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The Tree of Life

by Glenn Erickson Sep 08, 2018

Terrence Malick’s magnum opus fully expresses what might be called his ‘Unified Theory’ of cinema — which embraces the human experience from the core of family life to the creation and destruction of the universe. Even Stanley Kubrick didn’t go that far: he never filmed merciful dinosaurs or anything as simple as a mother who experiences rapture rolling in the grass with her young sons.


The Tree of Life
The Criterion Collection 942
2011 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 139, 179 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 11, 2018 / 49.95
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan.
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Film Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa
Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Production Design by Jack Fisk
Produced by DeDe Gardner, Sarah Green, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad
Written and Directed by
Terrence Malick


I’ve wanted to review The Tree of Life ever since it came out. It’s poetic, it has Ethereal Appeal, and it’s deeply humanist in a way audiences can relate to — through family and basic philosophical questions.  Some of us are all too easily swayed by movies that make an ethereal-philosophical pitch, from The Fool telling Gelsomina that every person has value, to a doomed micro-man rejoicing that he has a place in the universe after all.

Surrounded by literalists in college I did my best to nurture a cynical exterior. But the truth is that I probably responded to every emotionally ethereal-cereal pitch in moviedom.  Anything mysterious grabbed me. Some of Fellini’s excesses paled a bit once he started making movies about his dreams, but plenty of other stuff struck me deep.

We first met Terrence Malick when he brought his Badlands to UCLA — the movie struck us as unlike anything we’d seen. We responded to it even as we thought it commercially suicidal. Later on everybody seemed enraptured by Malick’s Days of Heaven. I must have been in cynical mode, for I mostly saw pretty pictures and an actor I didn’t care for, Richard Gere. Another Richard, cameraman Richard Yuricich on Close Encounters of the Third Kind praised the Néstor Almendros cinematography to the skies, and gave me an appreciation for real camera artistry beyond special effects trickery.

Twenty years later, Malick expanded his style with The Thin Red Line. Filming (we are told) the entirety of the book in standard continuity, the director then proceeded to remove as much narrative as possible, falling back on a more impressionistic tone. Voiceovers carried much of the forward motion, inner thoughts and poetic musings not necessarily connected to the immediate action on screen. The big war movie that year was Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which spoon-fed us a terrible diet of stupid clichés and pandering sentimentality. I remain in the Thin Red Line camp.


Is The Tree of Life Terrence Malick’s magnum opus? It comes from his personal experience — autobiographical elements abound — and dispenses almost entirely with conventional narrative. As I wrote in 2012, he “instead presents a forever drifting and changing ‘life flow’ of a movie. His style is still experimental: we have lyrical images of great visual beauty, pieces of dialogue that function like fragments of memories, and hushed, semi-abstract voiceovers that function as spiritual meditations.”  Malick’s film also delivers a big dose of anti- PC Kryptonite — the ’50s are not reinterpreted for today’s values. One scene shows happy neighborhood kids running behind a city truck that sprays thick clouds of DDT — and playing in the white vapor!  That’s the childhood I remember… no seat belts in cars.

For these eyes the fragmented impressionism is devastatingly successful. Every shot presents us with a new idea or a new wonderment of nature, of everyday beauty, of human emotionalism. The consistency with home life scenes in other Terrence Malick films may be due to the production designs of Jack Fisk.  Badlands displays the same neighborhoods with broad lawns, low curbs and no fences. Malick makes the 1950s real without the usual crutches of hot rods and Rock ‘n’ Roll — we instead get the feeling of long days, the unlocked doors, the sense of adult control. The emphasis on electronic consumerism hadn’t yet arrived… the older folks in charge of the world had been born before WW1, and the telephone was enough of a nuisance for them.

