The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life Information

The Tree of Life is a 2011 American drama film with experimental elements written and directed by Terrence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. The film chronicles the origins and meaning of life by way of a middle-aged man's childhood memories of his family living in 1950s Texas, against the narrative backdrop of the origins of the universe and the inception and end of life on Earth.

After several years in development and missing 2009 and 2010 release dates, the film premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or. Critics were divided about the film. Some critics praised it for Malick's use of technical and artistic imagery, directorial style, and fragmented non-linear narrative. Others criticised it for the same reasons. In January 2012, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. In the 2012 Sight & Sound critics' poll, 16 critics voted for it as one of their 10 greatest films ever made; this ranked it at #102 in the finished list. Five directors also voted, making the film ranked at #132 in the directors' poll.


A mysterious, wavering light, resembling a flame, flickers in the darkness. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) recalls a lesson taught to her that people must choose to follow either the path of grace or the path of nature. In the 1960s, she receives a telegram informing her of the death of her son, R.L., aged nineteen, in military service. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is notified by telephone while at an airport. The family is thrown into turmoil.

In the present day, the O'Briens' eldest son, Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn), is adrift in his modern life as an architect. One day he apologizes to his father on the phone for an argument about R.L.'s death. In his office, Jack begins reflecting and we see shots of tall buildings under the sky, Jack wandering in the desert, trees that stretch from the ground up to the sun high in their leaves and scenes from his childhood in the 1950s that all link together and lead back to the flame.

From the darkness the universe is born, the Milky Way and then the solar system form while voice-overs ask existential questions. On the newly formed Earth, volcanoes erupt and microbes begin to form and replicate. Sea life is born, then plants on land, then dinosaurs. An asteroid tumbles through space and strikes the Earth.

In a sprawling neighborhood in Waco, Texas live the O'Briens. The young couple is enthralled by their new baby Jack and, later, his two brothers. When Jack (Hunter McCracken) reaches adolescence, he is faced with the conflict of accepting the way of grace or nature, as embodied by each of his parents. Mrs. O'Brien (grace) is gentle, nurturing, and authoritative, presenting the world to her children as a place of wonder. Mr. O'Brien (nature) is strict and authoritarian, and easily loses his temper as he struggles to reconcile his love for his sons with wanting to prepare them for a world he sees as corrupt and exploitative. He laments his decision to become an engineer rather than to pursue his passion of becoming a musician. He tries to get ahead by filing patents for various inventions.

Jack's perceptions of the world begin to change after one of his friends drowns at the pool and another of his friends is burned in a house fire. He becomes angry at his father for his bullying behavior and begins to keep a running tally of Mr. O'Brien's various hypocrisies and misdeeds while lashing out at his mother for allowing the behavior.

One summer, Mr. O'Brien takes a long business trip. While he is away, the boys enjoy unfettered access to their mother, and Jack experiences the first twinges of rebelliousness. Goaded by other boys his age, Jack commits acts of vandalism and animal abuse. He later trespasses into a neighbor's house and steals her sheer nightgown. Jack is confused and angered by his feelings of sexuality and guilty trespass. He throws the stolen lingerie into a river to rid himself of it. Mr. O'Brien returns home from his unsuccessful business trip. Shortly thereafter, the plant that he works at closes and he is given the option of relocating to work in a thankless position within the firm or being made redundant. He and his family pack up to move to the new job location. He laments the course his life has taken, questioning whether he has been a good enough person. He asks Jack for forgiveness for his harsh treatment of him.

In the present, adult Jack leaves work. Riding the elevator down, he experiences a vision of following his young self across rocky terrain, in the far distant future in which the sun expands into a red giant engulfing the earth and then shrinks into a feeble white dwarf. Jack tentatively walks through a wooden door frame, erected on the rocks. On a sandbar, Jack sees images of death and the dead returning to life. He is reunited with his family and all the people who populate his memory. His father is happy to see him. He encounters his dead brother, whom he brings to his parents. Accompanied by a woman in white and her younger self, Mrs. O'Brien looks to the sky and whispers, "I give him to you. I give you my son."

