THE TREE OF LIFE: Terrence Malick’s Revelatory Wrestling Match With The Eternal

A profound meditation revisited in a new director’s cut from Criterion

Job 38: 4,7: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?….When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Rare indeed is the film that attempts to grapple with the eternal, with the beginning and end times on a cosmic level; a film that attempts to be at once deeply intimate and profound on the grandest scale. Rarer still is the film that attempts these things and succeeds wildly, leaving viewers in a state of awe and wonder. The Tree Of Life is that rare bird of a film. So rare that even filmmaker Terrence Malick himself has struggled to recapture that same grand wonder in his subsequent films which are crafted in a similar (and wholly unique) style which is so specific as to be dubbed “Malickian”. The Tree Of Life, it seems, is the most perfect match of subject matter and the filmmakers style, and ranks among his great achievements.

Humans ask questions. It’s a core trait that has compelled us to where we are as a species today. We universally ask big questions and meditate on higher things, whether we aim those questions at God or a higher power, or simply to fate or the rules that seem to govern the universe. It appears that Terrence Malick is a man of faith who crafts The Tree Of Life around questions aimed at the Christian God of creation. That’s the lens and framework through which The Tree Of Life asks its questions, but it by no means precludes those among us who might direct their questions elsewhere. That’s part of what makes Malick’s film so profound and effective. Religious cinema is far too often crafted for an audience who already believes and exists simply to pat them on the back for those beliefs. It’s exclusive and generally artless. Malick, on the other hand, gets at something elemental and universal among us. One need not personally believe in the Christian God to take the profound journey that The Tree Of Life beckons us on. While the high style and ethereal narrative of the film may impede the more conventional viewer, those who choose to engage with The Tree Of Life will almost certainly find some truth to cling to, some pain to grapple with, or some profundity to meditate on.

The Tree Of Life brings us intimately into the lives of the O’Brien family and grants us access to their memories and internal monologues. We experience them in multiple “timelines” spanning across large swaths of their lives. We get to know and identify with our characters in the way we access and engage with our own memories, in dreamlike vignettes with some details coming into sharp focus, and others peripheral. We leap through time in much the same ways that our minds can when accessing memories. This results in an extremely fragmented narrative that nonetheless coalesces into a kind of symphonic order and rhythm that’s simply unlike the work of any other filmmaker.

That said, there very much IS a narrative. At the core of The Tree Of Life is the tragic loss of a child at the young age of 19. We don’t see the death onscreen or even see the O’Brien children at this stage of their lives. Rather, we’re quickly made aware of the death, and then go back in time, experiencing the rapturous growth of a family as adoring mother (Jessica Chastain in her first big breakout role) and stern father (Brad Pitt) revel in the miracles as three baby boys are born to them. This sequence is almost miraculous in its beauty, yet always tinged with melancholy (as is the rest of the picture) as we know of the tragic death to come and the impact that will have on the family.

We’re also introduced to a modern-set timeline in which Sean Penn is playing the adult Jack, the eldest son of the O’Briens. Played for most of the 1950s-set sequences by actor Hunter McCracken, much of the film is experienced through Jack’s consciousness (though not all of it). By introducing the “modern” generation into the story, we see the intense ripple effects of not just a tragic loss, but of the entirety of the impact one’s family has on the person they become. Sean Penn’s Jack feels disconnected and out of place in the modern world as he wrestles with who he has become in light of his family and childhood. “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

And in an oft discussed and massively bold departure, The Tree Of Life regularly leaves behind the O’Brien family and spends large chunks of time depicting sequences of space, the cosmos, the literal creation of the earth, and extinction of the dinosaurs. Yes… there are dinosaurs in The Tree Of Life. And they’re glorious. There are also micro sequences depicting cells, reproduction, and the authoring of life. Accompanied by classical music, these sequences are filled with such awe and wonder as to bring tears to one’s eyes. They’re also the only possible response to the harrowing and gut-wrenching questions the O’Brien family, representing us all, are asking.

