Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” (2011)

This article is excerpted from “A SpaceTime Odyssey”, Part 3 of our video essay series on Terrence Malick

Notable Festivals:  Cannes (Palme d’Or)

Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2018

Before he embarked on his twenty year hiatus from filmmaking, director Terrence Malick was laboring over the development of an ambitious passion project he had enigmatically dubbed “Q”.  The success of 1978’s DAYS OF HEAVEN had set him up to develop anything he wanted, and said effort would take the form of a sprawling meditation on life, death, and rebirth— albeit transposed against the infinite timescale of the cosmos.  The project famously collapsed shortly thereafter, in the wake of Malick’s self-imposed exile from Hollywood, but vestiges of the idea nevertheless continued to percolate in the director’s mind throughout the ensuing decades.  His return with 1998’s THE THIN RED LINE, as well as his subsequent 2005 effort THE NEW WORLD re-established Malick’s prominence in the industry’s prestige circles, and with it a renewed interest in the prospects of his unmade projects.  While in the early stages of his development of a failed project on Che Guevara with the production company River Road, Malick pitched his latest musings on the Q project to producer Bill Pohlad (2).  Pohlad reportedly expressed his wariness about Malick’s “crazy” idea, but as the project took further shape he found himself so enamored with it that he would later provide the financing (3). The production of THE NEW WORLD would give the long-gestating project some added momentum by establishing a strong creative collaboration between Malick and producer Sarah Green, who has since proven instrumental in ramping up the pace of the director’s finished output.  Malick had also been discussing the idea with other producers like Grant Hill, and Plan B Entertainment’s Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt, lamenting the difficulties he had faced in getting the film made over the decades (4).

Finally, after nearly thirty years of troubled development, Q’s imminent production was announced to the world in 2005 as THE TREE OF LIFE.  Naturally, the trade announcement was by no means the end of Malick’s production woes— numerous prep challenges and a revolving door of attached leads that reportedly included the likes of Colin Farrell, Mel Gibson and the late Heath Ledger delayed the shoot by several years (5).  THE TREE OF LIFE finally went before cameras in 2008 (6), when producer Brad Pitt decided to take on the critical role that they had so much trouble filling; that being Mr. O’ Brien, one of the three figureheads of Malick’s narrative.  I’ve mentioned before how Malick is not so much a storyteller as he is a story-seeker, shuffling through a stack of moving postcards that, when arranged a certain way, reveal the interior dramas that run through them. THE TREE OF LIFE represents the perfection of an approach that he’d cultivated since DAYS OF HEAVEN, weaving an impressionistic tapestry of image, narration, and music that prompts a stirring meditation on creation’s inherent divinity.  The story unfolds over the entire course of Time itself, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with a vision of the inevitable heat death of the universe; similarly, the scale balloons to an infinite cosmic scale and collapses to the most intimate, cellular level.  

In this context, Malick introduces two anchoring narratives that run parallel, both revealing intimate autobiographical details about the director even as they focus on a man named Jack grappling with the natural forces of growth and decline.  The first narrative essentially mirrors Malick’s own upbringing in 1950’s Austin, Texas, finding the O’Brien family living in the suburbs of Waco. The prepubescent Jack, played here by newcomer Hunter McCracken, is a moody, temperamental boy grappling with the trials and tribulations of boyhood while caught between the opposing forces of his mother and father— the way of grace versus the way of nature.  Pitt’s nuanced, haunted performance as Jack’s father, Mr. O’Brien, represents nature: stoic, unforgiving, evolutionary in a “survival of the fittest” sense. Like Malick’s own father, Mr. O’Brien is a geologist who works for an oil company, having fallen back on a conventional career when his love of music proved unable to provide for his family. Both Mr. O’ Brien and Malick’s father would later fill that void by playing the organ at church— a development that likely conflated music with spirituality in Malick’s young mind.  Jessica Chastain delivers her breakout performance here as Mrs. O’Brien, signifying the opposing force of grace by way of her soulful sensitivity and maternal compassion. She is a source of comfort for the three O’Brien boys, becoming a place of refuge in the face of Mr. O’Brien’s tempestuous moods, which manifest in explosive displays of biblical fury and brute strength. Jack’s dynamic with his two brother echoes Malick’s own, focusing acutely on the boy’s relationship to his younger brother RL. Played by Laramie Eppler, RL is a fictional stand-in for Malick’s brother, Larry; a sensitive, withdrawn boy who shares his father’s love for music and meets an untimely off-screen end as a teenager.  It’s implied that this end is due to a car accident, and not a suicide as it was for Larry— however, a car accident was how Malick’s other brother, Chris, met his untimely end.  Tye Sheridan, making his film debut here as the youngest O’Brien boy, Steve, serves as Chris’ stand-in— however, Malick’s theatrical cut affords Sheridan scant time for his own development, turning him into a third wheel with little to add to the proceedings beyond his autobiographical importance.  Rendered in fleeting images that flash like memory, this thread chronicles formative moments from Jack’s boyhood: his birth… the birth of his brothers… the discovery of disease, decay, and death… the introduction of complicated adult emotions like jealousy, contempt, and lust… and ultimately ending with Jack and his family moving away from his childhood home.

