Grief and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – A Reflective Essay

This week I learned that a new version of Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life was being released as part of the Criterion Collection. This is very pointedly being billed as a new version and not simply a director’s cut. It is 49 minutes longer and focuses more on the young Jack’s relationship with his father to explore elements of “toxic masculinity.”

“What’s interesting talking to Terry about this [new version of ‘Tree of Life’], I think he still doesn’t want people to think this is a better version. This is another version,” Criterion technical director Lee Kline told us earlier this month. “He said, ‘No one asked Bob Dylan to play a song the same way every night. Why should I have to make one film?’”

As I have been thinking of taking this blog into a phase of focusing exclusively on writing over photography (aside from illustrations), I thought it would be a good idea to present an essay about The Tree of Life which first appeared in the now mothballed Catapult Magazine.


To say that Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life is about grief is a little like saying the Hamlet is about revenge. The statements are true enough, and yet they do not do justice to the richness of themes and majestic sweep of each of these works. Nevertheless, experiencing grief or suffering is the principal theme of The Tree of Life, and the inception, history and resolution of the central cause for grief in the film provide its structure, interwoven with amazing sequences which describe nothing short of the birth, life and death of the Earth itself.

In the very opening frame of the film, Malick provides a key for the viewer to understand how the relatively small story of the grief of a family in Texas will be interwoven with the very large story of the lifespan of the Earth by quoting from the ancient book of Job (38: 4,7):

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.

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