‘The Tree of Life’: The Soul-Shaking Beauty and Pain of Terrence Malick’s Intimate Epic on Family, Nature, and Memory

Written by Adam Buffery. Photo credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace © Cottonwood Pictures, River Road Entertainment, Brace Cove Productions, Plan B Entertainment, Fox Searchlight, Twentieth Century Fox

There are things we say to strangers, there are things we say to family and friends, and, finally, there are things we say, privately, to ourselves or to God. Inner wishes that we dare not let anyone else in on, intimacies of our deepest desires, things just beyond our grasp that eat away at us until we have to say them to someone, even if that someone is ourselves or God. The deep, secret yearnings of the soul, manifestations of emotions not quite realized or understood. Messy ruminations we sometimes don’t want to share with others for fear they laugh in our face or sneer at our inner-thoughts as “half-thoughts,” as if a thought is only worthwhile if it’s checked and rechecked, properly cited, and baked to death. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s fifth feature in 38 years, isn’t full of squarely, reasoned-out answers. It’s a philosophical inquiry into the soul, and a meditation on mourning, as we follow a 1950s suburban Texas family, the O’Briens, hit by the loss of a son. The Tree of Life began in the 1970s as Malick’s mysterious passion project called “Q,” as he sent a few cinematographers around the world to take pictures of fantastic feats of nature. The Tree of Life is an intimate epic, a movie that jumps back and forth between the spirituality of the sky and the suburbia of the sprinkler and everything in between. Paul Ryan, no, not that Paul Ryan, who shot second unit on The Tree of Life, remarked in Bilge Ebiri’s 2011 piece for NY Mag, that producers at Paramount began getting nervous about “Q” because of a lack of schedule and script. “Some people had criticized Days of Heaven for not having enough of a story,” says Ryan, “but Terry would say, ‘I want to go more in that direction.’ He was interested in a non-narrative style, the cinematic equivalent of how, say, Beethoven had structured his symphonies.” It would be this non-narrative style, which would define Malick’s films since The Tree of Life, bringing Malick’s current reputation, to some, to that of a pretentious has-been who has substituted story for spectacular images, making him a full-blown, cover your ears, “art-house” director. The default position on Malick these days is that he’d do well to hire a proper screenwriter, but of course this rigid sense of what movies are or should be constricts the boundless art of cinema. There are not many more divisive filmmakers working today, as Malick, a former philosophy professor at MIT, Heidegger translator, and freelance journalist, has been banished to the land of paper-thin stories, a place where it’s always magic-hour and characters whisper pretentious nothings to each other and the wind. Even to some ardent cinephiles, his latest movies, To the Wonder, Song to Song, and Knight of Cups, are deeply lacking in substance and masturbatory in their use of Lubezki’s magical camera. These movies saw Malick moving even further away from an overarching, plotted story in favor of his Tree of Life style of capturing moments, moods, and feelings.

The Tree of Life is Malick’s most personal movie by far, as Malick is a Texas native, had a domineering father, and lost his brother. Production designer Jack Fisk, who is known for his work with Malick, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson, and has worked with Malick on all his movies after they met at the American Film Institute, noted that he was “shocked by how personal the story was when I first read it.”

It starts as a hymn, a prayer and a whisper of beautiful singing, and right from the beginning the movie unfurls its notion of duality, the way of nature and the way of grace, as Jessica Chastain’s voiceover acclimates us to this fairyland of 1950s American suburbia. Brad Pitt and sons join in on the bliss and playing, the family racing in the sunlit streets, dogs at play, with words like “love is shining through all things” blessing our ears. An orgasmic beginning that quickly turns on a dime into an almost Saving Private Ryan moment of envelope delivering bad news to a mother, played by Chastain. Pitt, sporting a good ole boy’s crew cut with the most earnest-dad glasses he’s ever worn, picks up a phone call at work to hear the same bad news. The record scratches and the music stops. One of their three sons, R.L., has died.

 
We then see the eldest son, Jack, as a grown man, played by Sean Penn. Right from the word go, grown-up Jack is trapped in his greyness, and in his too-perfect home, wondering how he got stuck in an issue of Architectural Digest. You get the sense that Penn’s mind is elsewhere, or that he’d like to be elsewhere, and he seems to be looking for some imaginary outside world like a depressed version of Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. He’s not sure how he ended up this way, and the movie unfolds as the elder Jack flips through his memories of growing up, dealing with his present by looking through his and his family’s past. Most of the movie takes place in flashbacks, and as it goes along we stick closer to young Jack’s perspective as he deals with his demanding father and the natural boyish whims of growing up.

