‘The Tree of Life’ (2011) revisited

❉ Let’s just get it right out there in the open: ‘The Tree of Life’ is easily one of the best movies ever made, certainly one of the most ambitious, and most definitely like nothing else out there.

“Thought-provoking” is a phrase that seems to describe The Tree of Life the best, as, whether you like it or not, you can’t deny that a massive level of thought and feeling went into the making of it.”

When word leaked that The Criterion Collection would be releasing an expanded edition (50 additional minutes!) of Terrence Malick’s already-masterpiece The Tree of Life, film enthusiasts became weak in the knees. Let’s just get it right out there in the open, and damn the notion that extreme hyperbole can over-hype something: The Tree of Life is easily one of the best movies ever made, certainly one of the most ambitious, and most definitely like nothing else out there. I’ve been thinking about this profound piece of art ever since my wife and I made the trip to New York City to see it when it opened in limited theatrical release in 2011, and I’ve discussed and written about it endlessly ever since. When our son was born nearly three years ago, the film took on even more resonance. In fact, I made sure that when he was just a few days old, that I played the film in the background while he was relaxing in his crib. Of course, nothing made any sense to him as he was three and half days old at the time, but my intent was to have Alexandre Desplat’s magisterial score wash over him, with those ethereal voiceovers in the background providing soothing comfort. This is a film that had an almost insane, instant impact on me when I first viewed it, and over countless viewings, I’ve been able to pull so many different pieces of thematic richness from this gorgeous, cosmic, and absolutely epic piece of filmmaking.

The movie best resembles a series of half-forgotten dreams, suppressed childhood nightmares and failures, bits from our not-fully-formed subconscious and future, with an overwhelming sense of discovery, both personal and familial, that enlivens every single moment. Master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki put on an absolute clinic with his herculean work on The Tree of Life; the use of wide angle lenses, stedicam, off-kilter angles, and sweeping camera moves produces an intoxicating visual landscape, with the movie offering up shot after shot of sublime imagery. It honestly felt like the entire piece was shot with natural light, and, seemingly, between the hours of 5-7am and 4-6pm, but also with a time machine readily available to see sights and sounds that would otherwise not be possible. On a pictorial level, this is a peerless effort, and the elliptical editing by a fleet of world-class film-cutters (Billy Weber, Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, and Mark Yoshikawa) is as startling as it is engrossing. The evocative and lived-in production design by Jack Fisk seals the entire aesthetic package.

I’m always fascinated with the Brad Pitt character, a tough-love 50’s father desperately trying to cling to his passion (music and inventions), while he works a job that he doesn’t care about, all in an effort to put food on the table for his family, much in a way that so many people have done for their loved ones for so many years. Love, in general, is explored all throughout this remarkably passionate piece of work, with the contrasting of a father’s tough love against the needs of his sons (different in each case), and how fear, compassion, and respect are intertwined to expand upon the inherent needs, desires, and foibles of human behavior. There’s a sense of loss, of untapped achievement that this film explores in certain sequences (the scenes with Sean Penn hit these notes of personal isolation repeatedly), and then arrived the final 30 minutes, which, for me, stand as some of the most beguiling, soul-searching stuff ever put into a film. And don’t get me started on the scene with Chastain levitating, and how Malick positioned her as the ultimate embodiment of correct and serene; she’s everyone’s mother, the Earth’s mother, a person of unending love and understanding.

But I want to get into the most cryptic and tantalizing bits that the film has to offer – its glimpses of dinosaurs, or, if you’d rather, Malicksaurs. You may have heard that during The Tree of Life some dinosaurs make an appearance. But being a Malick film, the reveal of the creatures happens in such a simple, straightforward, and unflashy way that it’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker handling the same beats in the same fashion. Whereas most directors would go for the cheap and the obvious (clashing beasts, a chase scene, something violent, etc.), Malick instead focuses his gaze on something peaceful, serene, and almost meditative. The camera fixes an upward gaze on some Jurassic-style trees, and then, there in the foreground, is a peaceful plant-eater, smelling the air, having a nosh, and basically just straight chilling. It’s a moment of dino-zen and it’s utterly spellbinding. In a previous scene, you’re treated to a long, lingering view of a mortally wounded Plesiosaur, essentially contemplating its fate; it’s  a magnificent sight. For anyone as blown away by water-based dinosaurs as I am, this 30-second bit will tickle your headspace for days.

And then, there’s the scene that most critics discussed in their reviews, the one where one dominant dinosaur steps on the head of another, wounded dinosaur. The camera pans over a babbling brook, and in the foreground, there is a hurt dinosaur, still breathing, but obviously down for the count. Then, out from the brush, a predator-style dinosaur appears, and it runs over to the one that’s injured. Then, suddenly, the stronger of the two places its claw-foot on the head of the suffering creature…then releases….then pushes down again…then releases…then runs away. No death blow. Nothing overly dramatic. Just a moment between two prehistoric animals that might suggest something in the way of mercy or understanding. Or maybe not. The dinosaur scenes last roughly 3-4 minutes out of the entire movie, and occur during the cosmic and trippy “creation of the universe” sequence (co-designed by genius Douglas Trumbull), which itself lasts roughly 20 minutes and is comparable to what Stanley Kubrick achieved in 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of solar-sonic cinematic splendor.

All of these beats certainly tie into certain thematic elements that are at play during the 1950s domestic scenes with Pitt and Chastain and their children, but on its own, it’s yet another instance of Malick giving the viewer something to chew on. Whatever it means (or doesn’t mean), it’s one of many tiny moments in an otherwise epic film which all add up to something special. “Thought provoking” is a phrase that seems to describe The Tree of Life the best, as, whether you like it or not, you can’t deny that a massive level of thought and feeling went into the making of it. Malick brings all sorts of ideas and themes to the forefront, and it’s the sort of film that will mean one thing to one person sitting “over here” and then something completely different to someone sitting “over there.”

The film carries a whiff of spirituality and religious examination, and without being overly religious in my own dealings, I’ve found remarkable insights into Malick as an artist and life in general because of what he presented in The Tree of Life. Never pushing an agenda on its audience, this is a film of heavy, monumental power, a work that knows exactly how to communicate its ideas without the use of preaching or heavy-handed symbolism.

❉ ‘The Tree Of Life’ (Criterion Collection) is released on Blu-Ray 19th November 2018, RRP £25.99.
Director-Approved Special Edition Bonus Features:
New 4K digital restoration, supervised and approved by director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
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 visual-effects supervisor Dan Glass
Interview from 2011 with composer Alexandre Desplat about the film, and a new interview with music critic Alex Ross about Malick’s approach to music
Video essay from 2011 by critic Matt Zoller Seitz

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.



Become a patron at Patreon!