Terrence Malick's ravishing personal epic - both cosmic and internal in scope - explores the memories and struggles of a Texas family touched by tragedy. The Fox Searchlight release was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
MOTHER: "The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow. . . .
"They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end."
- From "The Tree of Life" (screenplay by Terrence Malick)
While non-conformist directors have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the past (David Lynch is a notable example), never has such an unorthodox and non-linear film - one with no easily-delineated storyline - as "The Tree of Life" been honored with a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
It is a deeply personal film by a director whose focus extends well beyond the crisis of a character, the parameters of a setting, or even the constraints of time.
Of this year's Oscar nominees it stands out as the most poetic and singular of vision, and like Terrence Malick's previous work it has proven to be as polarizing as it is acclaimed.
Terrence Malick's films ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World") are acknowledged masterpieces - meditations on themes of morality, empathy, and the power and inscrutability of Nature.
In "The Tree of Life" Malick uses haunting images and music to explore the very essence of our existence.
In the late 1970s, Malick began developing a project about the origin of life. While the reclusive filmmaker would not publicly discuss the unnamed film, rumors abounded that the director of "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" was making a film about dinosaurs. Given the final product, that is a far cry from what "Tree of Life" is actually about.
What the film IS about is a search for meaning in the universe, as we question the purpose of existence and the inevitability of death.
With a perspective both cosmic and deeply private, "The Tree of Life" captures the unanswerable question we may ask to the world, to God, to parents and children, or ourselves: "Why?"
That question is first asked in the film's heartbreaking opening scenes, when a family receives tragic news - the death of a son. The mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt) react in decidedly different fashions - unabashed emotion, and bitter self-recrimination.
FATHER: "I never got a chance to tell him how sorry I was. One night he punched himself in the face for no reason. He was sitting next to me at the piano and I'd criticized the way he turned the pages. I made him feel shame. MY shame. That poor boy."
Also witnessed is the internal turmoil of the oldest brother, Jack (Sean Penn), whose life in a gleaming, sterile metropolis appears contradictory to the natural world he and his siblings explored in the Texas of the 1950s that was his cradle.
It is to his home town that we return in flashback, exploring memories of his parents' life together, and then, even further back . . .
In the Creation segment of "Tree of Life" - as audacious a cinematic leap in time as Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" - the audience witnesses a 22-minute cosmic sequence that transcends the family drama, propelling us back to the origins and evolution of life.
We witness the birth of galaxies, the collisions of astral bodies, and the genesis and evolution of life on Earth over eons of time.
In a lush, verdant Earth we see the first signs of sentience (or perhaps a reptilian version of empathy), as one dinosaur exercises the power of life or death over another.
In geologic time it's a mere skip-and-a-jump to Texas in the 1950s, where a young child - the focus of his parents' devoted attention - suddenly discovers an interloper, a new infant dividing the love he receives. It both expands his world and constricts it, like a rift in the universe which can never be undone.
The loose structure of the storytelling means "The Tree of Life"'s resonance comes not from its plot but its imagery, which depicts how memories and dreams play a part in defining us and our place in the community.
[The scene at left was photographed on a set constructed in a swimming pool, allowing a child to float out of his room.]
The three O'Brien boys grow older, and the influence of their authoritarian father becomes more key as he tries to impart lessons on them - how to compete, how to toe the line, how to be an individual, and how to avoid wrong turns taken in life.
Collectively, these lessons reveal a man of ambition, regrets and inner conflicts that spill onto and define his family.
There is also aggression, which the oldest son Jack (played as a young boy by Hunter McCracken) tries to come to turns with as he, too, grows into a young man facing uncontrollable emotions.
The mother, meanwhile, nurtures her progeny and encourages them to live in the moment - to explore and take wonder in the world around them.
Working outside the limitations of a typical screenplay and with virtually no artificial lighting, Malick and his bare-bones crew captured the rhythms and quiet moments of daily life in the interactions between the actors; in light and shadows; and in chance events.
Serendipity - such as the alighting on Jessica's Chastain's hand of a butterfly - was often more key to informing the story than anything written in the script.
The core of "The Tree of Life" focuses on family dynamics and how the conflicts between husband and wife, male and female, filter down to the children they shape, and how a family tragedy can alter and undermine those dynamics.
The film is suspected of being at least partly autobiographical (the director's own brother reportedly died in the 1970s from suicide), but Malick and his colleagues do not expand on that.
The film was shot in Smithville, Texas, outside of Austin, in a neighborhood whose buildings had maintained 1950s styling. Additional shooting was conducted in Houston, Austin and surrounding areas; Utah; and Death Valley.
In order to shoot without artificial lighting, three different houses - each with a different orientation to the sun - were used as the O'Brien home depending upon the time of day in order to capitalize on sunlight.
Left: Filming "The Tree of Life" (2011), most of which was shot with handheld or Steadicam equipment with no artificial lighting.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar nominee for "The New World," in addition to "A Little Princess," "Sleepy Hollow" and "Children of Men") enjoyed immense freedom on the picture, and was encouraged by Malick to experiment and risk making mistakes. Their guiding principle was that scenes should not appear staged, but rather found, as if a documentary film were being shot.
Sometimes elements would be tossed into a scene - like a child intruding on an adults' argument - to force the actors to shift their behavior in unexpected ways.
The result was an unusually free-wheeling shoot over a 72-day schedule that produced images of startling intimacy.
