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Will Terrence Malick Ever Really Finish The Tree of Life?

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Will Terrence Malick ever really finish The Tree of Life? The fascinating history behind the new Criterion edition of his masterpiece suggests he might not. The new Blu-ray/DVD release features two versions of the picture — the 139-minute, Oscar-nominated 2011 theatrical cut and a new, 188-minute extended edition. This longer edit, however, is not a “director’s cut,” although Malick himself prepared it.

As Criterion technical director Lee Kline recently described to Indiewire, the filmmaker had originally thought of using the “seamless branching” technology of DVD and Blu-ray to put hours of his footage on the disc and allow viewers to effectively watch a different version of the movie each time they saw it. “The idea was to take the additional footage and have it play randomly in different ways to create different story lines,” Kline said. “There’d be so many permutations of it you wouldn’t get the same story over and over.”

This jibes with some of the unorthodox methods Malick used to edit the film in the first place. Back in 2011, Billy Weber, a longtime Malick collaborator and one of the five credited editors on The Tree of Life, described it this way to me: “Terry is willing to try anything. Absolutely anything. Sometimes we’d cut a character out of a scene, or cut all the dialogue out of a scene, just to see if it worked. And when you’ve worked with him for any length of time, you can even try that without asking him about it first. He’s very open to looking at anything that you try.”

Weber recalled at the time that Malick even decided to open up the editing process to film students from USC and the University of Texas at Austin, noting that this was something he and Malick had thought about doing for a long time. “Kids don’t censor themselves — their brains are in a different place. So we had students give it a shot. And we’d have interns come in at night and cut scenes. And some of those people stayed on the movie the whole time!”

Malick is always looking for something unexpected, spontaneous, and alive in his work — even after it’s ostensibly finished. And while this plan to create constantly shifting, randomly generated new cuts of The Tree of Life was eventually shelved — it was impossible to guarantee that the technology would work properly on everybody’s player — I bet he will try again someday. Because in some ways, he’s still working on the movie, or at least on the decades-long cinematic project of which this film is now just one part.

When The Tree of Life was released in 2011, it marked the culmination — or so we thought — of a 30-plus-year quest: In the late 1970s, after finishing Days of Heaven, Malick had set out to make an enormously ambitious film about the origins of the universe. The project was for many years referred to as Q, reflecting one of several names it had during development. He put together a small team of cameramen, designers, and other experts to research and generate ideas for the new film. He sent camera crews around the world to shoot eclipses in Montana and lava at Mount Etna and microscopic jellyfish along the Great Barrier Reef. He researched mysterious sound patterns, and experimented with different formal and narrative strategies. (For anyone interested in a deeper dive into the Q project, I highly recommend Paul Maher Jr.’s excellent oral history book of Malick’s career, All Things Shining.)

The ambition and scope of Q presented plenty of challenges, but one of Malick’s biggest obstacles turned out to be his inability to nail the human story that would be the heart of his epic about time, space, and creation. At one point, he contemplated a second-half love story set thousands of years ago. At another point, he toyed with having the film end on humanity’s arrival. Over the years — particularly during his infamous 20-year absence from filmmaking between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line — other rumors, some likely untrue, filtered out about what the human story of Q might be. But by that point, the director had walked away from the project, and seemingly from cinema itself.

It was only years later that Malick figured out how to make that film — and he did so, it seems, by going in an unlikely direction for an artist known for being extremely private. He turned the camera on himself, figuratively speaking. The human story now became the tale of three brothers growing up with their angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) and disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt) in postwar Texas — a family much like the Malicks. As Weber put it at the time, “If you’re going to make a movie about life, it’s probably best to make it about your own life.”

As it happens, that element of the film is what this newer, longer cut of The Tree of Life — a marvel in its own right — expands upon, elaborating on some of the picture’s themes while also slightly shifting its focus. Malick has not tinkered much with the cosmological framing: The birth of the universe and the creation of the Earth, as well as its destruction, are still largely what we saw in the original release. (Phew.) The bulk of the new footage comes in the central section, as we see the young Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn as an adult, Hunter McCracken as a child) and his brothers growing up. With extra time spent with the family, the film has a bit more narrative shape, allowing us to delve further into the inner life of Mr. O’Brien (Pitt): We see recollections of his father, a door-to-door salesman who never got any respect from his employers and who died a sudden death. We also get a clearer idea of Mr. O’Brien’s sense of failure. He loves to talk to his kids about what a well-liked and esteemed man he is, but it’s evident now that he secretly wallows in self-doubt — that he is, in some senses, one of Malick’s perpetual losers.