There is a clear distinction between the two parents, as Chastain represents angelic grace and Pitt represents nature in all its unpredictable messiness, and this dichotomy takes a hold of the family in dramatic, universal ways.

To deliver her sublime performance of a mother as grace, Malick asked Chastain to watch Lauren Bacall movies, as she discussed in an interview with Collider: “Well, it’s funny, Terry actually asked me to watch a lot of Lauren Bacall films because he said, and I think it’s absolutely true, he said, ‘Modern day,’ and especially me, I do this a lot when I’m in a group, ‘Talk really, really fast. We have this kind of frenetic energy about us because it’s as though we’re all afraid we’re going to get interrupted.’ So we really want to say what we have to say, so wetalkreallyfastbeforesomeoneinteruptsme and we do interrupt each other a lot. And in watching the Lauren Bacall films there really is this quality of this sort of slow and easy and almost from another, well it is from another, time. So I watched a lot of that to soak into my head, especially for the voiceovers. It was kind of this even, slow, salt of the earth tone that she has.”

 
Chastain and the boys, who never acted before, hung out two weeks before shooting started to foster their relationship, and they’ve remained close over the years as the boys still relate to her as a mother figure, even sending her mother’s day cards. Only Tye Sheridan, the brother with the least amount of screen time, has acted since The Tree of Life, and he’s turning out to have quite a promising career, most recently playing the lead in Spielberg’s Ready Player One.

Malick’s filmmaking process has become a major talking point in itself through the years, as his method of creating spaces for accidents to happen is truly unique. Jack Fisk describes a bit of Malick’s approach in a superb 2016 interview with Film Comment: “He tells me about the characters and what he needs. And he wants to be a little surprised—it excites him not to know. It’s just like the way he works with actors, giving them a little bit of dialogue at a time. You know, he’ll take people off the street and just throw them into a scene. That haphazard sort of ‘found’ quality is exhilarating to him. It’s the same thing with the sets. He’ll show up to an area that he hasn’t seen. And somehow, just dealing with that informs and invigorates the scene that he wants to shoot there. The unknown is sometimes more exciting than the known. If it’s too well-planned, sometimes you don’t respond the same and you don’t take advantage of what you’re given. You go with preconceived ideas and it leaves out a certain amount of life—it may bring in life in another way, but you lose that spontaneity.”

Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s go-to cinematographer, never read the entire script. He explains why in the highly recommended book All Things Shining: An Oral History of the Films of Terrence Malick by Paul Maher Jr., noting that his previous movie with Malick, The New World, informed his working methods on this one: “I learned on the previous movie that when I read the script, I get very anxious that we’re not getting all the material. That’s my small producer side (coming out) on something like that. So it was liberating for me not to read the script and only read the pages that we were going to shoot a week or three days before, and prepare as little as possible. I almost didn’t prep the movie.” Lubezki studied the lighting of Vermeer paintings as the movie is shot with natural light, meaning that Fisk’s production team had to cut holes in the ceiling and add windows to the O’ Brien’s house to let the proper light in. Production cycled through three different houses, in Smithville, Texas for principal shooting depending on the direction of the sun, and other shooting locations include the California redwood forest, Utah salt flats, a house in Austin where grown-up Jack lives, and an office in Houston where grown-up Jack works.

 
Malick and Lubezki capture the fairytale magic of childhood in the rural South with delightful delicacy and charm, offering a complete picture of the Americana family dream that comes crashing down. A world of upside-down shadows dancing like giants and butterflies landing on fingertips, a fantasyland which sometimes feels and looks like heaven, how can such a place turn so empty and dark so effortlessly fast?

These childhood events are the stuff of legend for a kid, and the movie flows from moment to moment and plays like flipping through a collection of their family diaries. Slow, hazy, uncertain summer days of endless possibilities and discoveries, each one feeling like an epic with sunshine spreading time as far as the eye can see. Days divided up by playing and supper and chores, open fields, and shooting BB guns.

Lubezki said of the cinematography, in an interview with Collider, that it was intended to evoke memory in a unique way: “Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance. We’re using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It’s meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume.”

This explains why the movie seemingly hides faces in moments that otherwise would be a shiny Hollywood close-up. Memory doesn’t work like a Hollywood movie, we remember glimpses and splashes of events, and the camera of our mind is not always pointed in the right or best direction. Lubezki makes these familial moments feel absolutely lived-in and real, using his expertise in turning image into direct emotion. We feel like we’re witnessing someone else’s memory, which in turn may or may not trigger and provoke our own memories of childhood or raising kids. Lubezki, as quoted in Maher Jr.’s book, said of their shooting style: “We joke that we are like fishermen. We are trying to get little bits from a river that is constantly flowing. Sometimes you catch one or two, and sometimes you don’t. It’s very nerve-wracking.”

