The Tree of Life is a film that Terence Malick had been working on for years, with its roots in the late 1970s. The mysterious project was originally known as Q, something that had been announced but never made. Eventually the director found funding, and most of it was shot between 2008 and 2010.
It has been called a quasi-autobiographical cosmic epic, and that’s a great description. The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), who has a very aggressive father (Brad Pitt) and a loving mother (Jessica Chastaine). Sean Penn plays Jack in later life. It’s clearly very much inspired by Malick’s own small-town southwestern childhood. It takes a coming-of-age story and sets it against a sprawling sequence of the birth of the universe. That part is the film’s showpiece, and it’s been deeply controversial.
Despite some CGI dinosaurs that have aged very poorly, it’s a breathtaking long sequence. You either roll with it, or you don’t, at that point. It’s reminiscent of 2001, so much so that Malick pulled Douglas Trumbull out of retirement to assist him with the special effects for the cosmos. Ironically, most of these special effects are not CGI but instead chemical reactions shot with a microscopic camera.
The film climaxes with a dream sequence set in some kind of afterlife. It is a film obsessed with God, nature, the nature of God, all the grand themes that the director has dealt with for years, and it follows the progression in style that he has been developing. There had already been a change in his filmmaking with The Thin Red Line, with increased abstraction and narration that tells more of the story but also becomes quieter. By The Tree of Life, the narration is delivered in almost a whisper.
It’s a remarkable movie. There are directors who try to approach Malick, like David Gordon Green (one of whose films Malick has produced) and Jeff Nichols, but he has such a signature style that while others can always take something from it, it can’t be copied. Most people would say the first four of Malick’s films are great, but he has lost some audiences (and critics) since The Tree of Life, although it was reasonably successful in the cinema. However, his last two films, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, had only a very limited theatrical runs, and essentially went straight to DVD in the UK.
Basically, The Tree of Life is a film that you need to just go along with, and if you, you’ll get something out of it. The story isn’t really the point, it’s about the heavy questions. It’s almost like an installation instead of a movie. The photography is by Emanuel Lubevky includes wild tracking shots and angles. I assume that on his older films, Malick had larger crews, but with the advent of digital cameras he’s been able to take a more wide-ranging approach to the art of filmmaking. This project mixes both digital and film footage.
It’s fantastic that Malick has had an insane burst of creativity over the last decade after making very few movies (and none at all for 20 years). These days, Days of Heaven is mentioned as one of the most beautiful movies ever made, but it actually wasn’t a huge critical hit at the time. The criticism Malick received probably played a role in his long disappearance from filmmaking. Right before he was meant to get started on pre-production for “Q,” he suddenly left for Paris, where he spent a lot of time and wrote several scripts—including a biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis, which is supposedly still going to be produced. He famously doesn’t give interviews, but even this has changed. When Song to Song came out last year, he did an onstage interview with Richard Linklater. He’s clearly not the recluse that people think he is.
This release from Criterion includes a new cut of the film, around 50 minutes longer and so over three hours in total. I would say the shorter cut is probably better. However, there’s a fair bit more character development stuff in the new version, with the father becoming a more complicated and slightly more sympathetic character, and more scenes with Sean Penn (which should make him happy, given how bad Malick is about cutting actors out of his work). It’s interesting to see an alternate version, and that’s the main selling point. The documentary from the old Blu-Ray is included, with people like David Finscher and Christopher Nolan discussing Malick’s work and its influence on them, commercial filmmakers who both have a singular vision that is sometimes at odds with the kinds of films they make. There are interviews with Jessica Chastain, for whom The Tree of Life was a big career breakthrough; visual supervisor Dan Glass; and about the music used in The Tree of Life and Malick’s other films. A visual essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, the trailer, an essay by Kent Jones, and Roger Ebert’s famous piece round out the set—Ebert was a keen Malick supporter, and his last published piece was a review of his film To the Wonder.