“Toscanini once recorded a piece [of music] sixty-five times. You know what he said when he finished?” the stern, often mean Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) says to his son eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) in Terrence Malick’s“The Tree of Life” (2011) and once again in “The Tree Of Life (Extended Version)” (2018). “‘It could be better,’ he answers before pausing for effect, “Think about it.”
Malick, presumably modeled after Jack’s character in the film, may have been talking to a version of himself through his father played by a world-famous actor—‘Tree Of Life’ is intensely autobiographical—but he may also have been unintentionally reaffirming his own manifesto. Something can always be better, one can always work to better or tweak a piece of art.
That said, this new version of Malick’s rapturous pièce de résistance is no George Lucas or Francis Ford Coppola-esque overhauling of a classic, and more of an ongoing noodling. While the Criterion Collection release this month of “The Tree Of Life“— which comes with a new cut of the movie made exclusively for the boutique label’s Blu-Ray and DVD edition of the film— insists that the 2011 theatrical cut of the movie is the director’s preferred version, this is, in some ways, the fourth iteration of the movie. That is, if you cheat a little and count the two versions of “Voyage Of Time”— Malick’s IMAX Discovery Channel-like documentary about the creation of the universe lifted right out of (and expanded from) the creation of the universe segments from “The Tree Of Life” (incidentally, the second version of “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” has never been officially released*).
The point is, Terrence Malick likes to tinker and toy with his art. He’s done it already in a very similar fashion with 2005’s “The New World” (of which there are three cuts of on the 2016 Criterion release), and he’ll likely do it again. Maybe even one day with “The Tree Of Life”** Perhaps for Malick, you need sixty-five-odd tries before being fully satisfied with something. And or you can’t let go. Or, you just like to continue to play and evolve with art. Maybe a little bit of all of the above?
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“The Tree Of Life” is Terrence Malick’s longtime coming magnum opus; an epic tone poem about life, love, loss and the creation of the universe that he’d been working on, or incubating in his mind, since his two-decades-long hiatus from cinema and public life that began around 1980 (it was then known as “Q”). It’s a masterpiece. It’s also frustrating, difficult, uneven; not quite the masterwork of divinity we had all hoped for and yet, still a powerful, towering piece of cinema that would go on to win the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (though feeling like more of a lifetime achievement award rather than a full-blown hands-down victory; such is the complexities of juries).
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So, “The Tree Of Life” Extended Version? Well, first off, if you’ve come to experience a radical recut of the movie, newly reinstated actors who were left on the cutting room floor (ala “The Thin Red Line” or “To The Wonder“), or a secretly hidden masterpiece always living inside of ‘Tree Of Life’ somewhere, you’ve come to the wrong place. For the most part, “The Tree Of Life” is the same movie, with even the same scenes and same order (though this is much easier to tell once you rewatch the original). What Malick has done has added new scenes, extended previously-seen sequences and given the film a different rhythm and flow.
In case you’re somehow unaware at this point, “The Tree Of Life,” is a luminous story tracing childhood, wonder, and loss while contemplating space and time. It follows the journey of Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest son in a family of five through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a challenging relationship with his strict, bullying father (Brad Pitt). Primarily set on the anniversary of his brother’s death—though taking place in several timelines and fragments of memory— the adult Jack (Sean Penn) finds himself looking back at his life and family; a lost soul seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the faith that guided him as a child. Through Malick’s inimitable visual bravura and beauty, the audience sees how brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only Jack and his brothers but also all life on earth.
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Watching the new version of “The Tree Of Life” is an enthralling and ultimately exhausting experience. Watching the film engenders a sensation of déjà vu; much of the new sequences seem like fragments of things you’ve sworn you’ve experienced before, which perhaps speaks to how organic the new elements are. And watching “The Tree Of Life,” back to back with the original theatrical cut is also a bit of a head-trip, an experience that makes the initial version somewhat rushed and disjointed in comparison and the new one less mysterious.
On the next page, I’m going to get into more detailed, granular changes between the new version and the old version.
