I’ve held off posting a review of Alexandre Desplat‘s score for THE TREE OF LIFE until I had a chance to see how it fit within the film. Little did I know I could have saved myself the time and torture of sitting through Terrence Malick’s latest piece of cinematic pretension and posted the review weeks ago when the album was released.
The film is a complete waste of time in nearly every way, none more so than in its limited use of Desplat’s music. The 138-minute running time contains nearly wall-to-wall music, but Desplat’s score only occupies approximately five to ten minutes of that. (I’d need to see the cue sheets to be sure.) The rest of it is filled with a generous sampling of various classical pieces, none of which I cared to sit through the end credits to find out what they were, instead fleeing the theater after the final pointless image. (I should have taken a cue from the 13 people—out of the 30 in the audience—who left within the first half hour.)
Malick has always played around with the scores to his movies, so his treatment of this score was not a total surprise. But why hire someone of Desplat’s caliber if there was no intention to use most of the music in the first place? Desplat spent two years exchanging emails with Malick discussing the musical “roadmap” to the film, creating numerous themes for the score prior to the film being edited. Since Desplat didn’t see the film until it was unveiled at Cannes, one can only imagine what his reaction must have been to the handling of his music. Reviewing Desplat’s music as a score is pointless. But what about as a stand-alone listening experience?
As to be expected from the first track, Desplat’s would-be contribution to the film is unlike any other score for a Malick film and certainly stands out from the testerone-overloaded summer fare. “Childhood” begins the album with a simple, minor-key piano solo set on a bed of sustained string chord that never changes throughout the track. When Desplat changes the piano line to a major key, the chord remains the same and this simple, haunting track takes on greater depth.
In the lengthy cue, “Circles,” Desplat channels his inner Philip Glass. Repeated eighth- and sixteenth-note figures run beneath an understated theme, while clarinet and flute lines later chirp and flitter above. A gentle, wispy harp solo floats through “Clouds” until the rich harmonies of the strings bring the music back down to earth. “River” expands the piano solo from “Childhood” into a babbling brook of left-hand oscillating intervals, while the right hand takes over the melody. When the strings become the babbling brook, the cello answers the main theme with a lovely countermelody.
In “Awakening,” warm string harmonies cradle repeated notes in the piano. With its rich, low sonorities, gently pulsating bass clarinet and swelling string chords, “Emergence of Life” brings Desplat’s trademark voice to the forefront. “Light & Darkness” forsakes Desplat’s orchestrations for simple, gentle, moving harmonies. String harmonics hover over the cue’s final minutes in a major key, giving it an angelic, peaceful warmth.
“Good & Evil” is not surprisingly more dramatic, with the main theme crying out in pain in the violin solo. No Desplat score would be complete without a waltz, and “Motherhood” nimbly dances around the rest of the score with a swirling sense of motion counterbalancing the deliberate rhythms populating throughout much of the music, giving poignant voice to Jessica Chastain’s tortured, and often silent, character.
The main piano theme is elongated and deconstructed as Sean Penn’s emotionally stunted Jack weaves his way through the dead corporate world of the “City of Glass.” The piano once again gives voice to Brad Pitt’s stunted amateur musician in “Fatherhood.” The harmonies take a dark turn in “Temptation.” Desplat’s trademark orchestrations are finally on full display in “Skies” as a light, tripping, tentative waltz rhythm in the harp, clarinet and pizzicato strings underscore a yearning violin solo.
The aural landscape of the film might have been more consistent with more of Desplat’s music included. But nothing could have saved the film’s lack of story or character development, or helped overcome the self-indulgent, pretentious (though beautifully filmed) images, especially the pointless 20-30 minute segment of outer space, underwater and dinosaur images. (I’d rather stay at home and watch NatGeo.)
Desplat’s music was haunting on its own from the first listen. How it might have served as a proper film score, we’ll never know, due to the erratic sensibilities of Malick’s over-inflated ego. But even with the major disappointment of the film, I can still enjoy Desplat’s music for what it is—a haunting, transcendent tone poem—while still mourning what it might have been.