The Tree of Life: “A film we’ll never stop talking about”

In scale alone it’s the extra of the year: Criterion UK’s new release of Terrence Malick’s 2011 Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life comes with a bonus disc featuring a completely new cut of the film. From start to finish, Malick was the driving force behind the re-edit – but don’t call it a director’s cut. That would wrongly imply the version released in cinemas wasn’t to Malick’s satisfaction. Rather, he considered it an interesting experiment to create an alternate version, likening the process to a musician playing a different version of a song live.

Nobody could argue there isn’t the raw material for it. The Tree of Life is perhaps the most ambitious film in Malick’s never-unambitious back catalogue, its narrative stretching back from its hero’s childhood into the creation of the universe, forward from the present day into what might be heaven. For the film’s substantial fan club, a 188-minute version certainly sounds like paradise. For non-converts to the church of Malick, it will surely provide further fuel for the charges of self-indulgence and waywardness that have dogged his later films.

You have to actually argue in favour of Malick’s films nowadays, and as a fan – though not an uncritical one – that suits me down to the ground. Upon release a lot of people simply swooned over The Tree of Life, drinking in Emmanuel Lubezki’s swooping, wide-angled camera, Jessica Chastain’s beatific performance – she literally floats in one shot – and the general awesome scale of the thing. It’s a completely understandable response, and it remains valid to enjoy the film purely as a sensory, poetic pleasure.

But when the only argument in favour of a film is “it’s lovely”, the counterargument – “it’s not” – writes itself. One group of British film critics held a quiz night where quotes from The Tree of Life’s whispered, wistful voiceover were mixed in with quotes from The Little Book of Calm, and the audience was challenged to tell one from the other. I do find that quite funny, but it has to be pointed out that Malick is making a dramatic fiction, not a self-help book. Ever since his debut, Badlands, Malick has understood the power of pitting voiceover against images, and The Tree of Life is no exception.

Many critics assumed the opening voiceover – contrasting “the way of nature” with “the way of grace” – was Malick’s manifesto, and perhaps it is. But “grace”, in that opening sequence, is illustrated with a cut between a summer sky and a sunflower. They are certainly graceful images, but they’re also images of the natural world. The implication is that true peace comes from resolving the dialectic, finding the grace in nature and the nature in grace. The furthest the movie gets from nature, after all, is the huge glass and steel building Sean Penn’s Jack works in. It might have no trace of the dog-eat-dog natural world represented by Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien, but it’s also hard to see anything spiritually nourishing in it.

The new cut adds significant extra information about both Mr. O’Brien and Jack, but only the former can be called an unqualified triumph. We learn more about Mr. O’Brien’s character, his formative years and his father – a character completely absent from the original release. It deepens the sense of violence and despair as being passed down between generations. The increased specificity of the new cut improves the depiction of Penn’s Jack in some ways. It’s possible to work out which of the O’Brien children grows up to be him, which was notoriously difficult in the theatrical version. On the other hand, the depiction of his successful but empty life – all masked women and extramarital affairs – adds an unwelcome touch of Knight of Cups.

Still, the purpose of the new cut is not to be definitive, but different. Upon hearing it was some fifty minutes longer than the theatrical cut I wondered if Malick had simply spliced in Voyage of Time, the mid-length IMAX documentary that grew out of the prehistoric segment of The Tree of Life. But no – the whole film has been thoroughly reworked from beginning to end, in the process confirming its fans’ suspicions that there are great, untold stories hidden in its jump cuts and walk-on parts. In his excellent accompanying video essay, Matt Zoller Seitz wonders if it’s even possible to finish a film like The Tree of Life. What can be said for certain is that we’ll never stop talking about it.

TREE OF LIFE IS OUT NOW FROM THE CRITERION COLLECTION

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