 
The Tree of Life gives a sense of the rhythm of nature, with nature serving as its own uncompromising character upon which all other characters depend. The nature in the movie absorbs you in awe, and it holds a weight close to that of “the force” in Star Wars. Those aren’t just clouds, that isn’t just a tree, and those aren’t just billions and billions of stars. There’s more to it than that. Nature is perhaps the strongest force in all of Malick’s movies, and is at its strongest point in The Tree of Life as Malick opens up the history of the heavens and lets us see all. Dinosaurs, sparkling atoms of evolution, the swaying ways of waves and trees and grass, the sun turning kids into shadows, dancing leaves and gigantic sunflowers, all of it, and all of us, living and breathing and spinning in space together.

Bilge Ebiri wrote a fantastic piece on the editing of this massive epic, as he chronicles the several editors who worked on the movie and took turns of three months each to edit it. Highly recommended reading.

Malick knows that by making our questions the focus of this dive into spiritual matters he would be clanging against the universal walls of all of our souls. When we ask questions we sometimes sound like children, and Malick brilliantly captures child-like wonder and innocence in The Tree of Life.

“When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés,” Malick said in a 1975 interview with Sight & Sound, referring to Sissy Spacek’s narration in Badlands. “That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them.”

 
The narration switches between old and young Jack, and his mother, but the content, or maturity, of the narrations doesn’t change much. Malick presents the inner dialogues of adults the same as he does children, suggesting that tucked away deep in all of us is our perplexed, inquisitive inner-child, still trying to make sense of everything.

The narration forms a dialogue with us, the audience, and God, and it is this unique, divisive style of narration that makes Malick the Socratic prince of filmmaking. His filmmaking, The Tree of Life on, is an act of probing and capturing, not plotting.

Malick overflows The Tree of Life with such beauty and reverence for the wonder of all things natural, it makes God’s silence all the more damning. Is God an amoral artist, simply splashing his best and brightest creations onto a canvas only to forget that his creations have to live, breathe, and suffer? Is God evil? Indifferent? Although Malick offers no real answers to any of these questions, he injects The Tree of Life with a massive sense of perspective, hinting that perhaps above all else, perspective is king. It’s a unique movie in its level of intimacy coupled with epic scale, two scales floating in perfect harmony, as Malick doesn’t merely cut back and forth between the universal and the ultimately personal, he puts them in discourse with one another. There is an especially epic moment during the creation sequence when “Lacrimosa,” by the great Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, blasts some holiness through our ears, echoing the sheer power of nature down our spines, and invoking God in a monumentally powerful way.

On Malick’s ride through the origins of the universe, made with the consultation of NASA and crafted by the legendary special-effects man Douglas Trumbull, most famous for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, we see the big bang and the creation of life. We see amoebas, dinosaurs and their extinction, man strolling around glass-walled skyscrapers, and flashes of the living and dead playing on a beach together, showing that life, in all its variations, moves on.

 
There is a most tender moment at the end, when Chastain seems to offer her lost child to God, during the fantasy sequence on a beach where past meets present, as this masterpiece of mourning ends on a note close to acceptance. Destruction is met with creation and everything will keep moving forward, even if the uncertainty of the present moment is damn near maddening. The cosmic painter will keep painting, the universe will keep evolving, and the tree of life will keep growing, even if there’s no one left to climb it.

We are the ant who looks up every now and then to find a mysterious shoe-eclipse, we are the dog barking at his own reflection, we are the goldfish forever wondering who plopped us into this fishbowl. So we wonder how we got here, why do some of us suffer through “life lessons” while others earn never-ending pay-checks? Why are some of us famous while others forgotten, why do we seem so ill-adapted and longing for “something else,” while the trees, animals, and oceans flow harmoniously in unspoken ways? We try our hardest to adapt, we’ve even managed to leave our planet a bit, but doing so has made us no more certain of our situation. Even with the added bonuses of science, math, Elvis, Dostoyevsky, Kubrick, and Twitter, we remain in the dark throwing giant question marks at the sky.

