Legendary filmmaker’s timeless masterpiece joins the Criterion Collection
September 20, 2018
Terrence (Terry) Malick has always been noted as a poetic filmmaker, but never has this comparison been so literal as in his 2011 magnum opus “The Tree of Life.” Here, a story is told in reference to the story—a flashback of a flashback. Narrative is communicated in both borderless and isolated structures, maintaining not only the essence of memories but their structure as well.
The plot of “The Tree of Life” feels incidental to its overall poetic effect, so I’ll summarize it quickly. A man named Jack (Sean Penn) calls his parents to apologize about a callous remark about his late brother. Penn is seen scarcely over the remainder of the film, but we are transported to his childhood in Waco, Texas, before the death occurred.
“The Tree of Life” has finally been released by the Criterion Collection on Sept. 11 along with a surprise extended edition. Supposedly, this new director’s cut was originally conceived as an experiment in the home media format. Taking the listless structure of the theatrical release to its logical extreme, Malick envisioned a DVD version of the film that would play scenes in random order.
Dissenters of the film’s wispy quality could put to rest their hopes of an expanded narrative, since what Malick sets out to do with this cut expands the edges of his canvas. More context is given, some scenes are rearranged, but the brute impact of the film itself remains cemented in its core. The core, as it happens, is still ravishing.
“The Tree of Life” is a remarkable film, almost the apex of what cinema can achieve. Each shot holds not only the structure of a great photograph, but also the intangible heft. In contrast to the massive, glacial plot, these compositions rarely sit still and run at a velocity compelled by Emmanuel Lubezki’s theatrical cinematography. Camera movements flow at the pace of life, which is as indeterminable as time flying when you’re having fun, or a watched pot boiling.
In a new scene from this edition, Jack’s romantic triste at a natural history museum effortlessly transforms into an artfully rendered depiction of the dawn of humanity—neanderthals on display precede human dominance, then industry, which precedes the complex nature of the private home life of Jack’s family, the O’Briens. Everything is connected.
The most memorable and epic shots of the film are artistic renderings of the Big Bang and the cosmos. Misused, these effects could come across as garrish and aggrandizing—a cheap way of shoehorning existential drama. Alongside the foundational poetry of “The Tree of Life,” however, and accompanied by a magnificent classical score including “Lacrimosa 2” and Mahler, these scenes inspire awe in earnest.
The new edition of the film comes with a supplemental video outlining how Malick’s team used special effects to process the unprocessable—“from before we can remember,” to borrow the words of a young Jack. In order to visualize a land before time, you really have to rely on your best guess.
Therein lies the power of “The Tree of Life.” It shows an almost celestial, mind-bending take on even the most mundane of moments in “everyday” life.
The story of the O’Brien family is secondary, only the artist’s best guess at tapping into grief, envy, love. The final, breathtaking sequences seem to be a best guess at the spiritual, a vision of how a human can understand a collective energy or consciousness or conscience.
With “The Tree of Life,” Malick does not simply zoom in and zoom out. Whatever glimpses of narrative he gives us are, he insists, as epic and unfathomable as the most stubborn mysteries of the universe. A theme constantly expressed over the course of the film is the fleeting passage of time. At one point in the film, the O’Brien family listens to a Sunday sermon on the Book of Job that asks, “Is there nothing which is deathless?” The antidote, as understood by Jack’s mother, is to love.
Malick shows us time, he even shows us eternity. And in the film’s already iconic closing shots, we see love unlike love has ever been portrayed on screen.
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