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Malick's "Tree of Life" Trailer: A Shot-By-Shot Breakdown.

by Eric Kohn
December 18, 2010 9:27 AM
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When the trailer for Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" showed up online last week, the sudden anticipatory buzz made it seem as though the movie had already hit theaters. This was Malick, after all -- cinematic poet extraordinaire, and one of the few American filmmakers to make a series of relatively big movies with stars entirely on his own terms. Over the years, Malick has become a cult-like figure whose later works tend to divide people, in no case more clearly than with "The New World." But while that movie had it fair share of grief after it hit theaters, Malick's latest has been in production limbo for so long that it seemed like a small miracle when Fox Searchlight came to its rescue and secured a release date for next year. Descriptions of the cosmic, time-shifting premise behind "Tree of Life" certainly suggests something more ambitious than even his last project. Whether it will only please his most devoted fans or bring him some new ones remains to be seen. But we definitely know now that "Tree of Life" has a lot going on. So I decided to break it down. After the jump, all 96 cuts, including titles cards, and a few brief attempts at interpretation.

One of the richest trailers to come out in some time, the two-minute peek at "Tree of Life" features a dazzling collage of scenes that, when viewed in detail, reveal a lively existential dialogue. The entire montage functions independently of the need to "tease" you about the larger movie to come. Looking at each individual shot reveals the tension between lyrical images and heavy-handed symbolism (the fixation on water is fairly extreme) that Malick appears to struggle through. "Tree of Life" may or may not work, but the profound thematic aims evident in the trailer suggest a movie that has been carefully executed down to every last detail -- as if we expected anything different.

Here's the official synopsis.

From the acclaimed director of such classic films as BADLANDS, THE THIN RED LINE and DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE TREE OF LIFE is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950's chronicling the journey of the eldest son, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years - trying to reconcile the complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, THE TREE OF LIFE stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. The film was produced by Bill Pohlad (River Road Entertainment), Sarah Green, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and Grant Hill.

The trailer for "Tree of Life" has been embedded at the end of this breakdown.

:006 the searchlight logo, and all that it entails about the history of this long-awaited movie.

:11 colors, abstraction, precede all else.

:14 "There are two ways through life..."

:16 An oblique reference to deep impact? Or, more likely, the meteor that causes the extinction of the dinosaurs in the rumored T-rex segment.

:17 "...the way of nature…"

:19 "...and the way of grace."

:21 Cue church bells. A new life has begun.

:22 Oh look, it's brad pitt.

:24 being made in the image of Brad? Not a shabby life.

:25 Baby POV of…light? fate? The unbearable lightness of being born? "You have to choose…"

:26 "…which one you'll follow."

:27 "…the alligator!" he shouts.

:28 Bubbles! the innocence of youth.

:29 The struggle to comprehend new life.

:30 "You will be grown…"

:31 "…before that tree…"

:32 "…is tall."

:33 The auteur reveals himself. It all makes sense now. Or does it?

:35 Celebrating life with...

...fireworks! We return to the innocence of youth with vigorous celebration. Music swells. Malick is back, baby.

:36 More fireworks.

:37 A butterfly flits across the screen. nature…

:38 …inspires wonder...

:38 …as does the human experience. A football flies past us in the opposite direction of the butterfly's path. A swish pan to…

:39 …our young hero, slightly older, hitting the football with a baseball bat. Theoretically, a lot of conflicting symbolism going on here (the two different pathways of the butterfly/ball, the dissonance of two sports mashed together), but the poetry of the images is crystal clear.

40: Bath time! He lives, quite literally, a clean life.

:41 bliss.

:42 More athletics. This time, another ball is in play.

:44 Behind the scenes, father watches son with an ominous sense of disapproval. The adult world awaits.

:44 Voiceover: "It takes fierce will…"

:45 "…to get ahead in this world." The poor boy struggles to understand.

:46 His brothers (?) look back with knowing glances. Time to grow up.

:46 Father teaches son to man up. "Come on, hit me!"

:48 "Hit me!"

:50 -"C'mon son!"

Mother's voice: "He's afraid…"

:51 "…of you."

:52 "You expect things of him…"

:53 "…that only an adult can accomplish."