Jack's vision ends and he leaves the building smiling.

The mysterious wavering light continues to flicker in the darkness.


  • Brad Pitt as Mr. O'Brien
  • Sean Penn as Jack
  • Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien
  • Hunter McCracken as Young Jack
  • Laramie Eppler as R.L.
  • Tye Sheridan as Steve
  • Kari Matchett as Jack's Ex
  • Joanna Going as Jack's Wife
  • Michael Showers as Mr. Brown
  • Kimberly Whalen as Mrs. Brown
  • Jackson Hurst as Uncle Roy
  • Fiona Shaw as Grandmother
  • Crystal Mantecón as Elisa
  • Tamara Jolaine as Mrs. Stone
  • Dustin Allen as George Walsh



Terrence Malick pitched the concept of The Tree of Life to River Road Entertainment head Bill Pohlad while the two were collaborating on an early version of Che. Pohlad recalls initially thinking the idea was "crazy", but as the film concept evolved, he came to feel strongly about the idea; he ended up financing the film. Producer Grant Hill was also involved with the film at an early stage. During a meeting on a different subject involving Malick, his producer Sarah Green, Brad Pitt, and Pitt's Plan B Entertainment production partner Dede Gardner, Malick brought up Tree of Life and the difficulties it was having getting made. It was "much later on" that the decision was made for Pitt to be part of the cast.

The Tree of Life was announced in late 2005, with Indian production company Percept Picture Company set to finance it and Donald Rosenfeld on board as executive producer. The film was set to be shot partially in India, with pre-production scheduled to begin in January 2006. Colin Farrell and Mel Gibson were at one stage attached to the project. Heath Ledger was set to play the role of Mr. O'Brien, but dropped out (due to recurring sicknesses) a month before his death in early 2008.

In an October 2008 interview Jack Fisk, a longtime Malick collaborator, suggested that the director was attempting something radical. He also implied that details of the film were a close secret. In March 2009, visual effects artist Mike Fink revealed to Empire magazine that he was working on scenes of prehistoric Earth for the film. The similarity of the scenes Fink describes to descriptions of a hugely ambiguous project entitled Q that Malick worked on soon after Days of Heaven has led to speculation that The Tree of Life is a resurrection of that abandoned project.


Filming began in Texas in 2008. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki returned to work with Malick after collaborating with him on The New World. Locations included Smithville, Houston, Matagorda, Bastrop, Austin, Dallas, and Malick's hometown of Waco.

The namesake of the film is a large live oak tree that was excavated from a property a few miles outside Smithville. The 65,000-pound tree and root ball was trucked into Smithville and replanted.

Special effects

After nearly thirty years away from Hollywood, famed special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull contributed to the visual effects work on The Tree of Life. Malick, a friend of Trumbull, approached him about the effects work and mentioned that he did not like the look of computer-generated imagery. Trumbull asked Malick, "Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?"

Working with visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, Trumbull used a variety of materials for the creation of the universe sequence. "We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be," said Trumbull. "It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn't have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic." The team also included Double Negative in London, under the supervision of Paul Riddle, who handled the astrophysical aspects of the segment. Fluid-based effects were developed by Peter and Chris Parks, who had previously worked on similar effects for The Fountain.


In March 2009 Empire magazine's website quoted visual effects supervisor Mike Fink as saying that a version of the film will be released for IMAX cinemas along with two versions for traditional cinemas. The IMAX film has been revealed to be The Voyage of Time, a documentary expanding on the 'history of the universe' scenes in The Tree of Life, which the producers decided to focus on releasing at a later date so as not to cannibalise its release.