It’s the middle son, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), who will pass on tragically young. We’ll see the three brothers grow, play, bond, and interact with their parents in genuine moments of pure spontaneity as captured by Malick’s signature style that only he can bring. R.L. is shown to be more of a burgeoning artist and musician (like his father), but with the gentle soul of his mother. Jack is often depicted in conflict with his father and warring against the traits he sees within himself that are more like his father than his mother. Despite the dream-like style of the narrative, The Tree Of Life actually allows us an uncomfortably intimate access to the O’Briens. They’re painfully human, and it’s easy to personally identify with their experience and therefore plant oneself into the story right along with them, making this a very personal journey. We understand the compulsion to do the wrong things, like Jack experiences in his adolescence. We recognize the purity and fierceness of a mother’s love for her children, the all-consuming nature of motherhood. We swing wildly from hatred to understanding as we observe Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the stern father who believes he must make his kids strong in order to face an unforgiving world with no room for weakness. “The world lives by trickery. If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good”.

The ultimate brilliance of The Tree Of Life is the film’s utter disinterest in answering the questions it poses. The film escapes triviality or pretension, criticisms that could easily be hurled at a movie attempting to portray the entirety of the human experience from creation to the afterlife, by refusing to preach or moralize. Sure, we’re shown the eternal through the lens of a Christian worldview, but Malick insists on portraying universal themes that hit us very close to home. The only response possible to questions such as “Where were You?” are to pull back, consider the grandiosity of the cosmos, and attempt to contextualize our own lives and their ultimate significance in the face of cosmic and microscopic realms. It’s the very same brilliance of the book of Job, in which Job is stripped of his fortune, his lands, his family, and cries out to God for answers. God’s response, as quoted at the top and in the opening card of the film, is simply to ask MORE questions of Job; essentially asking “who are you?” in the face of the eternal. The Tree Of Life allows viewers to feel anger towards God, or the universe, or whatever power you need to feel angry at. It allows viewers to experience purity and light. It depicts a final restoration of all things, when the O’Briens are reunited and all loss and pain are gone, no longer haunted by spectres of time or looming loss. The Tree Of Life allows viewers to feel, honestly, the entire gamut of the human experience, and does so authentically and rapturously. There simply aren’t but a handful of films that can claim to accomplish this feat.

The Director’s Cut

Lauded as an unprecedented project within the Criterion Collection, the company underwent this project with Terrence Malick and his team. They restored footage and funded the process, allowing a substantially longer new vision to come into being. The theatrical cut and new version aren’t fundamentally different films, however. The review written above can fully apply to both versions, for instance. Early rumors swirling around this new cut were that the film was wildly different. Those rumors are exaggerated.

What was there in the theatrical cut remains on screen in this version. I didn’t detect anything from the theatrical cut being excised. Certainly in a film like this with such fleeting and flowing visuals, there could have been some content removed which I simply missed. But mostly this new cut adds to what was there before. Some major sequences are added which include a family visit from Chastain’s character’s family, including a brother/uncle to the boys. This sequence adds some nuance to the mother which is somewhat lacking in the theatrical cut. I think it fleshes out the humanity of the mother wonderfully. There’s also an extended sequence depicting a hurricane hitting the small town where the O’Briens live (ostensibly Waco, TX). This is visually interesting, but didn’t add the same level of new insight that the family visit did. There’s also further sequences featuring the mother character’s own mother. These conversations also further serve to flesh out Chastain’s character in positive ways. Jack’s story is also fleshed out more and it’s revealed that Jack is sent away to boarding school at some point to relieve some of the tension between his father and himself. This portends the disconnected and mournful adult Jack we meet in the theatrical cut.

It’s hard to say if the Director’s Cut is my preferred version or not. While this film borders on the transcendent, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Malick’s style is so singular and so earnest that the shorter experience of the theatrical version might be more successful as an overall experience simply because it’s more sustainable. At 3 hours in length, the Director’s Cut fleshes out a lot of the human elements of this tale more fully, but potentially slips some in its ability to sustain our wrapt wonder.

The Tree Of Life is an essential addition to the Criterion Collection and this release is absolutely visually stunning. On top of the two cuts, there are bonus features and essays aplenty, making this the clear and obvious definitive release of the film. The only thing I could possibly have wanted might have been for Criterion to finally break into the 4K market and release this stunning title in that new and cutting edge format. Malick fans and Criterion collectors will want to seek this out at their earliest convenience.

And I’m Out.

The Tree Of Life is now available on Criterion Collection Blu-ray

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