I tried several times to compose a response to this film, although found the essay a poor medium in which to do so. Instead, I tried writing a Malick-like story, but failed because the narrative blabbed everything. I chose a different medium wherein the blabbing would seem more natural, less intrusive. I wrote a sketch of a film called “Untitled Terrence Malick Project.” While this is all a piece of fiction, I did my best to make sense of what The Tree of Life did to me.
Part One. We begin the story before Daniel and Josephine are married. They are young and they love one another. They are both beautiful. They are both vain. Daniel is a devout Presbyterian. Josephine is a nominal Catholic. Daniel is enrolled in Princeton Theological. We see him make a phone call and say, “Happy belated birthday, Dad! Sorry, I’ve been…” He owns an impressive library. We see him buckle his belt.
We see Josephine in the mezzanine of a massive Catholic cathedral. Her eyes wander. The faces around her are pious, sublime. Everyone crosses themselves left to right and she crosses herself from right to left, oblivious. We see her receive the Eucharist and walk away chewing strangely. We see her in a restaurant chewing the same way, her mouth moving strangely. She says to a group of friends, “This doesn’t taste right,” and a man is heard laughing.
We see Daniel and Josephine getting married in the Catholic cathedral. They dance at the reception to “In Paradisum” from Faure’s Requiem Op. 48. It sounds heavenly. Only a few people understand the music is from a mass for the dead. They talk among themselves quietly, though we hear nothing distinct. Silhouette dance floor shot. The scene cuts abruptly to the two dancing in a bedroom, on the wedding night. Up close, we see her whispering into his ear and he laughs, but the laugh is the same laugh heard at dinner from the previous scene. The laugh echoes.
We see Daniel and Josephine lay next to one another, after having made love. It is dark and they both fall asleep. After a close up of Daniel’s face, the viewer understands that Daniel is dreaming. Something from Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil is playing. Daniel dreams that it is dark, but a strange red glow is near him. After a few moments, a hazy light bursts open and indistinct images fill the screen. Perhaps human forms, perhaps animals. We cut to Josephine’s face. She is asleep, but looks distraught. Were the two having the same dream?
Josephine and Daniel sit beside each other drinking coffee the next morning. He says, “I had a very strange dream all night,” and she says, “I did too. How strange.” Neither elaborates on the dream. We see Daniel in class later that day, looking out the window. He is lost in thought. Is he thinking of making being with Josephine the previous night or the dream? We see Josephine playing a vinyl copy of Brian Eno’s Apollo and laying on the sofa. She looks similarly pensive and a still image from the dream flashes on the screen, and the audience suspects both she and Daniel are thinking of the dream, not the consummation of their marriage. The dream irks both of them. At night, we see them eating dinner from the same angle as breakfast that morning, however they have switched places. Intuitive audience members will begin to realize that every time Josephine and Daniel appear side by side on screen, they are differently oriented. She is right and he is left, then she is left and he is right. They smile at each other.
Part Two. Cut to images of a woman nursing a newborn baby. The woman wears a thick gray sweater, linen pants, and sits beside a fireplace in an old, warm home cluttered with tools, bottles, books, wood, icons, photographs. A man with black hair and a black beard is laying on his back at the floor, near her feet. Cut to an image of a different woman nursing a newborn baby. The woman lays on the floor, on her side, while a man sits in a chair, reading a book aloud. Suddenly, the sun breaks through the window and we see that they are more than forty stories off the ground, in an apartment in New York City.
Josephine wakes up and the same sun is breaking heavily through the window of her bedroom. She is alone. Daniel is elsewhere, on the patio, smoking a cigarette. He looks disturbed. She appears on the patio. He asks her sadly, blankly, What is this?
Voiceover from Josephine: From the first night we were married, I began dreaming the life of another person, as did Daniel. Starting with birth, that initial darkness which gave way to hazy faces, we progressed through other lives. Over the next several months, a few discoveries. The dreams came every night. Every night I slept, I dreamt through seven days of a young girl’s life (young at first). For Daniel, a boy’s life, and always the same boy. Daniel dreamt the life of a boy named Joseph. I dreamt the life of a girl name Danielle. Each night picked up exactly where the previous night left off. If a dream broke off in the morning as Danielle was sitting down to pray for her breakfast, the following night began with the same breakfast set out the precious night. Four months into our marriage, Joseph and Danielle had passed their second birthdays.