Delays and distribution issues

By May 2009, The Tree of Life had been sold to a number of international distributors, including Europacorp in France, TriPictures in Spain, and Icon in the UK and Australia, but lacked a US distributor. In August 2009, it was announced that the film would be released in the US through Apparition, a new distributor founded by River Road Entertainment head Bill Pohlad and former Picturehouse chief Bob Berney. A tentative date of December 25, 2009 was announced, but the film was not completed in time. Organisers of the Cannes Film Festival made negotiations to secure a premiere at Cannes 2010, resulting in Malick sending an early version of the film to Thierry Fremaux and the Cannes selection committee. Though Fremaux warmly received the cut and was eager to screen the film at his festival, Malick ultimately told him that he felt the film was not ready. On the eve of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Berney suddenly announced his departure from Apparition, leaving the company's future uncertain. Pohlad decided to keep The Tree of Life at Apparition, and after significant restructuring, hired Tom Ortenberg to act as a consultant on its release. A tentative plan was made to release it in late 2010, in time for awards consideration. Ultimately, Pohlad decided to close Apparition and sell rights to the film. Private screenings of the film to interested parties Fox Searchlight Pictures and Sony Pictures Classics took place at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival. On September 9, Fox Searchlight announced their acquisition of the film from Pohlad's River Road Entertainment. The film opened in limited release in the United States on May 27, 2011.

On March 28, 2011, UK magazine Empire reported that UK distributor Icon Entertainment was planning to release the film on May 4, 2011. This would make the UK the first region in the world to see the film, preempting the expected Cannes Film Festival premiere on May 11. This would disqualify the film from inclusion at Cannes. As a result, a surge of interest in the story developed on international film news sites. After film blogger Jeff Wells was told by a Fox Searchlight representative that this was "unlikely", and Anne Thompson received similar word from Searchlight and outright denial from Summit, Helen O'Hara from Empire received a confirmation from Icon that they intended to stick with the May 4 release. On March 31, Jeff Wells was told by Jill Jones, Summit's senior VP of international marketing and publicity, that Icon has lost the right to distribute The Tree of Life in the UK, due to defaulting on its agreement, with the matter pending arbitration at a tribunal in Los Angeles. On June 9, it was announced that The Tree of Life would be released in the UK on July 8, 2011, after Fox Searchlight Pictures picked up the UK rights from Icon.

Home media

The Tree of Life was released on Blu-ray Disc in the United States and Canada on October 11, 2011; on January 24, 2012 there was a separate release of the DVD. Both DVD and Blu-ray were available in the UK before the US.


The Tree of Life Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat was released in 2011 by Lakeshore Records. Although billed as the movie soundtrack, only a few minutes of the music are heard in the film.


Critical response

Early reviews for The Tree of Life at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival were polarized. After being met with both boos and applause at its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the film received very mixed early reviews. The film went on to be awarded the prestigious Palme d'Or. Two of the film's producers, Bill Pohlad and Sarah Green, accepted the prize on behalf of the reclusive Malick. The Tree of Life is the first American film to win the Palme d'Or since Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004. The head of the jury, Robert De Niro, said it was difficult to choose a winner, but The Tree of Life "ultimately fit the bill". De Niro explained, "It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize."

On August 19, 2011 it was announced that the film had won the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Big Prize for the Best Film Of the Year. The award was presented on September 16, during the opening ceremony of the 59th San Sebastián International Film Festival. Malick released a statement of thanks for the award. On November 28, it was announced that the film had won the Gotham Award for Best Feature, shared with Beginners.

The Tree of Life holds an 84 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 241 reviews. The site's consensus is that "Terrence Malick's singularly deliberate style may prove unrewarding for some, but for patient viewers, Tree of Life is an emotional as well as visual treat." At Metacritic which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 reviews from film critics, the film has a rating score of 85 based on 43 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".