THE TREE OF LIFE’s second thread finds Jack all grown up, working as an architect and living in modern-day Dallas.  Sean Penn serves his second tour of duty for Malick after THE THIN RED LINE, imbuing the adult Jack with a quiet, haunted pathos that splits the difference between Pitt and Chastain’s opposing energies.  This storyline is far less defined than the 1950’s thread, finding Jack on the anniversary of RL’s death and wandering his cavernous modern home and sleek, airy office in the grips of his memories.  He begins the day lighting a candle in memory of his late brother, and ends it with an impressionistic vision of a kind of afterlife where he’s reunited with his family amidst a crowd of wandering souls.  Penn’s storyline admittedly feels a bit underdeveloped— indeed, Penn has publicly spoken at length about his disappointment in a final product that doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with him beyond using him as a framing device for the 1950’s storyline.  The general idea connects to the creation sequences and the 1950’s footage well enough, but feels incomplete on its own. Malick’s scissor-happy approach to editing could be the culprit here, having whittled down Penn’s character to the barest sketch of an arc in the face of an overall narrative that was already complicated enough.  As of this writing, an extended edition of the film is due out in August 2018 courtesy of the Criterion Collection, boasting an extra 50 minutes of running time that will no doubt provide a deeper glimpse into Penn’s place within a sweeping and ambitious story that seeks to find a secular divinity within creation.

As mentioned before, THE TREE OF LIFE represents Malick’s attainment of something like perfection within his unique visual style, featuring a narrative that effortlessly lends itself to a series of fleeting vignettes and experimental, symbolic imagery.  Indeed, the aesthetic on display here is about as close as one can conceivably get to the definition of “cinema” in the purest sense, at least as it pertains to the marriage between image and sound. Returning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki proves instrumental in this regard, using only the light immediately and naturally available to him to capture some of the most beautiful and evocative imagery ever committed to 35mm celluloid.  Returning to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first time since DAYS OF HEAVEN, Malick and Lubezki retain the restless, penetrating style of camera movement that marked THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD, constantly propelling through the frame’s z-axis.  Their improvisatory style of shooting is evident throughout, using handheld or Steadicam setups that allow for the spontaneous capture of life in the present tense.  Despite the relative chaos of said shooting style, the consistent use of lenses with a deep depth of field or compositions that favor magic-hour backlighting allow a cohesive vision to emerge (1).  Whole sequences are constructed entirely from these fractured snapshots and vignettes, made evocative by their implications. Lubezki would later describe this approach as meaning to trigger “tons of memories, like a scent or perfume” (1), and towards this end, he and Malick are astonishingly successful— especially within the 1950’s-set scenes at the O’Brien household.  Most people watching the film— at least outside of the real-life town of Smithville, TX, where these scenes were shot— cannot relate to Malick’s story of growing up in suburban Waco in the 1950’s; that is, at least on a superficial level. That said, Malick’s enigmatic, oblique storytelling unspools like a sense memory, his fleeting images triggering flashbacks to our own childhoods as he charts Jack’s response to key episodes in his psychological development.  Here, the emotional milestones are not birthdays, first communions, or vacations, but rather the discovery of disease & sickness in an otherwise-beautiful world, the confused shame of emerging sexuality, or the mortal terror of a father’s wrath.