Written by Adam Buffery. Born in 1990, Adam grew up on musicals, thanks to his Israeli mom and British dad, and wanted to be Gene Kelly after seeing Singin’ in the Rain. He would like to thank Spielberg and John Williams for giving him a lifetime fear of sharks. Adam’s favorite filmmaker is Paul Thomas Anderson, and he recently moved to Los Angeles where he’s writing his first feature film. Read more »

 
Screenwriter must-read: Terrence Malick’s screenplay for The Tree of Life [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection, with a new extended version of the film featuring an additional fifty minutes of footage. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Exploring The Tree of Life, a 2011 documentary featuring collaborators and admirers of Malick’s, including filmmakers David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and other collaborators who give a more personal look into the film.

 

EMMANUEL “CHIVO” LUBEZKI, ASC, AMC

“Terrence Malick is a master whose unique sensibility is behind films like Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC, the grandson of a Russian-born actress who emigrated to Mexico to escape the Bolshevik revolution, made a splash with Like Water for Chocolate, and went on to photograph Y Tu Mamá También, A Little Princess, Ali, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Burn After Reading, and Children of Men, which earned him a BAFTA Award in 2006.” —The Meaning of Life, Emmanuel Lubezki

“At a press conference after The Tree of Life premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it fell to the producers and lead actors to explain the film. Not surprisingly, director Terrence Malick, who is known to shun all personal publicity, was absent. Brad Pitt, who produced and stars in the movie, was asked about his experience working on the film. ‘It’s changed everything I’ve done since,’ he said. ‘The best moments were not preconceived; they were not planned. I’ve tried to go more in that direction.’ The Tree of Life went on to win the festival’s top honor, the Palme d’Or. Malick’s unique approach to filmmaking appears to have left a similar mark on his other collaborators, starting with director of photography Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, ASC, AMC. ‘You learn so much by watching an artist like Terry at work,’ says Lubezki. ‘For me, he has been an extraordinary film teacher and much more.’ The cinematographer counts himself fortunate to have worked on three of Malick’s films; they first teamed on The New World, and after wrapping The Tree of Life they embarked on another feature, as yet untitled, that will be released next year.” —American Cinematographer: Cosmic Questions

 
Among the wealth of supplemental material on Criterion’s new edition of The Tree of Life is an interview with visual-effects supervisor Dan Glass, who offers a glimpse into the complex process that went into creating the film’s singularly spectacular images. Glass gives an overview of the scale of the work: four different companies were brought on to realize the bulk of the special effects, using a combination of practical and digital methods, with the astrophysical material in particular requiring a great deal of hands-on experimentation.

 
“No one expects a musician to play a song the same way every night.” It was this impulse to explore different rhythms and intonations in an already completed work, says Criterion’s executive producer Kim Hendrickson, that led the visionary director Terrence Malick to dive into reediting one of his most acclaimed films, 2011’s The Tree of Life. The three-hour-plus version he ultimately came up with—just released as part of Criterion’s new edition, which features the theatrical cut that remains Malick’s preferred form—includes fifty minutes of never-before-seen footage. For fans wondering how this all came about, here’s a look at the process behind one of the most complex and challenging projects we’ve ever undertaken.

On the photo below, boxes of Tree of Life footage.

 
Actual copy of Terrence Malick’s notice to projectionists courtesy of Aphelis.

 
Legendary American film director and special effects luminary, innovator, and entrepreneur, Douglas Trumbull discusses his vision behind the special effects used in The Tree of Life.

 

TERRENCE MALICK: VOICEOVER ARTIST

Scott Tobias and Kevin B. Lee explored the history and evolution of Terrence Malick’s use of voiceover in his films: “The video below traces Malick’s evolution as a voiceover artist, and the creative ways he’s found to innovate with the form while accommodating the specific needs of each individual film. The fundamental value of Terrence Malick’s films is in how they remind us that everything happens in the larger context of the natural world. The voiceover in Days Of Heaven unshackles the director from the humdrum business of over-the-shoulder shots and melodramatic confrontation, and widens the frame to bigger observations about the period and the astonishing beauty captured by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler’s cameras. Malick didn’t pick up the thread until he made The Thin Red Line two decades later, but it changed the way he made movies, and changed the way movies could be made.” —Terrence Malick: voiceover artist

 
A Spacetime Odyssey is the third chapter of The Directors Series’ examination into the films and career of director Terrence Malick, covering his pair of expansive forays into the mysteries of our cosmic existence: The Tree of Life and Voyage of Time. This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Cameron Beyl.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Photographed by Merie Weismiller Wallace © Cottonwood Pictures, River Road Entertainment, Brace Cove Productions, Plan B Entertainment, Fox Searchlight, Twentieth Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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