Watched closely, “The Tree Of Life” is like an orchestral suite that’s parsed over 7, maybe 8, movements depending on how you see the film (this is somewhat subjective, and at the same time, the film does fade to black several times to designate new chapters that seem to always start fresh with a new theme). To my personal reading, the original is roughly 7 movements, and the extended version is only 8, just an added adjunct suite rather than something much different, with expanded sections throughout. I’ll label them as such and as “chapters” just to make it simpler (and please excuse the pretentions here, none of this is official).
Chapter 1 – GRIEF
Chapter 2 – CREATION
Chapter 3 – LOVE
Chapter 4 – FATHER
Chapter 5 –MOTHER (NEW)
Chapter 6 –WHEN FATHER WAS AWAY ON BUSINESS
Chapter 7 –THE RETURN
Chapter 8 – GRACE (THE AFTERLIFE)
What’s fascinating about “The Tree Of Life (Extended Version”) is how the most memorable sequences of the film are largely the same in retrospect, but how much of it still feels new and alive. Chapter 2 (CREATION), the most famous section of the film with its awestriking creation of the universe interlude and Chapter 8 – the crescendo-ing and spiritual the Hereafter Beach (GRACE) where the O’Brien’s of all ages and their friends and families are reunited in a kind of luminous afterlife paradise.
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These movements are the most abstract moments of the film, perhaps the one that aggravated the less lenient filmgoer, maybe not accustomed to Malick’s ephemeral cadences. And they are virtually unchanged. Creation feels like such a long, expansive interregnum in the original ‘Tree Of Life.’ “Where did the story go?” the viewer asks. And yet, in the new version, compared to the expansion of the rest of the film, creation feels much smaller, dwarfed by the family, and their wounding dysfunctions.
CREATION is more or less exactly 17 minutes in each version of the film, a metaphoric abstraction of the movie’s “there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow” theme (sorry, no new dinosaurs). GRACE is about a minute and a half longer in the extended cut give or take, but it’s curious to see Malick leave the most famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) sections of the film unchanged.
The most significant changes in the film arrive in the first section, Chapter 1 (GRIEF). It’s where the O’Brien’s learn their middle child R.L. has died (played by Laramie Eppler as a boy), and the elder Jack (Penn), decades later, continues to grapple with his grief and inconsolable sense of loss —but they are minor in the grander scope of the film. In the original version, Sean Penn gets all of 8 minutes to himself (the actor was notoriously perturbed how little screen time he ultimately received), not including the brief, fleeting moments where he appears throughout the film and the film’s conclusion. In the Extended Version, his opening introduction gets a 12-minute treatment (note: cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once said a “whole other movie” about Sean Penn’s character could be made from the footage that was cut from the original theatrical version of the film. But don’t get your hopes up. This ain’t it).
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Overwhelmed by the vacuousness of his job and the modern world on the anniversary of his brother’s death, Penn’s Jack leaves the office and goes on a field trip of sorts. He wanders through a zoo, a botanical garden, and a natural history museum, all the while accompanied by an unidentified blonde woman (women) who he appears to be having an affair with (Pell James; and also Lisa Marie Newmyer***). There’s also a brief, darkening nightmare section where Penn’s character is chased and choked by a giant and a bunch of gangbangers on what appear to be the downtown streets of Austin, Houston, Dallas or wherever these scenes in Texas were shot. This section then leads to the Creation of Time, just like in the original film.
But despite these nice little new details, the film’s three most defining sections (GRIEF, CREATION, GRACE) have stayed the same. It’s the rest of the movie that’s changed… somewhat. In simplest terms, if you watched “The Tree Of Life” back in 2011, admired the film, but wished the movie focused a little bit more on the family, their connections, bonds and ultimately, emotional breakdowns, the Extended Version is for you… until it’s not. You have to be careful about what you wish for.
The new ‘Tree Of Life” expands its sense of love, grace, and family. It also spends a great deal of time re-underscoring just how bitter and resentful Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien is and how much Jack suffers through his father’s instinctual, sometimes cruel nature. LOVE, the O’Brien’s falling in love and discovering the wonder and joys of their babies as they grow to become young boys—is not much different either. It’s Chapter 4 – FATHER, a brief new CHAPTER 5 – MOTHER, and the interlinked CHAPTERS 6 & 7 (BUSINESS; THE RETURN), where the most prominent alterations occur.