The other narrative strands forego the earthiness and rambunctious energy of the boyhood sequences in favor of ethereal, dreamlike images that speak to THE TREE OF LIFE’s profound, secular spirituality.  In a film full of intensely memorable imagery, these moments stand out— a child swimming out of a bedroom submerged entirely in water, Chastain’s character dancing in mid-air, or laying asleep in a glass coffin in the forest not unlike Sleeping Beauty.  Compositions continually land on images of figures or silhouettes aimlessly moving through space— a visual echo of the characters’ internal restlessness. This conceit reaches it apex during adult Jack’s celestial vision of what one might consider an afterlife, where he finds the younger iterations of his family amidst a legion of souls wandering a beautifully-blank landscape.  In his fifth consecutive collaboration with Malick, longtime production designer Jack Fisk uses his subdued and realistic period recreations to amplify the narrative’s visual symbolism— particularly in regards to the found architecture of their many locations: passing through gates comes to symbolize birth, climbing ladders implies ascension. The film spends a significant amount of time in Jack’s childhood home — one of several charming little bungalows on a sleepy suburban street — tracking the O’Brien boys through the years as they careen around the house, filling it with laughter, love and life.  Malick uses the O’Brien’s eventual move from the house as the climax of the 1950’s narrative, showing us the empty husk of a house they left behind. In so doing, Malick seems to be suggesting that a space is given meaning not by its shape, but by the memories we infuse in it; the tone or energy of a building is a product of the manner in which its occupants inhabit it. In this context, the modern-day sequences with adult Jack wandering his intimidating office tower suggest humanity’s alienation within these colossal structures— our cosmic insignificance laid bare for all to see.

Indeed, THE TREE OF LIFE is quite interested in Man’s place in the universe and creation.  A large chunk of the narrative diverts from its focus on Jack to depict the birth of time & space, charting the evolution of life on Earth from the planet’s formation on down to the emergence of complex organisms.  Malick shoots these sequences on 65mm and IMAX film, giving them a majestic, staggering scale to match their subject matter. A large portion of this sequence is derived from landscape aerials shot from a helicopter, featuring a variety of stunning, primal vistas from all over the world that, when placed in just the right order, recreate the millennia-spanning story of the Earth’s creation.  Even more impressive are the shots depicting the cosmos, which amazingly forego computer-generated imagery in favor of practical effects. Towards this end, Malick would enlist the help of Doug Trumbull, the venerated visual effects artist behind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), bringing him out of retirement for the first time since Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER thirty years prior (1).  Trumbull utilizes high-speed photography, fluid dynamics and experimental techniques to render the majesty of the infinite, throwing a variety of chemicals, paints, dyes, smoke and liquids onto spin dishes and into water tanks (7).  CGI is deployed, however, during what has become one of the film’s most-contested scenes: a brief exchange between two dinosaurs that Malick had reportedly intended to convey the genesis of complex thought beyond predator/prey instincts.  The admittedly-flimsy CGI undermines what is arguably an interesting effort to show how relatively-sophisticated ideological concepts like mercy are just as much a product of evolution as the biological aspects. As a whole, THE TREE OF LIFE’s creation sequences would prove highly inspirational for Malick.  In fact, he’d accumulate enough footage to create an additional feature, expanding his exploration of life’s journey into an IMAX documentary that he would release five years later titled VOYAGE OF TIME.  

It’s not unusual for a Malick film to feature multiple editors, but THE TREE OF LIFE might take the cake in terms of sheer quantity.  No less than five editors claim credit, with newcomers like Jay Rabinowitz and Daniel Rezende working alongside returning collaborators Billy Weber, Hank Corbin, and Mark Yoshikawa.  Together they build upon the unique style established in THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD.  Whereas Malicks’ two prior films featured conventional dialogue scenes as part of its storytelling character, THE TREE OF LIFE minimizes the exchange of dialogue to maybe a handful of select scenes, favoring the art of suggestion by zeroing in on a scene’s essential image and deploying hushed, inward-looking voiceover for emotional context.  Music plays an important part in this approach, bridging sequences together as a singular river of story, ever-flowing. Alexandre Desplat provides a subdued original score — indeed, it’s hard to point to any particular melody or musical theme emblematic of Desplat’s work here.  That said, THE TREE OF LIFE is filled with music— just not his music.  Like Hans Zimmer or James Horner before him, Desplat would see his work replaced by a suite of classical and religious deep cuts from Malick’s own collection.  These needledrops infuse Malick’s cascading river of evocative imagery with the mythic aura that encapsulates his previous work. Religious tracks like John Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle” or Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” underscore Malick’s approach regarding the inherent divinity of creation, evolution and the cycle of life.  Indeed, sequences like the birth of the universe, or Mrs. O’ Brien’s inconsolable grief over the loss of her son, use these tracks to capture the same kind of reverence one would bring to church. Malick also uses “Vltava (The Moldau)” from Bedrich Smetana’s “Ma vlast” several times throughout THE TREE OF LIFE, most notably in a sequence that features young Jack running around with his brothers, capturing the exuberance of life at its prime.  In a move that would unwittingly affect his subsequent work, Malick licenses a track from emerging composer Hanan Townshend, who would then go on to serve as the composer for the director’s next two films.  

