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‘The Tree of Life’: Two Versions of Terrence Malick’s Masterpiece, Side by Side, and What Makes Them Different

In Criterion’s new version, released today, Malick used 49 minutes to delve more deeply into the cycle of toxic masculinity.

"The Tree of Life"

“The Tree of Life”

Criterion

Today, Criterion released “The Tree of Life” on DVD and Blu-Ray, a package that will include a new version of the film 49 minutes longer than the theatrical version. Director Terrence Malick opened up the edit not because he was prevented from releasing a better version of the film (New Line Cinema released his director’s cut in 2011), but because he wanted to continue that film’s creative process.

“What’s interesting talking to Terry about this [new version of ‘Tree of Life’], I think he still doesn’t want people to think this is a better version. This is another version,” Criterion technical director Lee Kline told us earlier this month. “He said, ‘No one asked Bob Dylan to play a song the same way every night. Why should I have to make one film?’”

So what’s in the new version? Here’s a summary based on having watched the two versions side-by-side.

The Tree of Life

“The Tree of Life”

Criterion

In the new, 188-minute “The Tree of Life,” new material comes in the form of new shots and scenes spread throughout the film. The two longest stretches of new material comes in the form two, eight-to-10 minute sections in the middle — one involving a visit from the family of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the other an expansion of what happens when Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) travels abroad and Chastain’s character is left alone with her sons.

There are new characters, but they mostly appear for one scene or section of the film. Uncle Ray (Jack Hurst), the brother of Mrs. O’Brien, comes floating through town and, like his sister, has a lightness and joy with her sons and problems with their oppressive father. We see glimpses of Mr. O’Brien’s deceased father, whose tragic end clearly shaped the man his son would become. Malick expands on young Jack’s (Hunter McCracken) relationship with one of the neighborhood boys — a background character in the original version — and his extremely troubled home life with a drunk mother (Robin Read) and violent father (Ben Chapin). And in the present-day wanderings of middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn), toward the beginning of the film, we see an expanded version of his life in the city (one that will remind some of Malick’s “Knight of Cups”) that includes two women (Pell James, Lisa Marie Newmyer) who aren’t his wife.

Add up all the new material and the bulk of the new scenes delve further into the cycle of masculinity that haunts the male characters through generations. Teenage Jack’s whispered voiceover narration (“Father… Mother… Always you wrestle inside me”) captured how in the original version the oldest son is caught between the lightness of his mother’s spiritual grace and his father’s tortured existence stemming from feelings of inadequacy. In the new version that push and pull still exists, but the new material reenforces that Jack will become his father. When Jack tells his father, “I’m more like you than her,” it’s something he has already seen for himself.

Hunter McCracken as Jack in "Tree of Life"

Hunter McCracken as Jack in “Tree of Life”

screen shot

If you didn’t know that Malick added this new material years after completing the film, it would be easy to believe these were deleted scenes cut from an earlier, longer version of the film. It speaks to the incredible emotional clarity of the 2011 version –— along with Pitt’s and McCracken’s performances — that it didn’t need this extra context and background to understand the gravitational pull of son becoming father.

The new version is more narratively grounded in the economics and the universal pressures of the American Dream that weigh on the O’Briens, who become less archetypal and more characters with tangible biographies. Neither parent completed college and the expectation and pressure of Jack moving up society’s ladder weighs heavy with Pitt’s character saying he “can redeem” himself through his son, calling Jack “my freedom.” Uncle Ray’s power to stand up to his brother-in-law is quickly belittled by the fact he hasn’t been able to find gainful employment. Jack, heartbroken by his uncle’s situation, tries to give his mother his meager savings.

We even see the poetic presence of Chastain’s character — linked by Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to the ethereal — through a slightly different, more grounded lens, as she describes the essence of her husband’s anger problems and how her options in life are limited by upbringing, education, class, and vocation.

Her character also gets an extended preview of her son’s transition into becoming her husband. In the original version, the father’s departure abroad sets off a sense of freedom — running around the house like children — but with new layers as Jack is exposed to violence (the neighbors) and destruction (a tornado) that sets off a rage, lashing out at his brother’s more artistic ways, getting in trouble at school, and a wish by both mother and son for the simpler days of his early childhood. The hope becomes the troubled boy can find love, hope, and his path at boarding school, away from his father.

Criterion’s “The Tree of Life”

Criterion

Watching this version, and learning the backstory of its creation, reenforces Malick’s fluid approach to narrative: In this version, he’s simply following new streams. The new material is quieter, more sober, lacking the sweeping musicality of the original; there’s more Jack doing yard work in the gray rain of his father’s darkness. It’s understandable why Lubezki felt the need to go back and re-color grade the entire 188 minutes, not just the 49 minutes of new material; the story told through his cinematography arcs differently.

Key sequences are left fully intact (including the VFX-driven “Creation of the Universe”) and in the same chronological order, but the more transitional montages sequences often have 20 to 30 seconds of extra material. You might not notice these extra shots if you don’t watch the two versions side-by-side, but they work to better fit the mood, pacing and story of this new version.

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