One notable addition involves a visit from Jack’s uncle, Mrs. O’Brien’s brother, whom the kids adore and who seems to inspire their sense of play even as he tries to talk some sense into their dad about the way he disciplines his kids and treats his wife. Mr. O’Brien tells the younger man off, calling his brother-in-law an unemployable mooch and suggesting that the man has a nervous condition that has led to him being a failure at life. It’s a fascinating glimpse not just into the dynamics of Jack’s family, but also into Mr. O’Brien’s ideas about what constitutes a responsible citizen. Nervous, sensitive souls and broken people have always been at the heart of Malick’s cinema, and the twisted dance between gritty outward machismo and a chaotic inner life has informed his aesthetic since the very beginning of his career.

All these additions — including more psychological shading given to the character of Mrs. O’Brien (we learn now that she once thought she’d never marry, and that she wanted to get an education and build a career for herself) — make this new edition of The Tree of Life feel more like a family portrait and a coming-of-age film. And in some senses, even though it never abandons Malick’s impressionistic, collage-like style, this cut feels slightly more conventional: With almost an hour more footage given to exploring the human story, the cosmic sequences at the start and end of the film now feel more like bookends.

At the time of its original release, The Tree of Life was a triumph for Malick, garnering him worldwide acclaim and awards. But it also signaled a fascinating shift for him, as it resulted in a period of bewildering productivity. He had made four films in the 35 years leading up to it. He has made six since, with his latest, the historical drama Radegund, now wrapping up post-production. It’s almost as if the decision to go personal freed him to be more self-reflective in his stories. He followed The Tree of Life with To the Wonder (2013), about a failing marriage that bears some similarities to his own marriage in the 1980s and ’90s; and Knight of Cups (2016), about the rudderlessness and hedonism of a Hollywood screenwriter who has lost touch with his roots.

“He doesn’t like people to take pictures of him, but he’s exposing what seems to be so much of his life — or at least what I thought was so much of his life — that it shocked me that he would do that,” Malick’s longtime friend and production designer Jack Fisk said to me in an interview in 2015, noting that the “last couple of films have been autobiographical, almost.” While acknowledging that many of the incidents in Knight of Cups had probably been exaggerated for cinematic purposes, Fisk recalled that sometimes Malick would tell him about “how wild his life was back when we were younger … After Days of Heaven, when he checked out for a little bit, I think he’d seen and experienced some of that excess.” Asked why Malick might have been going in this more autobiographical direction, Fisk said he didn’t really know. “No one ever really knows what Terry is thinking, but I suppose some of it comes with age and reflection. You start thinking about what got you to where you are.”

That the protagonists of To the Wonder and Knight of Cups are extensions of Tree of Life’s Jack — and effectively of Malick himself — becomes clearer in this new extended edition as well, which offers more footage of Sean Penn as the grown-up Jack drifting through life in the wake of a divorce. There are now even glimpses of some dalliances with new women, in scenes that look like they could be outtakes from Knight of Cups. (Knowing the way Malick works, editing everything at once, they very well might be.)

Meanwhile, even as Malick has pursued the outward branches of the personal story that anchors Tree of Life, he’s also gone further toward the natural-history side of the project as well, in other works. In 2016, he released Voyage of Time, a 45-minute IMAX documentary narrated by Brad Pitt about the formation of life on Earth. At the same time, he also premiered a 90-minute, feature-length version of Voyage, this one with narration by Cate Blanchett, and interweaving rough, handheld video scenes of human communities and rituals around the world with lush, beautiful images of the world and earthly life being born. The two Voyages are extremely distinct from one another: They utilize different music, and flow to completely different rhythm. Pitt’s voice-over is functional; it’s eloquent, but mostly sticks to explaining the story of life as it develops onscreen. Blanchett’s voice-over, addressed seemingly to the Earth and the cosmos itself, is overtly poetic (”Mother, where have you gone? Why are you silent? … To you, all things flow back.”) The 40-minute Voyage of Time was widely acclaimed; the 90-minute version was savaged by critics upon its festival premieres and never got a proper theatrical release. (Don’t listen to them; it’s magnificent.)

And there may be yet another version of Voyage of Time. In a rare public appearance at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., last year, Malick himself suggested that he was still working on the film, and that he wanted to have a version without narration: “I keep wishing for no narration, but every distributor wants narration,” he told the audience, saying that he prefers for the viewer to “look at these things and have their own voice-over. There are certain things where you just don’t want to be bothered, like someone is nudging you when you hear voice-over. I like the idea of making it your own experience.”

If and when that new edition of Voyage of Time appears, it will take its place alongside this lovely, fascinating new version of The Tree of Life in Malick’s ongoing attempts to explore the cosmos and our place in it. But I sincerely doubt that either of them will be the final chapter of this project. Terrence Malick isn’t done with the world yet, and the world isn’t done with him.

Will Terrence Malick Ever Really Finish The Tree of Life?