Malick takes a ‘Unified Theory’ approach to his movie — he begins with a quote from Job, the  ‘where were you when I made the world?’  speech meant to humble selfish men before the majesty of creation. Almost like the movie Fantasia, Malick gives us a time machine tour of the history of existence, from the beginning of life on Earth to what seems to be a final reckoning far in the future. There’s also a vision of the afterlife that appeals to vague Judeo-Christian values. Cued by operatic music, all souls are reunited on a vast tidal basin, perhaps awaiting the next step?  Little or no overt Biblical iconography is present, but we immediately know what we’re seeing.  If it’s all real, sign me up too — I’ll go to heaven on the next tide.

This heightened insistence on a spiritual reality behind the one we can see permeates Malick’s worldview, and motivates the reduction of his images to fleeting impressions. Our loves and fears, births and deaths, are events no more and no less miraculous than a butterfly landing on a woman’s hand. Stanley Kubrick presented us with a hundred or so profound images in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that offers an antiseptic surface yet is always about the destiny of the human spirit. Terrence Malick leads with his emotions, finding a sense of wonder in simple things around us. The show has an emotional investment in faith as well. The characters often look to nature for answers. They wait to hear voices. All three of the main characters ask,  ‘Answer me,’  but the Cosmos doesn’t respond.

Returning at various junctures is a curious view of an amorphous ‘living light’ somewhere in the darkness. It appears to be an abstract representation of God, or perhaps it is the eye at the center of the universe that sees all. In the theatrical cut of The Tree of Life this abstract living light functions almost like D.W. Griffith’s vision of Mary  that joined the four disparate stories of Intolerance, ‘endlessly rocking the cradle.’


In its first release, the element of The Tree of Life most confusing to critics were the scenes with dinosaurs. Malick uses them to underline his main themes. The beached, mortally wounded Elasmosaur comes right out of the 1950s nature books that we kids read by the dozens. He regards the huge tear in his body uncomprehendingly, as if asking, ‘Why can’t I move? What comes next?’   Malick’s most controversial scene shows a predator dinosaur coming across a prostrate Hadrosaur in a stream. The meat-eater prepares to kill its prey, and then pauses, and seemingly relents. Malick has himself said that this illustrates his theme of the conflict between Nature and Grace: the predator took pity on the fallen dinosaur, and showed mercy.

That’s a difficult sell because these are reptiles we’re talking about, and even with giant mammals of a later age there’s still the issue of anthropomorphism. We’d sooner believe that the killer dinosaur passed up its meal because it smells the disease on the fallen beast. But no harm, no foul.  If Malick wants to believe that all animals are endowed with something like our own spirit, he has a lot of progressive vegetarians to keep him company.

The whole dinosaur section seems present so it can be wiped out by a meteor. That reminds us that we humans may have Species Mortality as well, that we may only be temporary residents on Planet Earth. We’re not sure what prompts the ‘second coming’ reunion of souls at the finish, but there is an image that might suggest an explosion of the sun.


The main, semi-autobiographical central part of the movie is what will hold conventional audiences:  the family’s joys and troubles, memories of harmony and discontent, a death in the family. The standard mid-‘fifties setup is burdened with conflicts that are likely universal to peoples everywhere. The wife (Jessica Chastain, I think in her breakthrough role) is a proto- Earth Mother, a mother of three still willing to play with a butterfly or soak herself in a lawn sprinkler just because it feels good. She says she never thought she would marry, but now is convinced that her life became real only when her boys were born.  She plays with them, something that appeals to every son secretly in love with his mother.  It’s a blissful ideal, heaven on Earth.


The upright, authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) is living his own life of frustration. He resents his employers and his lack of self-determination; at one point he takes foreign trips trying to establish a business. His education and that of his wife were interrupted, but we don’t know if it was by military service or a pregnancy. Father plays piano well and at one point says he also regrets not being able to pursue his talent. At one point he seems to be cheated out of patents he feels he owns. He takes his resentment of the rich and privileged out on his family in a big way, over-exerting his authority at the table and playing the bully. Were he to beat his wife our sympathy would vanish. He never strikes anyone, but his anger is just as violent. Father is definitely jealous of his wife’s relationship with her sons — he accuses her of blocking his influence. We wonder if he could become a really unbalanced monster, as in Bigger than Life.