:54 Daddy means business…whatever that is.

:56 "I just always want you to be strong…"

:57 "…be your own man."

:59 Cue the trippy visuals. The chaos world incarnate.

:59 An extreme lack of comprehension.

1:00 Daddy gets violent. A whisper: "Father…"

1:01 Now the ball has a new use -- breaking a window. His childhood is no longer so clean.

1:02 "Mother."

1:03 The table dance is angry, almost ritualistic. Anarchy sets in.

1:04 "Always you wrestle…"

1:06 "…inside me."

1:07 With a dramatic cross-fade, our hero grows up. And becomes Sean Penn.

1:08 The water symbolism again. He yearns for a return to the past.

1:09 To return to the simplicity of his youth.


1:11 "…you will."

1:13 His face fondled through a shower curtain. The veil that keeps the past away.


1:14 "…it will fall down…"

1:15 "…and weep."

1:16 Window water symbol moving.


1:18 "...and you'll understand it all."

1:19 Understanding it all?

1:19 "All…"

1:21 "…things."

1:21 Music swells! Doors open to reveal…

1:23 …the bare essence of life. The first of three shots showing people heading toward undefined destination. Fate itself, perhaps?


1:25 Keeping the bad things away.

1:26 Or embracing them.

1:29 Does it matter?

1:29 This is the way the world works.

1:30 Light invades the darkness.

1:31 Old sci-fi novels? A literal exploration of the unknown to match the figurative one at work here?

1:32 The tunnel of the past and the light of the future.

1:33 "Guide us..."

1:34 More water.

1:35 (And more.)

"…to the end of time."

1:37 Time? Where's that?

1:38 Maybe it's here.

1:39 A spiral pattern! Life, the universe and everything, of course.

1:40 From the wild table dance to stepping over pews. He's making progress.

1:41 Dad's not so threatening here.

1:42 "Unless you love…"

1:43 Just friends? Or something more?

1:45 Cosmology FTW.

1:46 Falling to his knees at the end of time.

1:46 "...your life…"

1:46 "…will flash by." So that's what's going on here.

1:49 Water again. It just keeps on flowing by. Like life, of course.

1:50 Rain does the trick, too.

1:51 Fade to black and…

1:54 In case you missed them before.

1:59 In other words: The thing that all that water sustains.

Malick is great and all, but let's not give short shrift to the extraordinary photographic talents of Lubezki.

Fox Searchlight will release "Tree of Life" on May 27, 2007.

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  • John | April 23, 2011 7:35 AMReply

    A few clues:

    - Grown up man is looking back - as an Architect
    - One idea is that things in the universe repeat on different scales, like a spiral or branches of a tree
    - Butterflies grow in cocoons and live in the world for one day (or so)
    - The first "abstract" shots are probably of an egg inside a womb
    - Water is the medium we are born in, and the cosmos is a sort of ocean, etc
    - The children "swimmers" tie in to that idea
    - "Veil of forgetfullness" means you only keep what's inside, the younger person is gone

    Maybe this world is also a "womb" - not for us as animals - but for souls.

  • Ron | April 19, 2011 12:58 PMReply

    this movie is food for my soul....

  • tom quinn | December 20, 2010 8:52 AMReply

    The cut that kills me every time I watch it is when the waterfall breaking on the rocks cuts to his hands breaking the flow of the faucet. You could mull over this trailer for months. It is so beautifully dense, like a piece on its' own. nice job diving in.

  • ed lorah | December 20, 2010 5:33 AMReply

    Nice breakdown Eric. I saw this preview at the opening of Black Swan in Seattle a couple of weeks ago.
    I'd heard about 'Tree of Life' a few months ago, but had kind of forgotten about it. After sitting through several uninteresting previews at Black Swan I was pinned to my seat watching this. I actually found tears welling up by the end of the preview.
    I love Malick, and I am aware that he takes a lot of hits for over-reaching, being metaphysical, etc;
    For me, his films are what movies are about: poetry and exploring the human condition. I rate him right up there with Kurosawa and Bergman for depth, imagery, and storytelling.
    Directors like Malick make much of mainstream American film-making difficult to watch, or to care about.

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