film). The water level might indicate a higher level of evolution, or parallel the story of Smetana’s Moldau which is the musical unfolding of a small stream’s journey as it traverses the different human celebrations on its way, growing in power and speed, to the ocean. Malick uses the Moldau to underlie the scene of the boys playing and running at breakneck speed, following the river of life.

Dinosaurs/Birds/Bridges/Doorways/Thresholds— often accompanied by music about the cosmos, death and Christ’s sacrifice (Cosmic Beam Take 5, Funeral Canticle, Requiem, Lacrymosa 2, Morning Prayers, Agnus Dei (despite the Christian texts for some of Malick’s musical choices, it seems he implies a universal creator that is outside of any one denomination, beyond definition).

See the blog post at the bottom for the most comprehensive write-up on this film I’ve found so far. It’s fascinating if you’re at all hooked by this film.  I recommend printing it out. It’s really long!

Birds are depicted in various contexts throughout the film and are direct descendants of the dinosaurs but also bridge earth and sky, are associated with freedom, music. It seems as if Malick uses birds to remind us of our dinosaur heritage as well as our choice to evolve and to recognize our freedom of choice and our spiritual essence. Portals, thresholds, take on that mysterious line of leaving one world and entering another throughout. The film ends with birds sailing above a bridge.


With the spectacular images of the inside of the sun at the outset of the film and other depictions of fire throughout, Malick depicts fire as a source of purity and pain, of regeneration and transfiguration. Seemingly systematically, fire appears in different guises throughout the film as Malick cycles through the elements of water, air, earth and fire, and shows how fire can be used to harm (the boy with the burned head, the brothers touching the electrical wires,  the rocket sending the frog up into oblivion), how it is used to create a sense of mystery and magic (the candles in the church, the sparklers for the 4th of July) and how it represents the erotic and an inward fire of hatred and of love. The two words for the scene with the spelling bee are examples of pure fire (volcano) and of human harnessed fire (socket).


The forest primaeval is the setting for the state of innocence, purity, first of the smaller dinosaur and then of the wife and mother as she wanders through the “same” forest of redwoods gazing up through the trees towards the sun. As to be expected, there are many images of trees, mostly filmed from the ground panning upward. With the biblical reference at the start of the film from Job, it seems a natural progression to think of Jacob’s Ladder each time the boys use a ladder. They are searching for an escape, seeking transcendence through the tree for a place of safety and acceptance? Again, Malick shows the human harnessing the elements. There are plenty of scenes of the boys wacking things with sticks, throwing stones.

Bach Fugue in d minor, BWV 565 – impossible to reduce one of Bach’s great fugues to a simple symbol, yet here in the film as Pitt plays it on the organ it seems to support the repetition of patterns, (a fugue repeats its subject relentlessly in different permutations) being stuck in a didacticism which can cause so much disfunction without being balanced by the heart.

“What we believe about ourselves and others will in fact influence what we become as a society…men and women must believe that mankind can become fully human in order for our species to attain its humanity.” – Psychologist Leon Eisenberg

Maybe the mysterious barricades aren’t barricades at all, but bridges around us everywhere.


For the most detailed, well-written and nuanced analysis I have found in the blogosphere of The Tree of Life, please visit

An excerpt from Niles’ blogpost…”Woven throughout this segment are pictures from Jack’s interior journey, his hand on a desert wall, his shadow: his awareness of Being, and struggle to identify with Ground Concepts. In this urban environment, all is being-in-the-world, which conceals Being, or “the Glory.” We see short fragments of the Shores of Eternity, shadows photographed upside down, as if to visually communicate phenomenology leading to the Self’s realization. “How did You come to me? In what shape? What disguise?” he’s asking. “What are You thinking?” He has to ask these childlike questions of a forgotten self from before he can remember, as though God only made his appearance known through personae or masks (and we will see one such mask floating through Eternity’s shores near the end of the film), which also ties into Train’s question, “Who are You that live in all these many forms? Your death that captures all, You too are the source of all that’s going to be born.”

Photos: Scenes from “The Tree of Life.” Credit: Fox Searchlight

About naturestage

Miranda Loud is the Founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit NatureStage based in Waltham, MA, and is an interdisciplinary artist - classical singer/organist/filmmaker/photographer and environmentalist. She writes about the vital need for education to include a more heart-centered approach to studying other species that leads to a sense of stewardship. Naturestage creates works that foster empathy and kinship with other species, using the emotional power of storytelling in different art forms, mainly film, photography and music. She is also a public speaker on art and social change. Her current projects include The One Language Project, Park Dreams, The Elephant Project, and Elephantasia which all use different art forms to encourage a mind shift in how we relate to other species by asking "How would the world be different if we viewed other species as someones instead of somethings? If, instead of drawing lines, we drew circles?"
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2 Responses to Music and Image in Malick’s The Tree of Life

  1. Harry Palmer says:

    This reminds me of Wagner’s use of leitmotifs in his operas, to do very much the same thing as you are describing. Terrance Malick is at least familiar with Wager, having used the hypnotic prelude to act one of Das Rheingold in The New World. Very interesting, thank you.

  2. naturestage says:

    Reblogged this on naturestage and commented:

    In honor of this film’s nomination for an Oscar, I am reposting this review which has been by far, the most read post of all. Enjoy!

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