As the voiceover plays, images of Joseph and Danielle pass. As his father lays on the floor, Joseph sits on his father’s stomach holding an icon, biting a corner. Danielle rides on her father’s shoulders through the Metropolitan; her mother contemplates a bronze statue of Eros sleeping. “Jeux de vagues” from La Mer plays over these images. Joseph’s father splits wood while Joseph sits by, watching. His father throws him into the air, dangerously high, and catches him, laughing. Danielle patters through a church, collecting plastic communion cups out of the back of pews.
Daniel sits in church, bewildered. He looks at a minister delivering a sermon. He speaks with the minister in the back of his church. He looks troubled as he speaks. Daniel walks by a Catholic church, a statue of Mary outside. We see Joseph take the Eucharist from a golden spoon while his father holds him. We see Daniel walk out of his church. We see Josephine in a post-Vatican II church and she gazes at an American flag, a few feet away from the altar. We see Danielle and her mother and father picking apples from a tree in an orchard. Josephine walks out the front door of her church, and through the closing door we see people lining up to receive the Eucharist.
Daniel speaks in voiceover: The dream was strange. Everything outside the dream seemed normal, but it was not always so. Everything outside the dream could suddenly turn as strange as the dream. At first, we spoke of the children in our dreams as though they belonged to others. I said, ‘Last night, Joseph took his first steps.’ Josephine said, ‘Last night, Danielle took sick with whooping cough.’ But around that time, I broke my leg and couldn’t walk for several weeks, and Josephine contracted the flu. After that, in the morning, we would recount the dream and say, ‘I turned three last night, and my father gave me a little Bible.’ From then on, we spoke of the children in our dreams as though they were we ourselves.
An entire week passes every night, and so in the morning, neither Daniel nor Josephine remembers everything from the dream of the previous night. Rather, Daniel and Josephine slowly recall, over days and weeks, what has happened to them. Important things are fresh on their minds when they wake, but a great host of things from the dream life disappear for months at a time. Daniel might remember something which happened “years ago” in the dream; Josephine might recall a face from her youth, and not know which youth she recalled.
A year into their marriage, the dreams continue. Danielle and Joseph are seven years old, learning to read in school. We see Danielle tracing the alphabet. Joseph’s mother baths him and Daniel sees an infant get baptized in a Catholic church. Danielle learns to ride a bicycle, Josephine waits behind the wheel of her car in traffic. Daniel and Josephine argue one evening, Danielle drops a glass on a reflectively polished hardwood floor. Are the dreamed lives similar to the waking lives, or vastly different? Are the dreamed lives their own? A revelation of what they wanted, or what they still want?
Daniel leaves seminary. He begins working at a small public library. Josephine looks at second hand stores for the nice things Danielle might have owned, hoping to buy them for cheap. We notice that Josephine is better dressed now than she was at the beginning, and Daniel looks far less professional than he once did. He wears a tattered sweater, slacks with a square patch sewn over the left knee. Erik Satie’s “Gnosienne 1” is heard over a montage of images depicting Danielle and Joseph getting older, Daniel and Josephine drifting apart. Joseph and Daniel are both seen crossing themselves at meals; Josephine and Danielle argue, with parents and with spouse, alternately. Danielle visits the Vatican on a family vacation at the age of 14. She contemplates an image of Jupiter. Joseph whittles a small crucifix beside his father, a massive man with gnarled fingers. Joseph’s father strokes his long beard and Joseph strokes his bald chin, but both laugh. Daniel shelves books and, before setting a copy of Augustine’s Confessions on the shelf, flips through the book, sighing. Josephine sits alone through a string quartet.
Josephine says: There were days I couldn’t bear the thought of the dream, and other days when I passed time throughout the day, merely waiting to sleep. We spoke interchangeably of things we planned to do while awake and while asleep. We had little control over the dream. We did not have control over the events of the dream, but neither were we spectators. Waking life influenced the dream, but the dream influenced waking life. A book read while awake might reappear during sleep. And yet, while awake, we sought out books we had only ever read while dreaming. Of course, no book could truly be read in the dream. As I dreamed, I might read Dostoyevsky’s The Double (which I had never read while awake), and truly enjoy it; however, my knowledge of the book in the dream would merely be a series of reactions and feelings, not facts. Reading the book in my dream would inspire me to find it once awake, and in learning the story of The Double while awake, my dreaming mind would acquire that knowledge, as well. My junior year of high school, I failed two quizzes on The Double while dreaming. But then I read the book while awake. That night I dreamed that I received a perfect score on a test.
