Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons from Criterion’s The Tree of Life

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic, or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


The Tree of Life

Starting with the beginning of time and stretching all the way to the death of the universe, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life often doesn’t get enough credit for how small and intimate it is. Malick’s is a film of small moments—of boys rolling down hills, chasing their mother through their house with a lizard, picking weeds in the lawn, and throwing rocks through windows.

Criterion’s new special edition of the 2011 film features a widely publicized new cut with nearly 50 minutes of new footage, only expanding upon the film’s focus on these small moments. This new cut makes The Tree of Life feel both bigger and smaller, allowing the structure to breathe, building new arcs that extend out of old ones, and reshaping the roles of some key characters. The film is edited as one big montage, which allows these new scenes and shots to be woven with ease into footage viewers have already seen. Every single character is strengthened and every theme present in the original cut is elaborated and expanded upon.

The new cut of The Tree of Life adds a segment with Sean Penn’s grown-up Jack O’Brien to the beginning of the film, which plays like Malick’s Knight of Cups in miniature, combining the free-wheeling decadence of that L.A.-set party movie with some of the indelible 16mm and video experimentation of his 2017 romance Song to Song. The breadth of childhood in the back half of The Tree of Life, on the other hand, expands even more, here, than in Malick’s original cut. Scenes centered on the specificity and repetition of swimming, running, wrestling, playing clash with moments of interpersonal relations and awe-inducing glimpses of nature. A 15-minute segment in which Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) goes on a trip in Malick’s original cut is expanded to nearly 40 minutes in the new version. By the time he returns, it’s as if he’s lived an entire lifetime: A storm has devastated half of the town, we’re introduced to a neighboring boy whose father abuses him and, in one poignant moment, Jack has told his mother, “I wish I was little again.”

The Tree of Life remains as overwhelming an audiovisual experience as ever, regardless of what version you choose to watch. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography swoops close to and past the family, crafting an energetic and lively environment. Douglas Trumbull’s visual effects astound in the 20-minute creation scene, in which practical effects (featuring chemicals and dye) are used to re-creature the Big Bang and the subsequent formation of the universe. Perhaps strongest of all is the film’s sound design, for which Eric Adahal is given credit. Reaching from such grand scale cosmic events to the most minute and indistinguishable of moments, it is the film’s lush and bold array of sounds that really sells the landscape that Malick seeks to evoke.

Lessons in Sound Design

The original 2011 Blu-Ray release of The Tree of Life featured a notice to play the disc as loud as possible in order to achieve the optimal experience. Indeed, sound design has always been a crucial element to the film’s overall success.

From start to finish, Malick’s film is a wall of music, featuring pieces such as John Tavner’s ‘Funeral Canticle’, Zbigniew Presiner’s ‘Lacrimosa’ and even Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’As expanded upon in one of the disc’s special features, each of these pieces is carefully chosen to accentuate the tone of the scenes as well as the thematic weight behind them.

Layered in with these pieces are the constant sounds of trickling streams and crashing waves, crickets chirping in the night sky, dogs barking and, of course, Malick’s famed use of voiceover. Each character gets a chance to expand upon the joys they are experience, express their existential angst and spill their innermost thoughts and emotions. The whispers clash with the booming pieces of music. “Where were you?” Chastain’s mother questions. A version of the creation of the universe follows, accompanied by the overwhelmingly powerful and beamingly loud ‘Lacrimosa’ by Zbigniew Presiner. Malick sound design is as balanced as his storytelling, with each piece of music, foley, voiceover and dialogue carefully chosen as to accentuate what he means to express.

The new cut of The Tree of Life is a fascinating study in how sound design can be used to shape story and meaning. The final scenes inside the boys’ childhood home (and the journey to the next home) are reshaped in this new cut. There is new footage on the end of this scene that shows Hunter McCracken’s Jack making his way to his new home and new school. The piece that accompanies this scene, ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ by Berlioz, is shifted so that the most tender, emotionally cathartic portion, as well as the Mother’s voice over in which she beckons her son to “do good to them,” now accompanies the destination rather than the journey. The catharsis no longer belongs with the moment where Jack and his family leave their old home but, rather, when they reach their new one.

A dying plesiosaur licks its wounds in The Tree of Life. Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Special Features

In addition to the two different cuts, The Tree of Life contains a selection of featurettes and interviews, providing a mix of theoretical content and production-based content.

Carried over from the original release is a 30-minute Making of documentary, featuring various snippets of interviews with Chastain and Pitt, effects artists Trumbull and Glass, composer Desplat and many others. In addition to this, there are full interviews with Jessica Chastain and Visual Effects artist Dan Glass. Chastain goes in depth on the fascinating production as well as Malick’s unusual process. Especially enlightening are her comments on the voiceover process, of which Malick recorded from over 30 sessions. Chastain would read from a big stack of lines in quiet whispers, wherever she could – even at a Guitar Center in Southern California. Altogether Malick amassed over 20 hours of lines to choose from. There are about five minutes of total voice over from Chastain in the film.

Elsewhere, there is a fascinating interview with critic Alex Ross on the soundtrack to the film. He details how the music crosses a wide stylistic spectrum, giving a sense of someone with an “omnivorous musical taste and finding unexpected ways to bring music in.” The Tree of Life has a huge soundtrack and opens with John Tavner’s ‘Funeral Canticle’, a piece written in memoriam of his father. This begins a pattern of requiem/memorial music, including the aforementioned ‘Lacrimosa’ from Requiem for my Friend, written by Presiner in honor of Krystztof Kieslwoski, as well as Berlioz’s ‘Requiem,’ which closes the film. These pieces give an elegiac memorial quality, far from anguish and at more of a remove, expressing what Ross calls “mourning within memory.” In addition, Malick’s choice of a composer like Mahler suggests a kinship, thanks to Mahler’s obsessive concern “with faith, death and whatever transcendent world can follow.”

The universe is born, thanks to practical effects from Douglas Trumbull and Dan Glass. Image Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

There is also a wonderful analysis of Lubezki’s cinematography courtesy of Benjamin Bin, titled Natural Cubism, featuring a fascinating collection of interviews with Lubezki, Erik Brown, Jack Fisk and others. Lastly, there is Matt Zoller Seitz and Serena Bramble’s video essay All Things Shining from a larger piece on Malick’s entire career. One of the most fascinating portion of this concerns how Malick uses the voiceover to paint grand thematic gestures. Jack is the overall narrator, the storyteller. Overall, there is no polished narrative shape to this narration with the voiceover instead being linked by theme and image association. The creation of the universe is a large segment of the film, yet it comes from a mother’s questioning of God’s place in her life, delivered in voiceover. Later in the film, Penn’s character asks of God to guide him “to the end of time,” giving us an auditory cue to where the last 10 minutes of the film may take us.

The Takeaway

The Tree of Life is, love it or hate it, one of the most audacious achievements of the century, and this new Criterion Collection release gives fans of all kinds something to chew on. The film remains an incredible sensory experience, especially with the wonderful 4K remaster and 5.1 audio tracks. In diving into the release, it’s tough not to be drawn in to the film’s impeccable sonic landscape. The supplements gathered and created by Criterion only further emphasize just how thoroughly thought through the sound design is – from soundtrack to sound effects to dialogue. If you’re attempting to swing for the fences and work out some grand themes that may be tough to grasp, perhaps you can start with sound, the unsung hero of what is often reduced to simply a visual medium. MM

The Tree of Life was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD September 11, 2018. All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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