Roger Ebert gave the film four stars of four and wrote, "The Tree of Life is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives. The only other film I've seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and it lacked Malick's fierce evocation of human feeling. There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few. Malick has stayed true to that hope ever since his first feature in 1973." In 2012, Roger Ebert called the film one of the 10 greatest films of all time in Sight & Sounds poll.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gives it five stars and states it is an "unashamedly epic reflection on love and loss" and a "mad and magnificent film." Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter states "Brandishing an ambition it's likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfill, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind's place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amidst its narrative imprecisions." Justin Chang of Variety states the film "represents something extraordinary" and "is in many ways his simplest yet most challenging work, a transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy's 1950s upbringing with a magisterial rumination on the Earth's origins." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone states "Shot with a poet's eye, Malick's film is a groundbreaker, a personal vision that dares to reach for the stars." A. O. Scott of The New York Times gave the film much praise and stated, "The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality". Total Film gave the film a five-star review (denoting 'outstanding'): "The Tree Of Life is beautiful. Ridiculously, rapturously beautiful. You could press 'pause' at any second and hang the frame on your wall." Richard Corliss of Time named it one of the Top 10 Best Movies of 2011.

On the other hand, Sukhdev Sandhu, chief film critic of The Daily Telegraph describes the movie as "self-absorbed," and "achingly slow, almost buckling under the weight of its swoony poetry." Lee Marshall's review for Screen Daily followed a similar line, seeing the film as "a cinematic credo about spiritual transcendence which, while often shot through with poetic yearning, preaches too directly to its audience." Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline praised the technical aspects of the film, such as the "gorgeous photography", however states nonetheless it is "a gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption." Filmmaker David Lynch said that, while he liked Malick's previous works, The Tree of Life "was not his cup of tea".

Sean Penn has said, "The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I've ever read but I couldn't find that same emotion on screen. ... A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact." He further clarified his reservations about the film by adding, "But it's a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It's up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved."

The Tree of Life was voted best film of 2011 in the annual Sight & Sound critic poll, earning one and a half times as many votes as runner up A Separation. The film also topped the critics poll of best released film of 2011 by Film Comment, and the indieWire annual critics survey for 2011, as well as The Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll 2011.

Top ten lists

The film appeared on over 70 critics' year-end top ten lists, including 15 first place rankings.

  • 1st - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
  • 1st - Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
  • 1st - Time Out London
  • 1st - Mark Olsen, Boxoffice
  • 1st - Eric Hynes, Village Voice
  • 1st - Susan G. Cole, NOW
  • 1st - Glenn Sumi, NOW
  • 1st - Norm Wilner, NOW
  • 1st - Paste
  • 1st - Gabe Toro, The Playlist
  • 1st - Reserve Shot
  • 1st - Simon Abrams, Slant
  • 1st - Nick Schager, Slant
  • 1st - Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club
  • 1st - Tasha Robinson, The A.V. Club
  • 2nd - Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club
  • 2nd - David Ehrlich, Boxoffice
  • 2nd - Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post
  • 2nd - Kristopher Tapley, HitFix/In Contention
  • 2nd - Kim Morgan, MSN Movies
  • 2nd - Richard Brody, The New Yorker
  • 2nd - David Denby, The New Yorker
  • 2nd - Simon Kinnear, TotalFilm
  • 3rd - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
  • 3rd - J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader
  • 3rd - Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
  • 3rd - Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News
  • 3rd - Lou Lumenick, New York Post
  • 3rd - Stephen Holden, The New York Times
  • 3rd - Jesse Cataldo, Slant
  • 3rd - Mary Pols, Time
  • 3rd - Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York
  • 4th - Richard Corliss, Time
  • 4th - Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun Times
  • 4th - James Berardinelli, ReelViews
  • 4th - Christy Lemire, Associated Press
  • 4th - Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
  • 4th - Clint O'Connor, Cleveland Plain Dealer
  • 4th - Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
  • 4th - Radheyan Simonpillai, NOW
  • 4th - Glenn Heath Jr., Slant
  • 4th - Karina Longworth, Village Voice
  • 5th - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle
  • 5th - Ray Greene, Boxoffice
  • 5th - Peter Knegt, IndieWire
  • 5th - Don Kaye, MSN Movies
  • 5th - Mike Scott, The Times Picayune
  • 5th - Mike Russell, The Oregonian


This webpage uses material from the Wikipedia article "The_Tree_of_Life_%28film%29" and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Reality TV World is not responsible for any errors or omissions the Wikipedia article may contain.



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