It's difficult to encapsulate Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' into a simple movie review. It quite possibly defies any conventional review rating scale, because of its uniqueness. Like a piece of art hanging in a gallery, the feelings, meanings, and morals represented are completely subjective to the viewer. Malick has crafted an experience that isn't so much a rigid narrative, as it is a stream of consciousness about the wonders of life -- big and small.
I'm not a universal Malick fan. To me, 'The New World' is one of the most sleep-inducing films out there. However, when he gets it right, he really gets it right. It's almost impossible to simply say what the movie is about, since it's about everything. Its main storyline has to do with the O'Brien family and their three sons growing up in the 50s. Their father (Brad Pitt) is a strict authoritarian figure who pushes his kids to be "better." Or at least what he views as better. Like so many children, they are able to easily spot the hypocrisies in their dad's actions and question his whole method of parenting.
The oldest child, Jack (Hunter McCracken), has taken it upon himself to rebel. Through a series of scenes we see Jack grow and change, becoming more and more bitter as he realizes that his dad is a flawed human being.
Countering the father's severe nature is a loving mother (Jessica Chastain) who is a shelter for the children when dad flips out. She and her husband are constantly at odds on what's the best way to teach their children. She hugs them close, while he teaches them about violence and getting ahead in the world at any cost. It's an interesting dichotomy that is truly the crux of the movie. The beginning opens with a voiceover explaining that there are two ways through this world: grace and nature. With the help of the special feature on this set, we come to realize that while the mother exudes the theme of grace, their father is nature. She tries to build them up, while he relentlessly tears them down. She's cool and calm, he's oppressive.
'Tree of Life' isn't your normal film. Not at all. The camera isn't so much telling as it is observing. Many of the scenes seem unplanned like the actors were told to interact with each other and the camera would just be there witnessing the event. In this way Malick is able to capture some of the more powerful, yet subtle reactions children have. We're able to perceive each scene in our own unique way. The family interaction captured here is real, poignant, and extremely emotional. It's a distinctive level of humanistic understanding that I haven't seen in any other movie I've ever watched.
Juxtaposed against this family and their real-life troubles is a creation story of sorts. A sweeping set of images placed strategically by Malick to give us a sense of awe and wonder about life. How insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. How awesome nature is and how everything in the universe is somehow connected. Do I think he goes a little overboard with the abstract imagery? At times, yes I do. While some of it is amazing to look at, I found myself wondering what this has to do with anything, or if it's actually meant to mean something anyway. Like I said, a work of art will elicit a thousand different opinions and feelings from a thousand different people, and this film is no different. One scene may impact someone while it leaves another feeling empty and cold. That's okay, though, because after seeing this film again I'm convinced there's no right or wrong way to view it. It's just there, like an abstract painting hanging on a wall. You're free to make up your own mind regarding its merit because it forces you to.
One thing that I will say definitively about 'Tree of Life' is that out of all the movies I saw this year, this one made me think about it the most after I'd walked out of the theater. Months later I found myself wondering about certain scenes and about the feelings I felt after watching it. It's a cinematic journey that definitely sticks with you.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This 20th Century Fox release comes complete with a 50-GB Blu-ray Disc, a DVD copy of the movie, and a third disc for the Digital Copy. It's housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a swinging arm with two disc hubs. There is a slipcover provided which has the same artwork as the front cover, but switches it up a bit for the back. It's indicated on the back that this is a Region A release.
Before I get into this part of the review I want to preface this with a quick note. Most of this disc is completely and utterly demo-worthy. It's simply one of the best looking Blu-rays I've ever seen. However, I do have one minor squabble with it which brings it down to a 4.5 on the star scale. Don't worry, though, it's just because our scoring doesn't allow for a 4.9, if it did I would've used it. With our current grading scale I felt like I had to mark it down a bit. Just know that the majority of this Blu-ray is simply five star material.
'The Tree of Life' is such a visually stunning movie. Most of the movie relies on its visuals as there are long stretches without any principle dialogue. Just sweeping images of stunning scenery which gleam to perfection.
Color here is absolutely splendid. I don't remember the last time where I was so gob-smacked by a movie's color representation. The moment the camera swings upward and catches the perfect geometrically spaced stained glass windows in the church is one of the many moments where I felt like pausing it and trying to print out that one screenshot to frame it. That's how beautiful this movie looks. Almost every frame could be paused, printed, and hung in a frame.