If one were to make the case that THE TREE OF LIFE is Malick’s best film (and there is indeed such a case), he or she might point to the autobiographical nature of the film’s thematic and aesthetic inclinations.  While the reclusive filmmaker would never admit that the film is indeed autobiographical, the parallels between Jack’s story and his own upbringing in midcentury Texas are too close to deny.  The film’s thematic explorations conform immaculately to the shape of Malick’s artistry, unified by a restless, wandering spirit that manifests itself through a constantly-roaming camera, listless action within the frame, and reverential voiceovers that repeatedly invoke the familial divinity of creation via personifying idioms like “mother” and “brother”.  Indeed, THE TREE OF LIFE is a prime example of filmmaking as a form of prayer, animated by a secular spirituality that sees holiness in the chemical reactions that shape our universe, or the electrical signals that light up our brains with conscious, self-reflective thought.  However, as evidenced by the film’s opening with a quote from the biblical book of Job, Malick’s expression of nature’s divinity frequently favors the visual iconography and syntax of Judeo-Christian religions— a kind of grounding device from Malick’s own upbringing that serves as a springboard into the deeper world of spirituality.  The archetypical “loss-of-innocence” narrative is another thread that ties Malick’s larger filmography together, and THE TREE OF LIFE reveals itself as a key work in that regard.  Milestone developmental episodes punctuate Jack’s narrative, detailing his reactions to the onset of puberty, the corruption of sickness, and the realization of death’s quiet permanence.  Childhood’s simplistic view of the world gives way to an increasingly complex understanding of its realities— the act of growing up is in and of itself an existential crisis.

Also like he’s done in previous work, Malick projects his characters’ interior tangles with corruption onto their surrounding landscape, drawing a distinct contrast between rural and industrial or urban backdrops.  Jack’s boyhood home, located in the sleepy suburbs outside a small town, comes to represent the emotional purity of adolescence— all the intricacies of life boiled down to their essence, the scope of Jack’s world contained entirely within the limits of his immediate neighborhood.  Lush with sun-dappled trees and vibrant local wildlife, these sequences are observed through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, leaning into the popular idea amongst the Baby Boomer generation that the 1950’s were a simpler, more idyllic time. Kids were free to play in the street, people regularly went to church, and a middle class family could live comfortably off of a single source of income.  To his credit, Malick knows that the 1950’s were far from perfect; while he doesn’t go as far as addressing major flashpoints like segregation, he nevertheless chips away at the era’s blissful ignorance by showing us the imperfections on the fringes: a heated domestic argument behind closed doors, children eagerly running into a toxic plume of insecticide smoke, police taking a criminal away from the scene of a crime in full view of the public.  Malick contrasts the simple perfection of Jack’s pastoral boyhood with the disorienting complexity of adult Jack’s urban surroundings, using towering glass skyscrapers and cold, cavernous interiors that actively seek to disconnect alienate Jack from his surroundings. Even his own home as an adult lacks the warmth, intimacy, and spatial cohesion of his childhood house. Malick hammers home this stark contrast through the recurring use of an upward-looking camera that draws visual comparisons between trees and skyscrapers alike as awe-inspiring structures reaching towards the heavens.  The overall effect is a constant, self-reinforcing circle of thematic unity, wherein Malick’s ideological interests feed into each other to create a visceral and immersive experience that’s much, much more than the sum of its parts.

Of Malick’s post-hiatus output, THE TREE OF LIFE is easily his most celebrated and well-received— despite casual moviegoers being so confused about its elliptical snapshot-style of storytelling that theaters had to post physical signs explaining that its enigmatic nature was intentional (1).  Contrary to, well, nearly every other filmmaker who ever lived, Malick’s films routinely spend years in post-production while he exactingly tinkers with his edits.  Having missed its initial 2009 and 2010 release dates, THE TREE OF LIFE proved no different, finally premiering in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and taking home one of the most prestigious prizes in all of cinema, the Palme d’Or.  The mixed nature of early reviews soon gave way to the film’s rapturous embrace by prominent critics, who regarded it as nothing less than Malick’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker.  Three Oscar nominations followed: one for Best Picture, another for Lubezki’s cinematography, and the third being Malick’s second nod for his directing. Despite losing out on all three categories, THE TREE OF LIFE has refused to lose its luster in the years since, displaying an enduring resonance as perhaps Malick’s most-defining work.  His soulful sensitivity imbues the final product with the palpable vitality of life itself, proving that the visual language of cinema is still evolving, and that a century-old medium still possesses untold secrets and boundless opportunities— containing nothing less in its potential than the scope of the heavens.


Produced by: Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill, Brad Pitt

Written by: Terrence Malick

Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Production Designer: Jack Fisk

Edited by: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa

Music by: Alexandre Desplat