Father meets his match in Jack (Hunter McCracken), a smart, willful chip off his dad’s shoulder. Jack’s rebellion gets serious at around age 13, when he feels his father’s reign of terror all too strongly.  His frustration shows in all the usual ways — he becomes more aggressive with his little brothers, does poorly in school and for a spell becomes a genuine delinquent, junior class. He blames his mother for not resisting father’s abuse, but also has strange thoughts about her, stemming from glimpses of her as a female object. An older vision of mother flying in the air is replaced by one of her in a glass coffin in the woods, like Snow White.

Terrence Malick’s vision frees Jack from his torments. After all of his discontent and sealing himself off, the scene where he atones for hurting his brother is deeply affecting. His words, “I’m sorry. You’re my brother” are a fraternal blessing. Jack’s eventual reconciliation with his father is just as magical.  He previously asked God to kill his father, and we even saw him contemplating doing so himself.  Jack again is the one to find the words that penetrate his father’s skull, spoken as an oath as hard as anything in a violent western: “It’s your house. You can kick me out whenever you want to. You’d like to kill me.”  Do we ever fully reconcile with our fathers?  Nothing can change family history, but Jack and his dad appear to call a truce or at least make their peace.


Third-billed Sean Penn plays Jack as a middle-aged adult, a successful architect and the culmination of his father’s aspirations, even though father’s business plans appear to have worked out in the long run. Along the way a tragedy strikes, perhaps in the early 1960s. This challenges Mother’s faith in goodness as well. Witnessing the death of a good boy previously confronts Jack with the blatant unfairness of God’s Plan for Us All, driving the first wedge through his childhood notions of religion.

We only get a sketchy vision of the adult Jack walking amid grandiose modern architecture, interacting with his employees and dealing with office politics. He instead seems to be ‘remembering’ much of the content of the movie, the fragmented memories that form the film’s style.

Carried by Malick’s choice of operatic music, the afterlife finale transforms The Tree of Life into a figurative Film Blanc. None of the images of Resurrection are explicit, but they’re there — people being led out of darkness, etc.. One rather literal cutaway shows masks sinking in the tide — perhaps in the afterlife ‘we won’t need our masks any more.’ The young Jack calls out ‘Follow Me!’ and his older self steps through a door frame into a desert that becomes an endless beach, where the tide meets the land. Various faces show up — neighbors, people that died, a boy with (burn?) scars on the back of his head, even Jack’s nefarious hoodlum cohorts, now redeemed.

Malick first confronted us with explicit dream imagery in The Thin Red Line.  Remember its similar scenes of a woman perhaps greeting her younger self in her deathbed, in a room with no ceiling — the better to rise to heaven? The vision of all strife made absent, all conflict resolved strikes me as the appeal of honest church-going faith. Religious imagery can be really mawkish in American pictures so the good examples stand out in strong relief.  Robert Benton achieved an exalted state of communal mercy and forgiveness with the finale of his Places in the Heart. Malick’s brand of surreal visions are more emotional than intellectual, faith-mysterious rather than Luis Buñuel’s intellectual-paranoid.

Malick’s next picture To The Wonder used the exact same formula, but for a story less profound and characters much less compelling; the style seemed to get in the way.


Criterion and Fox Searchlight bring to this Blu-ray presentation a new version of The Tree of Life that’s a full fifty minutes longer. It’s very rewarding. Sean Penn reportedly voiced his unhappiness with the theatrical cut, saying that his major part of the movie had been reduced to nothing, that an entire coherent storyline behind his adult part of the film had been jettisoned. We felt that the theatrical cut could almost have done without the adult Jack, so we agreed. We expected the Extended Cut to flesh out Jack’s story, but it seems largely identical.

The entire show has been extensively re-edited. It’s been several years since seeing the theatrical version, but almost every scene appears to have new, good added material. I wonder how many of these ‘changes’ are real, or just poor memory on my part? Adult Jack seems to be introduced much earlier. Young Jack’s misadventures in sub-criminal activity are a bit longer. We see the miserable home life of his main cohort in delinquency, who is physically battered by his father, not just bullied. Jack’s guilt and self-recriminations seem enlarged. Do I remember the storm scene from before, or is it new?  I definitely do not remember the boys playing with a dead fish, apparently deposited on the lawn from a tornado.