As it was in the original, FATHER centers on Mr. O’Brien’s cynicism and sourness at life and the raw deal he feels he’s been dealt. “The world lives by trickery, if you want to succeed, you can’t be too good,” he cautions his boys, a theme echoed several times: don’t let people walk over you.
There’s also a new scene with his father, a kind man he believed who was too naïve and taken advantage of. “I took my father for granted. He was a sweet man, I thought he was weak,” Pitt’s O’Brien says before noting that he has “left him in the street to die,” though it’s unclear if he’s being literal. This movement also fleshes out the small part in the film where Jack nurses a crush on a cute, quiet girl in his classroom, and the sadness these scenes have.
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Lovingly devoted to Jessica Chastain‘s Mrs. O’Brien, this newly added 10-minute section focuses on her family coming to visit, including a never-seen-before brother. MOTHER centers on what are essentially family chats—Mrs. Obrien’s mother (Fiona Shaw) returns again, following her appearance in Chapter 1, discussing how marriages deteriorate over time (“love fades, passion goes”) and her brother who comes for a visit. The latter is fairly illuminating with Mrs. O’Brien essentially complaining in frustration over her difficult husband. “Nobody likes him,” she says of his co-workers adding how he pushes people away and “turns people against him.” She also notes how he hasn’t paid taxes in three years and is thinking about getting a job. “He’s a good provider though,” she says, seemingly catching herself with too much negativity.
Later, she reveals to her brother, “I thought I would never marry, and no one would love me. I was wrong.” The extended moments with her brother are very telling. As the uncle to the boys, he’s extremely playful and fun; a refreshing source of male adoration and affection, a respite from their unsmiling, demanding dad. Mr. O’Brien becomes jealous and then essentially chases him off, making him feel unwanted by castigating him for a lack of job and thinking he can simply tour into their household and amuse the children.
WHEN FATHER WAS AWAY ON BUSINESS
This movement segues into dad’s absence—the section of the movie where Pitt’s character leaves, and Jack breaks bad and goes on an utterly destructive jag. One extended scene of destruction—and there are seemingly lots of them—shows Jack and his brothers breaking into someone’s house, damaging it and even pretending to live in it. The house, it seems, belongs to one of Jack’s friends and the next scene, an entirely new one, finds the same pal of Jack’s physically abused and harmed by his father (Ben Chaplin from “The Thin Red Line.”).
There’s also the centerpiece of the movie which is a gigantic storm and tornado that besieges their home and neighborhood. The aftermath, garbage, trees and flotsam, and jetsam strewed around is also quite evocative; the boys are shown playing with a dead fish, and an old man details how 114 people died in the storm.
This is, by far, the most significantly extended act. The problem is, it becomes distended. By the second hour mark, “The Tree Of Life,” begins to drag, expressing variations on the same sentiments, feelings and ideas—Pitt as a stern jerk, Jack becoming more and restless and rebellious due to his father’s influence—and you still know there’s an hour to go.
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Further extended herein in BUSINESS is Jack… doing a lot of bad shit again and again. Mischief would be one way to describe it if it didn’t’ feel so rancorous and aggrieved; a swirl of hatred and sadness within self-destructive behavior. A new school sequence is supplemented here as well: Mrs. O’Brien comes to class and learns just how poorly adjusted Jack is becoming, how poor he’s doing in his studies and how disinterested he seems. These are essentially the origin moments of how Jack became so spiritually adrift and lost as the adult we see in Sean Penn’s version.
“He wouldn’t even complete his painting. He was afraid it might be wrong. I told him it can’t be wrong. He’s a good boy,” says one compassionate teacher to his mom in a heartbreaking scene. “He just seems to lack confidence. He doesn’t seem to hear my instructions.” Another teacher, older and much less forgiving reveals that Jack cheated on a test. “He disrupts the entire class, he cannot handle criticism,” he adds.