Daniel says: When I, Joseph, turned eighteen, I fell in love with a girl named Dorothy. I confessed this to Josephine, and she said that she also had feelings for someone. If the dream continued, I knew, eventually Joseph would propose marriage, have children. Josephine and I would have waking families and dream families. Several times we discussed not talking to one another of our dreams. Once, we passed two weeks without speaking of the dreams. But we found we had nothing else to speak about. Or that we did not want to speak of anything else. Or perhaps curiosity got the better of us. Secrecy got the better of us, too. Around the time Joseph left home for college, I no longer told Josephine everything and I am sure she did the same.
One day, Daniel and Josephine find that, during their dream, they have both been praying for a very young child who has fallen down a well in Texas. They have given little attention to the world beyond their own direct experiences up until this point, and both begin trying to recall any national event of enough weight to be recalled from the dream. That they are both dreaming the same world— this seems obvious now, on reflection, and yet for nearly three years, neither had ever thought the election of a president, a terrorist act, a new war a thing worth mentioning.
Does this matter, though? Is this fact any stranger than the fact of the dream itself? And yet Daniel and Josephine immediately recognize that, if Danielle and Joseph live in the same world, they might be able to meet in that world. But how? They have so little control over the thoughts and deeds of the people they dream themselves to be.
Daniel thinks of doing something drastic; if he were to fly in waking life to the city where Josephine lives, might he conjure Joseph to do the same? Daniel explains his plan and Josephine asks, “You would do that for me?” She asks this as though Daniel has never done something of such weight before, although Daniel submerges his frustration with her. He makes copious notes of Danielle’s life. They make plans; Daniel will fly to New York and spend every day at the Metropolitan Museum. He has never been able to move Joseph before, to will Joseph to do anything, but he must try. Both Joseph and Danielle are nearing an age where they might marry, and Daniel fears that their marriage will begin to disappear if both dream of falling in love with other people. He has not worked at marriage. He has been distracted by the dream, and the two have grown apart. Their marriage is little real as it is. He purchases a ticket. Josephine does not tell him that Danielle is already engaged to a man she met at New York University a month ago.
Daniel flies to New York and walks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from a hotel a few blocks away every morning. He tells himself, “I will dream of this tonight,” and Josephine tells herself all day, “Tonight, I will meet a man named Joseph at the Metropolitan.” Daniel is nervous. Arvo Part’s “Summa” plays while Daniel meanders from room to room, considering Gustave Courbet’s “Woman with a Parrot” while greatly anxious, then Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Joan of Arc.” Joseph carries on his studies at the University of Minnesota. He lives by himself, reads books, works at the library. Daniel spends two weeks in a Manhattan hotel at night, but Joseph does little out of the ordinary. Daniel wakes every morning exhausted, angry. Josephine dances lightly in the living room. Danielle kisses a man in Central Park as they walk on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Daniel walks through Central Park in the evening; Daniel walks in the opposite direction down the same stretch of sidewalk which Danielle and her boyfriend are seen walking. Danielle brushes shoulders with someone as she passes; Daniel brushes shoulders with someone as he passes. Both Daniel and Danielle look over their shoulders at the same woman, older and dressed in a white fur coat.
One night, Joseph begins reading Babylon Revisited and later looks through a collection of photographs taken of Manhattan in the early 1900s. At the beginning of Daniel’s third week in New York, Josephine phones and tells him she has been engaged for three weeks. Daniel takes a redeye home two days later and while on the plane, he sleeps. Joseph receives a phone call from his mother and learns that his father is dead of a heart attack. Daniel is weeping when he walks down the concourse to meet Josephine. “My father just died,” he says, embracing her. Josephine remembers Daniel saying these same words to her five years ago, while they were dating, when his father died. Different father, same tears.
Two days later, Josephine says to Daniel: Tonight, Danielle will marry a man named Jacob. A man she loves. I am already married to a man I love, though. I love you. I am not leaving you over the matter of a dream. A dream. I dreamed of someone like you my whole life. Then I met you. Then I married you. That’s the real dream.
They go to sleep, but we see Daniel awake, sitting beside the sleeping Josephine, sadly watching her. Josephine smiles and sighs in her sleep and Daniel moves his hand toward her, to wake her, but then pulls his hand back. We see Danielle dressed as a bride, all in white, walking toward the altar; we see Joseph dressed in black, standing in the falling snow beside an open grave. His mother is beside him, and a minister is throwing dirt on the casket, which has just been lowered into the ground.