Fine detail is optimum. Check out the image of Mr. O'Brien holding the foot of his newborn in his hands. Every soft line of the baby's foot is visible, contrasted against the hard lines of his father's hands. The facial details of the actors are unparalleled. I mean, you can literally see the fine peach-fuzz running down Jessica Chastain's neck as the setting sun shines through illuminating even the tiniest hair. Textures! Oh boy the textures! Take a look at the close-ups of the kids' denim jeans, or the woven texture of their father's suit, or the flattering fabric of their mother's dresses.
Shadows are deeply satisfying. Many times Malick focuses on the shadows being cast by the human figures instead of the humans themselves. They are dark and resolute, with perfectly defined edges. Shadows add a striking depth to the visual design. Even the CG effects like the random dinosaurs (yes, CG dinosaurs in a Malick film), look fantastically designed. The high-def treatment only enriches the animation instead of pointing out its faults.
With all this adoration you have got to be wondering where my caveat comes in right? Well, here it is. This is my one, very minor quarrel with the visual design, a technical issue which should impact the score somewhat. During the creation/space scenes there are numerous fade-ins and fade-outs. As the movie adjusts from one cosmic image after another, slight banding is fairly noticeable on the outskirts of the objects coming into or vanishing from view. This really is the only drawback to this otherwise masterful video presentation. Like I said, I would have given it a 4.9 if possible, but because of the limitations of a set scoring system a 4.5 will do. Just know that besides the minor banding issues, this is one of the most truly awe-inspiring, visually stunning Blu-ray video presentations this side of 'Baraka .'
I'm thinking back on all the Blu-rays I've ever watched and I don't think any have ever started with a note from the filmmakers saying for the best audio experience that they recommend listening to the movie "loud." It makes perfect sense. You won't feel the full weight of this much nuanced soundtrack by just allowing it to play at your normal volume level. Crank this baby up and let its incredibly complex sound design wash over you.
Fox has provided a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix for this release. Believe me when I say this, you're going to want all eight of those channels to be able to get the full effect of this film. From the opening scene you can distinctly hear waves crashing. Full-bodied waves that fill the whole front part of the soundfield. The smooth crashing of the waves seamlessly ebbs and flows through the channels creating a very realistic experience.
The soundtrack is full of memorable classical pieces from Brahms to Mozart which reverberate through all seven speakers. This music is meant to envelope you in the scenes and it most certainly does. It sucks you in as the symphonic sounds are clearly defined with wonderful fidelity.
Directionality is key as every scene is almost like we're right in the middle of it. We hear people talking off to the side in the side speakers, while other kids chatter up front about something completely different. A town waterhole is filled to the brim with townsfolk milling about and their children frolicking in the water. Each individual voice is distinct and intelligible, even when all the kids in the group are talking simultaneously like they so often do.
The subwoofer also isn't left out at all. The celestial scenes are packed with ominous LFE. As a small planet passes by what appears to be a giant fireball it's easy to feel the surging bass being produced. When volcanoes erupt, the sudden force was enough to terrifyingly jar my sleeping dog awake, causing her to move further away from the television.
Dialogue is always intelligible, even the whispers -– of which there are many. This is one of the reasons you need that volume turned up loud. There are so many hushed lines of dialogue that you'll miss something if it isn't cranked up a bit. What is very telling to me about this mix is that there are a few times where a sound or two are thrown in without any warning. At the beginning after the O'Brien's find out that their son has died in the war, the camera pans through a forest gazing at the treetops and you can hear Mrs. O'Brien scream. It's a muted scream, but it's delicate touch isn't lost in the slightest.
Just like the video, the audio here is breathtakingly amazing. Demo material all the way around.
There are no special features provided here.
I really wish I didn't have to assign a finite score to 'The Tree of Life.' It's simply an experience. An expedition into the deepest human emotions. I don't think I've ever seen a movie so aptly encapsulate childhood and the way we remember things. We don't remember our pasts in a linear fashion, just fragments here and there. One memory leads to another and so on.
The video and audio are about the best you're going to find on Blu-ray. The banding was a tiny bit of a problem, but when you compare it to the whole it's hardly noticeable. The fact is you'll be blown away by the audio and visual presentations of this disc. 'The Tree of Life' is highly recommended.