Before Act 7 – THE RETURN– aka Brad Pitt back on his bullshit and Jack destroying more shit, we get a glimpse of how the boys are drifting apart. The younger, more sensitive R.L. quiet puts his ears and face up to a tree, listening for “the words that’ll stop people from being mean.” With a grimace, Jack says, you know “I don’t hear that stuff anymore,” intimating how his innocence has long since faded away.
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THE RETURN is more of Pitt’s father character continuing to scold, reprimand, and give Jack a hard time. “I protected you as best I can. I didn’t get an education. You will. But I can redeem myself,” he says in a new scene of reproaching his son and once again explaining everything he has sacrificed for them. “You’re my freedom.”
“Just listen, son, you might actually learn something,” Mr. O’Brien says to Jack in a new scene where he continues to detail the sacrifices he’s made and strangely enough revealing he’s contracted hepatitis “from drinking unpasteurized beer in China.” This continues on until the movie’s final, most significant addition. The O’Brien’s send Jack away to a kind of more formal prep school an hour away. “We haven’t been good parents, or you wouldn’t be under all this tension. We should have set a better example,” Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien says to Jack in a kind of apology before being sent away. At this point in the movie, it’s underlined that Jack’s suffering from a kind of PTSD from his dad; he’s angry, troubled, the constant anxiety he’s endured has crippled his confidence and emotional state. Later on, Jack is seen away at his new boarding school with a new severer haircut and uniform. “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by,” his mother says in voice-over.
Perhaps this gives more context to the “shame” section of the film, where Pitt’s father finally realizes how hard he’s been on his kids and how it’s affected them (“Now I’m nothing. I lived in shame,” “I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory,” I’m a “foolish man”).
This is where “The Tree Of Life,” essentially concludes its essay about the difficulties of parenthood; wanting to protect and keep children safe, but the impossibilities of gauging if we’re pushing too soft or too hard on the gas pedal of instruction, teaching, guiding and coaching.
It’s beautiful, it’s heartrending, and the notion of wanting love, craving approval, hoping to impress the parents you idolize only to see them revealed as flawed, fallible, even weak mere mortals is a universally crushing experience. “The Tree Of Life” seems to suggest the degree to which our mothers and fathers wound us in childhood, and how much we accept or fail to recognize that disappointment, is commensurate with just how happy one can be in life. Of course, this all then fades into the last suite, the afterlife GRACE sequence, which as we’ve detailed early on, is essentially the same aside from few new insert shots here and there.
Less celestial and opaque, more linear and relatively easier to follow, and more emotionally involved, “The Tree Of Life” Extended Version is almost too much of a good thing. It’s an expanded vision of grief, grace and family—the same stream of conscience flow of emotions, and use of ephemeral memory to connect to the past, the loves and loss and life we experienced—but it ultimately wears out its welcome. Malick’s reimagined film is essentially the same: an envelopingly epic and gorgeously sad look at life through the macrocosmic and microcosmic lens of God, his creations, and their evolution as seen through the eyes of one loving, but troubled, family. It’s a superior version to “The Tree Of Life,” until, it’s not. It’s masterful, sometimes maddening sonata, and perhaps one that Malick will keep playing with until the end of his time. [B/B+]
(*Voyage Of Time footnote: both versions of the film were shown at film festivals in 2016, but after “Voyage Of Time” the 45-minute IMAX version narrated by Brad Pitt bombed theatrically, Broad Green Pictures seemed to renege on the idea of releasing “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey” as narrated by Cate Blanchett and throwing good money after bad)
(**Another ‘Tree Of Life’ version? Terrence Malick has been asking about a technology that allows viewers to watch a more random, lava-lamp-like version of the film on DVD where it flows arbitrarily. So if that technology ever does appear, one should probably expect Malick to go fishing again).
(***There’s also possibly an additional shot of Kari Matchett who is listed as playing Jack’s ex in the original film, though I didn’t find her on a recent look).
For extra credit, check out these extensive pieces on the making of Malick’s “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The New World” and “The Thin Red Line.”