Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Life divided critics and audiences alike when it was released back in 2011. Since then, it has become one of the most respected films of the decade so far, and has achieved a status that modern films rarely do. It was announced earlier this year that the film would be re-released by the Criterion Collection as a brand-new, luxurious package. Malick fans were eagerly anticipating the release even before the surprising news surfaced that the release would contain a new cut of the film, promising an additional fifty minutes of previously unseen footage.
According to Malick himself, the cut – now available to buy – would be a new film; a brand-new way to consume his grand ambition. This sounded rather odd, as even with additional footage incorporated into the narrative, the changes made couldn’t be so drastic as to result in the feel of a different film completely. Upon watching the extended version, it becomes clear as to why Malick said this. Both cuts are very much the same film, but the extra material does in fact change it in a number of ways.
The film focuses on a family living in Texas in the 1950’s, while simultaneously exploring concepts of nature, grace and spanning back to the origin of all things. Some audiences found the the piece to be unbearably pretentious, but when one shows the film enough attention it becomes clear that the parallels that Malick explores are justified. He has always been a poetic filmmaker, and the way he spans time within the narrative is handled quite well. The issue with the theatrical cut was characterisation; it was hard to connect with any of the characters because they felt like nothing more than subjects, defined by their experiences. This is something that the extended cut manages to address, as most of the additional footage adds an important depth to the characters. We begin to understand the character of the father (masterfully portrayed by Brad Pitt), learning about his past and his own family relationships. This directly influences our investment in following the lives of his children, of which also receive more screen-time.
The philosophical ideology and breathtaking imagery of the theatrical cut are still gloriously present, and are as impressionable as ever. There are those who have already vocalised a distaste for the added scenes, saying that they strip the film of its ambiguity. While this may be the case for some, there are likely to be way more people who agree that these scenes compliment the film’s more spectacle-driven components by investing the audience in the family dynamic at the heart of the film. These supplementary sequences and moments make the film feel more personal, and present the audience more humanity to attach themselves to.
There will likely be an ongoing debate for some time, but the extended cut feels like the superior work. Along with some excellent bonus content – including documentaries and video essays – the Criterion release is definitely worth making the upgrade for. The Tree of Life has been hailed as a masterpiece since its release, and for those who disagree, this release may be the evidence needed to change your mind.