The movie overwhelms with its amazing images by Emmanuel Lubezki — each shot is breathtakingly beautiful and precise, yet seemingly effortless. We’re frequently confronted with sights that had to be captured on the spur of the moment, such as the enormous flocks of birds that tumble around skyscrapers outside the adult Jack’s window. The CGI images are still the weakest, with the animated one-celled animals looking exactly like what they are. And I’m still amused by the exit of the dinosaur in the river, which in one footfall defies perspective to step 25 feet into the background. But there’s no denying the power of the life-affirming images — the micro close-ups of the embryo, the newborn baby’s tiny foot. Much of the movie appears made of happy accidents. I call them ‘Bonnie & Clyde ‘ moments — a category inspired by the revelatory ‘filmed by God’ crane shot showing Clyde pursuing Bonnie through a tilled field, while ominous cloud shadows pass overhead, almost too perfectly timed to be real.

Terrence Malick’s finale retains its overt symbols, such as the field of sunflowers, and the architectural ‘bridge over troubled water’ image that might be expressing Jack’s peace of mind. This is a long show, and one that demands a kind of engagement that many viewers don’t want to contribute. The Extended Cut is even more demanding — it really needs an intermission. But both are extraordinary film experiences.


The Criterion Collection’s two-disc Blu-ray set of The Tree of Life places the theatrical version and all the extras on disc one, and the new Extended cut on disc two. It’s a 4K digital restoration; if an UltraHD disc existed it would be a strong reason to invest in the equipment. Director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki were personally involved with the restoration and the finishing of the longer version.

The images on this release are more delicate than ever, and perhaps with slightly more accurate subdued colors than the previous Fox disc. It reminds me more of the theatrical experience for this epic roadshow avant-garde experiment. In my theater screening there were several walk-outs in an audience that was half-befuddled and half-entranced. My attitude is that Hollywood redeems its overall crassness by occasionally producing a gem like this show.

The extras begin with a pleasing half-hour making-of docu from 2011, that has input from other contemporary directors as well. Then disc producer Kim Hendrickson’s new material begins. Jessica Chastain’s 18-minute interview contains a considerable amount of audition footage. An extended interview piece allows effects director Don Glass to explain the techniques used to bring several categories of semi-abstract visions to the picture.

Benjamin B’s analysis of the film’s cinematography, editing and art direction uses plenty of audio input from the technical artists, such as Jack Fisk. The film’s visual theories are discussed — Benjamin B calls Malick’s approach ‘Cubist Mosaic.’ The visual formulae for Malick and Lubezki’s desired look is quite detailed — Lubezki explains that wide-angle movie lenses no longer distort as they once did.

Alex Ross contributes a piece on the film’s music. Matt Zoller Seitz’s visual essay and personal interpretation  references experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson and the experimental ‘documentary’ Koyaanisqatsi. The impressive 45-page insert booklet is beautifully illustrated; it carries a Kent Jones essay and Roger Ebert’s original review.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Tree of Life
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements (via Criterion): New extended version of the film featuring an additional fifty minutes of footage; Exploring ‘The Tree of Life,’ a 2011 documentary featuring collaborators and admirers of Malick’s, including filmmakers David Fincher and Christopher Nolan; New interviews with actor Jessica Chastain and senior visual-effects supervisor Dan Glass; New video essay by critic Benjamin B about the film’s cinematography and style, featuring audio interviews with Lubezki, production designer Jack Fisk, and other crew members; New interview with critic Alex Ross about Malick’s use of classical music; Video essay from 2011 by critic Matt Zoller Seitz and editor Serena Bramble; Trailer. Illustrated 44-page booklet with an essay by critic Kent Jones and 2011 piece on the film by critic Roger Ebert.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-ray discs in keep case with booklet in heavy card sleeve
Reviewed: August 5, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.