"Subjective, you know the difference? It means it's in your head. No one can tell you that you’re wrong." These words are spoken by Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) nearly 3/4 of the way through Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and it's awfully tempting to attribute such a philosophy to the director himself, whose nearly four decade filmmaking career (this being only his fifth film, of course) has been defined by utterly Impressionistic reverie, harkening back to the silent cinema, where images, music, and movement provided all the narrative needed. However, to assert this brief, beautiful, fleeting moment/line of dialogue (aren't they all in Malick's cinema?) as representative of the artist, himself, would be misguidedly reductive, since nothing about The Tree of Life can, nor should be tried to fit into any summation, because the viewing experience - being in the film's presence as it miraculously, devastatingly unfolds - refutes even the boldest attempts of immediate definition.
Nevertherless, a framework can be established for Malick's aesthetic (the underlying philosophical construction), where images (without concrete temporality) and music are evocative tools, presenting time and space as stream-of-conscious flashes, tied together by human response (laughter, smile, tears, screams) and juxtaposed with differing milieus, not wholly existential so much as experiential - how does one convey empirical memory in a finite, concrete medium, as to be comprehendible, but transcend the limitations and constraints that any art form inherently holds? Filmmakers have struggled with this question for decades, many finding formal methods to project their content onto a higher plane of affectual meaning, a discursive mode operating on an internal logic of feeling and emotion over rational cause-and-effect. Such an approach does not give the director free reign to claim subjective superiority (it's never impermeable to criticism), but to claim Malick's formation of knowledge and remembered experience in The Tree of Life as strained art (some critics have) or, even worse, pretentious, demonstrates an inability to discern phenomenological yearnings from purely intellectual, since Malick is not a pretentious artist - pretension stems from intellectual shallowness (or artlessness) masquerading as profundity. Malick's passion runs far deeper than philosophical or textual assertions, since his visions of spiritual and subjective placement are self-critical, without explicit monstration to provide closure.
Multiple viewings reveal the specificity of Malick's vision. Opening with a quote from the book of Job ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?"), the film seeks to address, through sensory exegesis, the formation of morality via micro and macrocosmic scales. At least, that is one of its many operative levels. Transitional cosmic cards segue between sections, with three distinct time periods: the genesis of life in the universe, 1950's Waco, Texas, and contemporary Dallas. Each one produces a discourse on moral grapplings. Malick wisely interweaves the three, creating a surreal evocation of corporeal presence, time-imagery as the formal answer to memory as content. Certainly, 2001: A Space Odyssey is the primary cinematic referent in terms of conceptualization, but Malick's film in no way mimics or replicates Kubrick's terse coldness; instead, the non-linear, non-causal achieves transcendence through warmth and reverie, supplemented with classical music as a means of hybridizing visual/aural into a single streamlined, visceral emotion.
Immediately, Malick introduces his aesthetic goals, using John Taverner's "Funeral Canticle" and voice-over by Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) to explain her philosophical attitude on the dichotomous differences between nature and grace - each providing a distinct path towards achieving ultimate communication with God. Images of idyllic youth, movement, and quintessential Americana are not meant as literal instances of lived experience - rather, they encapsulate a comprehensive metanarrative of societal and familial mores (the conception of perfection), where traditional values manifest in the form of visual splendor. Nostalgia this is not - it's full-blooded introspection, negating any claim of sentimentality through symphonic virtuosity, where what's presented is "ideal," but only in the historical sense. What establishes societal and personal pursuits? Instead of utilizing hackneyed narratological deconstruction, Malick strives to answer this by unearthing various essences. He's seeking the source, rather than its ends.