The Tree of Life

Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Sean Penn (Jack), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Hunter McCracken (Young Jack), Laramie Eppler (R.L.), Tye Sheridan (Steve), Fiona Shaw (Grandmother), Jessica Fuselier (Guide), Nicolas Gonda (Mr. Reynolds), Will Wallace (Architect), Kelly Koonce (Father Haynes), Bryce Boudoin (Robert), Jimmy Donaldson (Jimmy), Kameron Vaughn (Cayler), Cole Cockburn (Harry Bates), Dustin Allen (George Walsh), Brayden Whisenhunt (Jo Bates)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2011
Country: U.S.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of LifeThe Tree of Life is the fifth film writer/director Terrence Malick has made over the past four decades, and it feels like the one he has been working toward all his life. A lyrical, semi-autobiographical evocation of the joys and pains of life, the film weaves together all of Malick’s strengths as a filmmaker into a stunning mosaic that is both grandiose in its epic view of time and space and richly felt in its intimate portrait of a nuclear family. It also breathes new life into those tendencies that have sometimes hobbled Malick’s always ambitious efforts, especially his use of inner monologues, which for the first time since Days of Heaven (1978) feel like a necessary part of the film’s emotional texture, rather than a disassociated thematic flourish (as in The Thin Red Line) or simple redundancy (as in The New World). Like those previous films, you can’t watch The Tree of Life as a linear narrative; rather, it unfolds in the manner of a poem or a symphony, where connections between scenes are more emotional and thematic than chronological or causal. It is a film that, in every way, demands multiple viewings.

There is little sense in trying to describe the film’s plot; Malick’s artistry is his rejection of convention. If you have seen the one-sheet poster, which is simply a geometrical mosaic of dozens of still images from the film, then you have some sense of what it is like. Malick and his team of editors have assembled a story out of fleeting moments in time that in ways both profound and mundane connect the trials and tribulations of one American family into the depth of the cosmos, revealing them to be both essential to the meaning of the universe (whatever that may be--Malick is not arrogant enough to suggest that he somehow knows) and an infinitesimal blip in the space-time continuum. The film’s imagery will be immediately familiar to those who have seen Malick’s other films--shafts of light penetrating a ceiling of tree limbs, long grasses waving in the breeze or underwater, characters diminished in the enormity of nature around them, often captured with roving camera moves that seem to be both prescient and completely in the moment--but that familiarity works as another strand in the film’s fundamental essence, bringing together so many elements of Malick’s previous films into an evocative masterwork. For the first time in decades, he has achieved the height of his artistry in fully meshing the emotional and the aesthetic; they tug you in the same direction, rather than against each other.

The majority of the story takes place in Waco, Texas, which is where Malick spent much of his childhood, in the 1950s. His on-screen adolescent surrogate is Jack (Hunter McCracken), who is the oldest of three brothers. They live in a picturesque neighborhood that is defined by wide streets, huge trees, and low-lying ranch houses that always seem to be open, even when the doors are closed. Jack’s parents, who are appropriately known only as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), are fundamental opposites: Whereas he is a strong-willed disciplinarian, she is tender-hearted and forgiving. His stern intensity and her angelic acceptance are each projections of their love, and Malick presents them without explicit judgment. While each parenting approach has its merits, each has a tendency to stray into excess, with Mr. O’Brien’s discipline sometimes boiling over into simple violence while Mrs. O’Brien’s gentleness threatens to lapse into a complete lack of control. Malick’s real focus, though, is on childhood (which is why we never hear the parents’ first names), and the film’s most transcendent moments are the ones in which he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot The New World, imbue the antics of childhood with a spiritual dimension (the best being the neighborhood kids running behind and playing in the clouds of DDT smoke being spread to control mosquitoes; the film successfully turns toxic exposure into a poetic evocation of childhood abandon).

While the majority of The Tree of Life takes place in the ’50s, there are also scenes set in the present day, where we meet Jack as an adult (played by Sean Penn) whose career as an architect reflects his father’s work as an engineer (he is both a product of and a rebellion against his father’s discipline). Interwoven throughout the film are scenes that take place at the forming of the universe and possibly its ultimate destruction. One sequence late in the film may be taking place in the afterlife, and the manner in which Malick connects it with the seemingly trivial details of everyday life and the overwhelming enormity of the universe in which those trivial details take place forms the film’s spiritual core. Other filmmakers would be tempted to satirize small-town life in the Eisenhower era or politicize its gender dynamics, but Malick is content, especially at this later stage in his career, to let the events speak for themselves, a move that is as deeply and profoundly daring as it is moving.

The Tree of Life Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Download

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • “Exploring The Tree of Life” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateOctober 11, 2011

    Art film aficionados who are also home theater technology junkies will be in bliss with Fox’s The Tree of Life Blu-Ray, which provides them with a show-off reference disc that doesn’t involve car chases or explosions. The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is simply gorgeous in every respect. Emmanuel Lubezki’s superb cinematography, much of which was captured entirely with natural light, is beautifully rendered in great detail without losing the image’s film-like essence; there is a clear presence of grain and no signs of DNR or other digital enhancements. As a whole, The Tree of Life is a fairly muted film in terms of color, with only a few instances of bright, deeply saturated hues on the screen (mostly during the creation and/or destruction of the universe sequences). Properly framed in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio (did you really think that Malick would allow it to be opened up, even slightly, to fill the 1.78:1 frame?), the transfer handles the film’s vast array of staggering imagery extremely well, whether it be the sun-dappled greens of a suburban front yard, an erupting volcano, or the cold, steely buildings that define Jack’s adult life. And, lest we forget that the film is as much of an aural experience as it is a visual experience, an on-screen title just before the film starts recommends that we play it loud to get the full experience, which I dutifully did much to my pleasure. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel surround soundtrack is also superb, with the moments of dead silence contrasted against the thunderous rumble of creation and the soaring tones of Alexandre Desplat’s magisterial score.
    Not surprisingly, writer/director Terrence Malick is completely MIA in the included 39-minute featurette “Exploring The Tree of Life” (like Stanley Kubrick, he generally refuses to talk about his films and shies away from publicity and interviews). That is not to say that there is not a great deal of involvement in the featurette from others, including several of the film’s producers, editors, and special effects artists; actors Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain; and filmmakers David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, who discuss the profound effect Malick has had on their filmmaking careers. The only other supplement is the original theatrical trailer, which is a small piece of art in and of itself.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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