Voiceover from Daniel: I married a woman named Anna several months later. (We see Joseph teaching a class of very young college students, collecting books after class, walking through a cemetery with his wife, who puts a small bouquet of flowers on his father’s grave.) Joseph’s life was as ordinary as my life had been before I married Josephine. I tried to take my cues from Joseph, who was simply a far better person than I. He treated Anna very well. He was virtuous, even chivalrous. If I could live as Joseph, would the dream simply disappear? I asked Josephine if she would begin calling my Joseph. She refused, although she often called me ‘Jacob’ accidentally and never corrected herself. She became pregnant midway through our third year of marriage, and in the same week Danielle became pregnant, Anna became pregnant days later. On a certain day, I called her ‘Anna’ several times accidentally, but caught myself each time. She became angry with me the first two times, unaware she did the same thing. The third time it happened, she yelled at me and I punched the wall and broke two fingers.
Anna gives birth to a boy and they name him Simon. Danielle gives birth to a girl. Josephine tells Daniel that the girl is named Nina, but this is a lie. Josephine tells Daniel that if she gives birth to a girl, she wants to name her Deborah. Joseph consents, convinced the child will be a boy, as is consistent with his dream of Anna. When Josephine gives birth to a girl, they name her Deborah. Weeks pass, and Josephine mistakenly makes reference to “Deborah contracting pertussis” even while their child is healthy. It is here that Daniel realizes his wife has lied to him. Josephine and Jacob did not name their child Nina, but Deborah, the same name the living couple gave their child. Daniel holds his little daughter Deborah under a lamp and narrows his eyes at her face. “You’re from a dream,” he says.
Josephine says: The day came when Danielle and I were the same age. Then it was gone, and several years later, Danielle’s first child was as old as I was.
We see Joseph and Anna at the baptism of their son, Simon. Anton Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” plays over the scene; Joseph wipes tears from his eyes. We see the family in the car, all singing a song as Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” continues to play. A car in the oncoming lane of traffic slams into the front of Joseph and Anna’s car going well over sixty miles an hour; we see Joseph and Anna’s bodies rock forward in slow motion as the windshield cracks and the driver and passenger’s side windows explode into tiny pieces. Daniel wakes in bed suddenly, sitting upright, his mouth wide open, but his eyes are still closed.
Voiceover from Daniel: I woke the moment of impact.
Daniel opens his eyes.
Had Joseph survived the crash? When I went to sleep again, would I be dreaming as a dead man? Would I dream of my soul looking over the crash site from an ever widening distance towards the clouds?
Daniel looks at the sleeping Josephine. We see him walking fast, alone, on the street in the early morning, passed a series of shops which are just opening. Daniel lights sparklers for his three small sons in the fading light of a July 4th evening. Joseph lays on his back on the beach, asleep, his head toward the water. The tide unsettles his hair and pulls it in long strands toward the ocean, but he does not wake. Daniel enters a flower shop and looks around, at the ceiling, as though he has entered a cathedral. Josephine wakes to find Daniel’s place in bed empty, but covered in flowers from where his feet would be to where his head would rest. Josephine finds Daniel on his knees before some icons, a crucifix, a small sand filled saucer stuck with a single lit candle.
In the evening, Josephine stands next to Daniel, who sits upright in bed. She holds his hand in a firm grip, not in a loving manner. He holds her hand as he leans back into the pillow; the image suggests a man going under water. We see a dark image, with a slight red tint. It is the same image from the beginning, the image of birth which Daniel did not at first recognize. The red glow undulates and morphs in the darkness for a moment, then a full minute. The audience becomes uneasy at what they are looking at. Is this supposed to be God? Has Joseph died?
Voiceover from Daniel: Joseph survived the crash. Anna survived the crash. Simon survived the crash unharmed. Anna broke six ribs, her left foot and left leg. As I dreamed, Anna spoke to me. She told me I was in a coma for three days. She told me that my eyes received more than thirty minute lacerations. She told me that I would use my eyes again in the life to come, but no more in this life. She told me God esteemed me high enough to give me such a terrible thing now— that God knew I could brave it— and that my hope for something better would make whatever I hoped for real.
We see Danielle and Deborah standing on the Capilano Suspension Bridge, looking down 230 feet to the riverbed below. They stand in the middle of the bridge, silent and content. We see Anna help Joseph, who holds a walking stick, out onto the bridge and she whispers in his ear. He smiles and slowly begins across the bridge with her help. Danielle and Deborah begin to leave the bridge, moving towards Joseph and Anna. Deborah and Joseph come near enough, but do not actually touch one another in narrowly passing one another. They do not recognize one another, but politely move by. Fade to black. Arvo Part’s “Summa” plays, then “Rejoice, O Virgin.”