After several years in development and missing its supposed 2009 and 2010 release dates, The Tree of Life premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Palme d'Or. It ranked no. 1 on review aggregator Metacritic's "Top Ten List of 2011", and in January 2012 was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
The film begins with a quotation from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
A mysterious, wavering light, resembling a flame, flickers in the darkness. Mrs. O'Brien 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 or thereabouts, she receives a telegram informing her of the death of her son, R.L., aged nineteen. Mr. O'Brien is notified by telephone while at an airport. The family is thrown into turmoil.
In the present day, the O'Briens' eldest son, Jack, is adrift in his modern life as an architect. One day he apologizes to his father on the phone for something he said about R.L.'s death. In his office, Jack begins reflecting; 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 1950s childhood 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. In a symbolic first act of compassion, a dinosaur chooses not to eat a weakened creature that is lying on the side of a river bed. An asteroid tumbles through space and strikes the Earth, causing the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.
In a sprawling suburban neighborhood in the American South live the O'Briens. The young couple is enthralled by their new baby Jack and, later, his two brothers. When Jack 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 is gentle, nurturing, and authoritative, presenting the world to her children as a place of wonder. Mr. O'Brien 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 work in a power plant instead of pursuing his passion for music. He tries to get ahead by filing patents for various inventions.
Jack's perceptions of the world begin to change after one of his boyhood companions drowns at the pool and another 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, lashing out at his mother for tolerating such abusive 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 business trip. Shortly thereafter, the plant that he works at closes and he is given the option of relocating to work in an inferior position within the firm or losing his job. 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 up, he experiences a vision of following a young girl across rocky terrain. Jack tentatively walks through a wooden door frame erected on the rocks and sees a view of the far distant future in which the sun expands into a red giant, engulfing the earth and then shrinking into a feeble white dwarf. Someone says "follow me" in the darkness, which is ended by the lighting of two candles. After emerging from rustic doors, Jack follows the girl and then a young version of himself across surreal landscapes. 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. The parents are then seen saying goodbye to the young brother as he steps out of a home into a vast expanse. Accompanied by a woman in white and a young woman, 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, while nature returns to the surrounding buildings as the sky is reflected in them.
The mysterious wavering light continues to flicker in the darkness.Brad Pitt as Mr. O'Brien
Sean Penn as Jack O'Brien
Hunter McCracken as young Jack
Finnegan Williams as (aged 5) Jack
Michael Koeth as (aged 2) Jack
Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien
Laramie Eppler as R.L. O'Brien
John Howell as R.L. (age 2)
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.
Principal photography 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 were trucked into Smithville and replanted.
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. Fluid-based effects were developed by Peter and Chris Parks, who had previously worked on similar effects for The Fountain.
A column in The New Yorker noted that the film credited Thomas Wilfred’s lumia composition Opus 161, and that this was the source of the "shifting flame of red-yellow light" at the beginning and the end.
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 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 cannibalize its release. It is set to be released by Broad Green Pictures.
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.
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.
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 album's music are heard in the film.
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 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."
The film won the 2011 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 has since garnered critical acclaim and holds an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 257 reviews, with an average score of 8.1/10. 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 50 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." The following year, Ebert gave The Tree of Life one of his 10 votes in Sight & Sound's 2012 critics' poll of the world's greatest films. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker said a "seraphic strain" in Malick's work "hits a solipsistic high" in The Tree of Life. "While the result will sound to some like a prayer, others may find it increasingly lonely and locked, and may themselves pray for Ben Hecht or Billy Wilder to rise from the dead and attack Malick’s script with a quiver of poisonous wisecracks," the magazine's reviewer said.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian awarded it five stars and lauded it as 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.
Some religious reviewers welcomed the spiritual themes of the film. For instance, Catholic author and now auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles Fr. Robert Barron, reviewing The Tree of Life for a Chicago Tribune blog, noted that "in the play of good and evil, in the tension between nature and grace, God is up to something beautiful, though we are unable to grasp it totally...“Tree of Life” is communicating this same difficult but vital lesson." Rabbi David Wolpe says "that Terrence Malick's new film "Tree of Life" opens with a quotation from Job. That quotation holds the key to the film and in some sense, the key to our attitude toward life."
Not all reviewers were positive. 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." Likewise, Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline praised the technical aspects of the film, such as the "gorgeous photography", but nonetheless criticized it as "a gargantuan work of pretension and cleverly concealed self-absorption." Lee Marshall of Screen Daily referred to the film as "a cinematic credo about spiritual transcendence which, while often shot through with poetic yearning, preaches too directly to its audience." Filmmaker David Lynch said that, while he liked Malick's previous works, The Tree of Life "was not his cup of tea". In 2016, John Patterson of The Guardian complained of the meager impression that the film left on him, opining that "much of it simply evaporates before your eyes."
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 film appeared on over 70 critics' year-end top ten lists, including 15 first-place rankings. 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.
In 2012, 16 critics, including Roger Ebert, included it as one of their 10 votes for Sight & Sound; this placed it at #102 in the final list (making it the fourth film on the list which had been released since the year 2000, behind Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, Edward Yang's Yi Yi, and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive). The film also received five votes in the directors' poll (placing it at #132).
In 2015, Bradshaw named the film one of the top 50 films of the decade so far by The Guardian.
The Tree of Life ranked seventh on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)'s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century in August, 2016. The list was compiled by polling 177 film critics from around the world.