At 139 minutes, The Tree of Life is already a substantial movie. The culmination of a dream project which hailed from the 1970s when it was entitled Q, Terrence Malick’s film finally premiered at Cannes in 2011 where – despite winning the Palme d’Or – it was immediately divisive: with some decrying the Emperor’s nudity, while others hailed it as a masterpiece. I was in the latter camp – though his recent output has chipped away at this judgment – so it was with some trepidation that I approached the new Extended Edition, prepared for release as part of the Criterion Collection. At over three hours (188 mins), the film introduces a significant portion of new material while also altering the rhythm and length of existing scenes. Criterion President Peter Becker insists that “Terry doesn’t see this as a director’s cut,” with the theatrical version remaining the official director’s cut. So what is this cut? What are the differences? And how does it compare to the original? Well, I believe it is significantly better and here’s why.
Sean Penn, who plays adult Jack, famously railed against the theatrical version of the film to the French newspaper Le Figaro, grumbling: “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there.” Although not giving us much more, there are some significant additions to Jack’s scenes. We see him as less aloof, an adulterer, which links to his voyeuristic tendencies as a child. We also see him in various settings: at the beach – hinting at the film’s finale – the zoo, an art gallery, in a palm house and in front of a mural of early man. All of these elements set up a line to ‘the creation of the universe and life on Earth’ sequence. Likewise, his presence at a party where women wear masks connects to the floating mask we see right at the end of the film, which in the original cut felt random. Jack’s sympathetic encounter with a homeless person also continues something we will see in Jack as a child, or more accurately his mother. Finally, towards the end of the film, we will see Jack return home, where his teenage son is sitting studying. The effect of these changes is to make Jack an actual character – a father and husband who shares his father’s faults – rather than simply a dour expression, ambling aimlessly from metaphorical to an actual desert. As a human being, his continuity with young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is much more obvious and the whole section more meaningful. To answer Penn’s complaint, I can now see why he is there.
Jessica Chastain’s performance as Mrs. O’Brien was rightly seen as one of the strengths of the film. In the new version, we have more of the childhood section and therefore more of mom. We see her reading more books to the children – Beatrix Potter is added to The Jungle Book – and getting her finger caught in a food mixer, but the main change is the context of her own family around her. We see her mother (Fiona Shaw) criticizing Mr. O’Brien – ‘He’s a miser; he wouldn’t give you an egg’ – as well as her erratic (and mentally ill) brother, who is a cheerful and affectionate uncle to the kids but is jealously despised by Mr. O’Brien. Rather than an ideal embodiment of grace, here Mrs. O’Brien is again much more textured here. We learn of her love of science, the academic ambitions squandered by her marriage and see more of her concern for others.
Mr. O’Brien – a career-best performance from Brad Pitt – was already a complex figure in the original cut, but here we see more, and the character is further nuanced and rounded. The mixture of the domestic tyrant and the emotionally needy and jealous father becomes more apparent. In this version, scenes feel more like scenes, rather than being glimpsed moments, and so there’s more drama, and we hear more of O’Brien’s life philosophy as well as his fighting lessons with the boys. The difference in his treatment of Jack compared to younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler) is underlined. Seeing O’Brien interact with others – at work and with the extended family – also show him up as a man of superficial charm who is unable to connect with anyone he can’t control genuinely. And yet he has moments of emotional honesty that redeem him. There is a whole section where he reflects on the failure of his own father’s life, his admiration for him and sorrow at his fate. He also drinks a bottle of Tabasco sauce to amuse his kids, which is worth the price of admission alone.
In the original film, Jack’s two brothers R.L. and Steve (Tye Sheridan) are given more or less equal time, though the hints that R.L. will be the brother that dies at 19 years old lend his role more poignancy. In the new cut, the relationship between R.L. and Jack is given absolute precedence. Much of what we see is an extension of what exists in the original cut, but once greater depth is allowed, and simply the length of the childhood section gives a feeling of time stretching the way childhood does. His artistry, kindness and musical skill are also further emphasized. A major incident also sees the children hunker in a bunker with mom as a hurricane hits Austin, Texas, devastating their street. It seems to be one of the harbingers of the bad luck and tragedy that can creep into a life – see Job – regardless of the moral behavior, religion, etc. It also foreshadows the loss of R.L. which is the motivation for the whole film.
The new version gives us once more a fuller version of Jack’s character and provides many of the key moments of the original version with a lot more context. So for instance when Jack turns bad, he does so in the presence of a peer – a bad boy – who has a strong influence on him. We see Jack getting into a fight at school, and not being much good despite his father’s lessons. Jack also has his first crush as well as getting into trouble with his teachers. His poor performance means that his parents decide to send him away to a boarding school. Later, we will see him in uniform, noticeably older, but not unhappy in his new home. So the end of his childhood isn’t framed just by the leaving of his childhood home, but also by abandonment on the part of his family. One of the most interesting additions broadens and contextualizes the film. Jack visits a friend’s house. His mother seems to be an alcoholic, and the father (Ben Chaplin) is a brutal and abusive bully. In the original version, we saw an arguing family through the windows. This had the result of showing that domestic strife and Jack’s situation was nothing special in this period. But here we see that for all his faults, Mr. O’Brien is not this.
Taken as a whole the Extended Edition of The Tree of Life is a much more coherent and a deeper tale. Some might object that it robs the film of its poetic elusiveness, but for me, the poetry works much better when there’s some prose here and there. Also, the new version now resonates more strongly with Malick’s earlier work, in particular, Days of Heaven: the hurricane rhyming with the storm of locusts in his second film. It is one of the most significant alternative versions I have ever seen.
The Tree of Life Extended Edition was shown at the 75th Venice Film Festival, 2018 and is currently available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD later this year.