Actors spoke of Malick directing the camera away from them while they spoke dialogue, to capture scenery, lighting or shadows that appealed to him. This helped bring forth a naturalism from the actors, and reinforced the film as being painted from memory.
An Oscar nominee for "Tree of Life," Emmanuel Lubezki has won every critics group's award this year for Best Cinematography.
Another example of an unscripted moment - a juxtaposition of Nature and civilization, as flocks of bats are photographed in Austin.
Film editor Mark Yoshikawa - one of a team of five editors that worked for two years on the film - told Bill Desowitz, writing for the Motion Picture Editors Guild newsletter, that people who suggest Malick was trying to create a new way of storytelling with "Tree of Life" are mistaken:
"It sounds so grand, but it's not what Terry was after. He just didn't want to make a movie where you knew where it was going in the first 10 minutes or the first half-hour. ... His main concern was not to seem intentional in any way."
Some critics were unsatisfied, and some audiences mystified. Yet one theater in Bologna, Italy, reportedly screened the film for a week with the first two reels juxtaposed before anyone noticed, so conditioned viewers were to expect "crazy editing" from a Malick film.
In addition to digitally manipulating NASA photography to depict fly-throughs of galaxies, special effects supervisors Douglas Trumbull ("2001," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Blade Runner") and Dan Glass ("The Matrix Reloaded," "V for Vendetta") created visions of nebulae and meteorites impacting the Earth's surface.
Chemicals, dyes, paints and milk introduced into water tanks were photographed using an ultra-high-speed digital camera (running from 200 to 1,000 fps) to capture images that appeared immense - or, in some cases, microbial.
IMAX cameras were also used for background plates of shots featuring computer-animated dinosaurs.
Towards the end of the film are visions of apocalypse - the sun expanding into a red giant.
The unusual colorful, mutating auras that re-appear during the film were captured by photographing the projection of a unique device called a lumia.
Designed and built by "light artist" Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968), who in the early 20th century had developed "light organs" with which to perform "light concerts," "Opus 161" (constructed in 1965-66) consists of lenses, mirrors and colored glass disks that, when manipulated, project constantly changing, diaphanous collages of colored light.
In addition to winning top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the International Federation of Film Critics' prize for Best Film of the Year for "The Tree of Life," Terrence Malick (pictured on the set of "The Thin Red Line") received the Best Director Award from the National Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics Association, San Francisco Film Critics Circle, Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, and was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award.
He previously received Oscar nominations for directing and writing "The Thin Red Line."
Since filming "Tree of Life" Malick has since shot an unnamed film starring Rachel McAdams, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem; and is in post-production on a film tentatively titled "Lawless" starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara.
Brad Pitt, one of the producers of "Tree of Life," described working with Malick as "a really interesting" experience. "This was not a normal film production," Pitt told CBS News' Lee Cowan. "There were no generators. There was no noise. It was a very small and sparse crew. The kids had never read the script. They would pick out their clothes that day. And we'd come in and just do a couple of takes. We weren't going off a script. We were a springboard for the scene, but it could go in any direction. And Terry Malick was looking for those moments when you trip up, you know, the human moments that happen in the day." The director, Pitt said, was seeking "the perfection of mistakes."
Pitt received Best Actor Awards from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle for his dual performances in "Tree of Life" and "Moneyball." He is up for a Best Actor Oscar for the latter. Previously Pitt was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for "Twelve Monkeys," and a Best Actor Oscar for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Juilliard graduate Jessica Chastain had been recommended to the filmmakers by Al Pacino after she appeared in his "Wilde Salome." During the time "Tree of Life" was being edited, Chastain starred in several other features released in 2011, including "The Help," "Coriolanus," "Take Shelter," "The Debt" and "Texas Killing Fields."
Her performance in "The Tree for Life" won for her awards from the Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Vancouver film critics' groups as well as the National Society of Film Critics, and the Breakthrough Award from the Hollywood Film Festival.
Chastain was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year for "The Help."
Sean Penn, who starred in Malick's "The Thin Red Line," won Best Actor Oscars for "Mystic River" and "Milk," and was also nominated for "Dead Man Walking," "Sweet and Lowdown," and "I Am Sam."
In a controversial interview with French newspaper Le Figaro last summer Penn called the "Tree of Life" script "the most magnificent one that I've ever read," but criticized the final product: "A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context!
"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."
Actors Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain attend "The Tree of Life" photocall during the 64th Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2011, in Cannes, France.
Brad Pitt attends "The Tree of Life" photocall during the 64th Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2011, in Cannes, France.
Actor and Jury President Robert De Niro poses with award winners at the end of the closing ceremony of the 64th Cannes Film Festival, May 22, 2011 in Cannes.
From left: Actress Rosario Dawson; actress Kirsten Dunst (Best Actress, "Melancholia"); actor Edgar Ramirez; Marisa Paredes, producer of Palme d'Or winner "The Tree of Life"; Dede Gardner, Argentinian director Pablo Giorgelli ("Las Acacias"), winner of the Camera d'Or prize for first-time filmmaker; "Tree of Life" producer Bill Pohlad; actor Jean Dujardin ("The Artist"); and actress Catherine Deneuve.
Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan and Jessica Chastain arrive at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Tree of Life" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, May 24, 2011.
Actress Jessica Chastain poses with the Year of Excellence Awards for "The Tree of Life" and "The Help" during the American Film Institute's 12th Annual AFI Awards, January 13, 2012 in Beverly Hills, Calif.