Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is a film bursting with contradictions. It's too short and too long. It's verbose and not talkative enough. It's strikingly personal and distant. It's fiercely uplifting and almost casually cynical. Not surprisingly, this makes The Tree of Life one of the year's most polarizing films, which is practically expected with such a director at the helm. A jaw-dropping level of visual beauty is on display here, from sun-soaked Texas fields to cleverly constructed images of deep space. The Tree of Life's non-linear structure and impressionistic storytelling set it far apart from your average mainstream production, and it's obvious that a lot of care, planning and detail went into every frame. Yet some of the points earned for creativity are negated by an inflated sense of self-awareness, too much voice-over and a failure to...well, branch out, if you'll pardon the pun.
In human terms, the "Tree of Life" is an all-encompassing symbol present in several major religions and biology itself, among other things. More often than not, it suggests the path to a higher power and/or the way in which living things are intertwined. On paper, this sounds like a perfect match for Malick's drifting, artistic style of filmmaking: from Badlands to The New World, his films typically dwell on the existential side of our human experience. Specific events and time periods often provide the framework for a larger, deeper story and The Tree of Life is no exception to this rule.
Set in rural Texas during the 1950s, it's apparent that The Tree of Life contains a few purely autobiographical elements...although it's nearly impossible to tell, given Malick's reclusive nature. Three different stories are juggled during this film, with the most ambiguous being an abstract journey through space and time. Two more specific stories revolve around Jack O'Brien, both as a young boy (played by Hunter McCracken) and a middle-aged man (Sean Penn). Jack's childhood is explored in modest detail, often focusing on relationships with his stern, temperamental father (Brad Pitt), a naïve but loving mother (Jessica Chastain) and his trusting younger brothers (Tye Sheridan and Laramie Epplar). As an older man, Jack still seems conflicted by his polar opposite parental figures and a tragedy during his young adult life. Meanwhile, our journey through time suggests that one human life probably doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. Either that, or it matters more than anything else.
The Tree of Life presents too much to process during one viewing...and like most other Serious Films, what you get out of it probably depends on where you're at in life. As a new parent (and former child, of course), glimpses of Jack's early childhood and his parents' conflicting behavior are realistic and relatable on certain levels. Additionally, our journey through time often provides an effective and visually rich backdrop. Modern scenes with middle-aged Jack are much less effective, however: there's too much of a gap to consider this an effective character study. More attention given to his further upbringing (instead of, say, distracting CGI dinosaurs, if we're allowed to pick and choose) would have made The Tree of Life much easier to fully connect with. My other main gripe was the overuse of Malick's trademark "whispered voice-overs"; in this case, they often distract from the stunning visuals instead of amplifying them. If I could hear one film with a music-only audio track, this would be it.
As it stands, it doesn't feel like we're getting the whole story here...but then again, The New World got a director's cut in 2008, so perhaps we'll see a more complete version somewhere down the road. For now, we'll have to settle for Fox's puffy three-disc package, which favors a reference-quality A/V presentation and format convenience over special features. Like The Tree of Life itself, it's a thoughtful effort that still manages to hold us at arm's length. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, The Tree of Life looks completely jaw-dropping on Blu-Ray. This 1080p transfer preserves every detail of the film's rich cinematography, from quiet suburban landscapes to the far reaches of outer space. Shot primarily with natural light, The Tree of Life boasts wonderful shadow detail, solid black levels and a pleasing layer of film grain. Digital problems are non-existent. Simply put, there's virtually nothing to complain about here, because The Tree of Life is the best-looking live action Blu-Ray in recent memory. Feel free to pause and marvel.
The Tree of Life's substantial 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally impressive, especially if you follow the Blu-Ray's on-screen request to play it at high volume. This is an incredibly spacious and enveloping audio mix from start to finish, especially during the film's classically-tinged soundtrack. Boasting strong channel separation, thunderous LFE, a tight dynamic range and crisp dialogue, this is as perfect an audio presentation as I've heard in quite some time. An optional Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, as well as English SDH and Spanish subtitles, is offered during the main feature.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the lightly-animated menu designs are clean and easy to navigate. This 139-minute film has been divided into roughly two dozen chapters, no obvious layer change was detected and this release appears to be locked for Region "A" players only. The three-disc package is housed inside a hinged keepcase with double-sided artwork, a matching slipcover and a promotional insert.
This is a three-disc set, but don't get too excited: pretty much our only real extra is "Exploring The Tree of Life"
(29 minutes), a fairly standard behind-the-scenes featurette. Several members of the cast and crew---including Brad Pitt, the child actors, several producers and editors, to name a few---are on hand to comment about the film's production and development. Contemporary directors like Christopher Nolan and David Fincher praise Malick's visual style and lasting influence. Unfortunately, many of the film's nuts and bolts are left unexplored, though we do get a brief look at the unusual elements used to create The Tree of Life
's cosmic visuals. Sadly, that's about as deep as the rabbit hole goes.
Also here is the film's Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes), as well a matching DVD and Digital Copy disc. Otherwise, all bonus features are presented in 1080p and do not include optional subtitles or Closed Captions. Some may feel that this theatrical cut of The Tree of Life stands on its own, but I disagree. Perhaps Criterion will eventually come to the rescue, as they did with The Thin Red Line.
The Tree of Life is a beautifully shot, carefully composed and richly detailed film that nonetheless feels maddening and incomplete at times. Eye-rolling philosophical voice-overs routinely grind our story to a halt on many occasions...but if that's the price we have to pay for Malick's stunning visuals, it's almost a fair trade. Fox's three-disc package is satisfying in some areas: a reference-quality technical presentation is the obvious standout here, but the below-average collection of extras suggests a more substantial (Criterion?) double-dip in the future. At such a high asking price, I'd recommend that most viewers---aside from die-hard fans, of course---dip their toes in the water first. Rent It.
NOTE: The above images were obtained from promotional outlets and do not represent this release's native resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes at a local gallery and runs a website or two. He also enjoys slacking off, telling lame jokes and writing stuff in third person.