October 2011

The Tree of LifeTerrence Malick’s Magnum Opus

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment 2274934
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

Overall Enjoyment
Picture Quality
Sound Quality

Viewing a Terrence Malick film without having strong feelings about the experience is nearly impossible. Some find his work maddeningly abstract and pretentious, while others will find themselves mesmerized by the gorgeous cinematography and signature voiceovers. The Tree of Life will divide opinion more than any of Malick's previous works, but one thing is certain: there is no other film like it.

The story's fulcrum lies in 1950s Waco, Texas. The plot follows the struggles of Jack (Hunter McCracken), a young boy who attempts to wrestle with his father's (Brad Pitt) authoritarian nature, as contrasted with his mother's (Jessica Chastain) more nurturing approach to parenting. Jack also explores his beliefs about death, faith, and personhood. Woven into this primary narrative are two complementary asides: a semi-CGI sequence that illustrates the birth of existence, both universal as well as here on Earth, and another track in which adult Jack (Sean Penn) continues to struggle with his identity.

Preconceptions about traditional filmmaking must be discarded at the door if one is to appreciate this film. For those that have trouble with non-linear plots, The Tree of Life may drive them mad, or worse, to sleep. The film doesn't entertain in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, it demands a thoughtful, open-minded, active viewer, one willing to embrace the decidedly abstract in concert with the literal, for as often as the dialogue carries the story's progression, so too does the film's imagery. The viewer is left to infer a great deal from the onscreen happenings, which often hint at the profound without ever being so vulgar as to actually voice it.

Divorced from the story, The Tree of Life is arguably one of the prettiest films you're likely to see or hear, and it finds cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at his very best. Colors are vibrant yet natural, with special care taken to preserve the organic, unfiltered qualities of the sets, actors, and landscapes. While it would be easy to point out a few single examples of the image quality on tap, the fact is that almost the entire film is worthy of a screenshot. It’s that beautiful.

The audio track is also noteworthy. Two audio tracks are available: a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track, and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Unfortunately, I was limited to the latter, but the original score by Alexandre Desplat sounded fabulous, ranging from simple piano cues to larger orchestral ones. When allied with the properly deep, crushing bass lines that appear throughout, this Blu-ray will be a good workout for stereo / surround sound systems everywhere, especially if you take the advice of the producers who advise at the outset that you should play the film "loud."

The only extra feature is a 30-minute behind-the-scenes piece, which includes interviews with directors David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, as well as the film's producers and stars. It yields some insight into the film's genesis, as well as its actual making.

The Tree of Life, itself, will divide opinion. The Blu-ray, however, is one of the best I have seen. Terrence Malick imparts the majesty of life with characteristic verve and grace, and it's an experience that shouldn't be missed.

Be sure to watch for: The sequence involving the birth of the universe is spellbinding, and resonates more in the world of documentaries than proper cinema. The rich reds offset the inky, cosmic blacks, while the thunderous bass line serves to underline the spectacle of it all. Stellar.

. . . Hans Wetzel