many filmmakers since the great Stanley Kubrick have had the same kind of
mystique, but one who easily fits that bill is Terrence Malick, a
writer/director who has endeavored to redefine the narrative form of cinema in
visually poetic terms.
doesn’t create movies, he makes cinema in verse. The story in a Malick film is
not a priority, although there is often a profound tale at work. A Malick picture
is all about the emotions, the visual beauty, the aural splendidness, and
taking part in a cerebral, yet primally impressionistic experience.
reclusive filmmaker disappeared from the public eye after his two acclaimed,
more “accessible” works (Badlands,
1973, and Days of Heaven, 1978). He returned
twenty years later and made The Thin Red
Line (1998). Something was immediately different about his art. Malick’s
storytelling was more oblique, nonlinear, and lyrical. This trend continued more
intensely in The New World (2005).
Never one to be labeled “prolific,” Malick brought out his fifth feature, The Tree of Life, in 2011, and it
featured a radical progression in this elegiac, non-traditional way of spinning
The Tree of Life received Oscar
nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography (by Emmanuel
Lubezki), but there were many audience members who just didn’t get it or
refused to meet the film halfway. I remember counting many walkouts from the
theater in which I first saw it. Its comparison to the initial reaction to
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is
apt. This was a new kind of film, something that challenged the viewer into sitting
back, opening the mind and the heart, and going with the flow.
flow it does… the picture is much like a symphony of sight and sound. The imagery
of the world in all its glory from
the ground, sky, and sea to the plants, animals, and people is breathtakingly sensual.
The music—mostly classical pieces and some original scoring by Alexandre
Desplat—is practically continuous as the pace of the editing moves frenetically.
How anyone could call this a boring movie is mind-boggling.
is a story. The focus is on the
O’Briens, a family in a small town in Texas in the 1950s, particularly utilizing
the point of view of the oldest boy, Jack (played by newcomer Hunter
McCracken). Brad Pitt is the stern, sometimes over-the-top disciplinarian
father, and angelic Jessica Chastain is the loving mother. Jack’s two siblings
are played by Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan. The entire family’s performances
are superb. Scenes in the present day feature an adult Jack (Sean Penn), who is
somberly “remembering” the events of the film. Something has triggered old Jack’s
memory of when the middle brother died at the age of nineteen (we don’t know
how… possibly Vietnam?).
then there’s the creation sequence, something else that is comparable to the
Star Gate section of 2001 (and that
film’s co-visual effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, is a consultant on Tree). We see in a nearly twenty-minute
segment how the earth was formed in the heavens, how life began in the waters,
the rise of dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs!), the predatory disposition of certain
species, and their eventual destruction to make way for man.
though, The Tree of Life is about how
life in the universe is a spiritual force that exists in every human. Mrs.
O’Brien’s near-whispered voice-over explains the concept at the beginning of
the film. People either follow the path of “grace,” which is unselfish and
accepts mistreatment, or the path of “nature,” which is self-centered, jealous,
and expects attention. Throughout the course of the film, it becomes clear that
Mrs. O’Brien represents Grace and her husband characterizes Nature. And therein
lies the conflict within the movie.
human experiences are covered in the film—the joy of love, procreation, and
raising a family, as well as the pain of grief and loss. The montage,
accompanied by Smetana’s goosebump-inducing Vltava
(The Moldau), of the O’Briens bringing baby Jack into the world, his
toddler years, the arrival of boy #2, then boy #3, and onward until the three
lads are upper grade school age—is exhilaratingly breathtaking.
Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital restoration, supervised by Malick and
Lubezki, is another feather in the label’s cap. If ever there was a film suited
for Blu-ray, it is this one. The feature comes with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD
Master Audio soundtrack. Play it loud.
the film has previously appeared on home video, what makes the Criterion
edition enticing for Malick fans is that the set contains not only the
theatrical release of the picture, but also a new extended cut of never-before-seen footage (around fifty
minutes’ worth). Some might feel it was too long to begin with, but audiences
who love The Tree of Life do so no
matter how long it is; the same is true of those who hate it. Speaking as an
ardent admirer of the film, the additions are fascinating. Most of the new
material is in the second half, appearing around the 90-minute mark, and deals
with angry young Jack “acting out,” and the rigidness of Mr. O’Brien regarding
how he treats his sons, especially his eldest. There is a little addition in
the first half-hour that gives the adult Jack more depth (which, frankly, could
have been useful in the theatrical release).
supplements are plentiful and excellent. A 2011 documentary on Malick and the
film, featuring members of the cast and crew, as well as admirers Christopher
Nolan and David Fincher, is enlightening. There are new interviews with
Chastain and visual effects supervisor Dan Glass. A new video essay by critic
Benjamin B explores the film’s cinematography and style. An especially
worthwhile new piece featuring critic Alex Ross examines Malick’s use of music.
Another video essay from 2011 by critic Matt Zoller Seitz and editor Serena
Bramble rounds out the collection, along with the theatrical trailer. The
booklet contains an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 2011 piece by Roger Ebert.
The Tree of Life may not be for
everyone, but it’s certainly for lovers of cinema, art, poetry, nature, music, and,
well, something different. This is genius at work, folks. Embrace it.