The Tree of Life is only the fifth film in director’s Terrence Malick’s 35-plus year career. Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn, it centers on a small-town Texas family growing up during the 1950s, the strained relationship between the father and his children, the family’s coping with the loss of a child, and the more existential questions that arise from these relationships and losses. The film won the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Malick doesn’t make small films, and neither does he make easy ones. They’re weighty in subject matter, complex in structure, and sparse on dialogue-as-chatter. That’s not to say that they’re not enjoyable, because they are. But enjoyment doesn’t seem to be his goal in the way that we might generally think of film as a medium for light escape. Malick takes a rather high view of film and spends his time in search of the grandeur that only the art of filmmaking can deliver. They are films that demand thought and intellectual participation from the viewer, and if approached as simply entertainment from a busy day then they will inevitably find a frustrated audience. To be sure, there is a place and a need for those kinds of films. But the viewer who expects both Malick’s and perhaps all films to be of that base level of gratification will end up disappointed and missing out on something more rewarding in its own right.
For with The Tree of Life, Malick attempts no less of an audacious goal then to tackle the meaning of life, our place in the world, and trying to find hope during trials of suffering. And he does it largely through images, the struggles of a single middle-class family, and jumping between modern time, the origin of the cosmos, and 1950s small town Texas. It’s an utterly ridiculous idea when reduced to that inadequate explanation, but in the hands of Malick it becomes something much more mystical.
Using a nuclear family in 1950s Texas as a microcosm for some of the struggles and questions we all wrestle with in this world, we are introduced to the O’Brien family. The father (Brad Pitt) is a driven husband and parent with a tendency to be very demanding on both himself and his family of three boys. He is a product of and evangelist for the American dream and the work ethos it demands. His wife (Jessica Chastain) is much more soft and gentle, balancing home life with her warmth and nurture of her husband and children. The two represent the forces in tension within us and the world: nature and grace. The narration explains that one or the other ends up prevailing in each of us. Nature is driven, demanding, and relentless in its calculated advancing. Grace, however, is always thinking more of others, and without an expectation of return. These ideals war both winthin us and without.
The focus is on the eldest son Jack (played young by Hunter McCracken, and in flash forwards as an adult by Sean Penn) and his relationship to both parents. His struggles with his father are born out of a similar heart, and we are witness to how this shapes both his adolescence and adulthood. These relational barriers also set the stage for how all the members of the family deal with the eventual death of one of the boys.
But this story is told in acts, and inbetween we are treated to scenes that show the creation of the world and primitive dinosaurs roaming the land. The idea is that this isn’t really (just) the story of the O’Briens. This is the story of all of us. It’s been going on since the beginning of time, and we are caught up in a tension that’s much larger than the specifics of just our life or our situation. There are numerous spiritual references throughout the movie, in fact much more than in any of Malick’s past work, beginning with a quote from Job 38:4,7 where God himself responds to Job’s questions – Why is this happening to me? Where is God in my specific time of need? – with not so much a direct answer as some perspective on it: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” It’s a bit of a tough pill to swallow, this idea that we are not the world. And the philosophical narrations variously alternate between understanding glimpses of this spiritual conflict and warring with it.
Malick has always directed his lens as a poet. He frames shots, connects disparate images together and even avoids dialogue in an attempt to focus on what we intuit about our world and its struggles when words fail. He relies on an almost dream-like stream-of-conscious narration to connect scenes, and from this approach we see a story unfold more as a reflection of memory than a literal series of events. As viewers, we have both the benefit and limitation of hearing our narrators reason and struggle through these memories in search of a larger meaning. Compared to a traditional plot-driven film (a “movie on rails”) this approach might seem too abstract, and perhaps even slow. But he intentionally creates space for the film to breathe, as well as for it to evolve with time. They’re the kind of films you can watch multiple times and still find something new, in the same way that you might revisit a painting. The piece of art itself hasn’t changed, but we have, and therefore our connection with it changes with each viewing.
This is an important film that perhaps will only be fully appreciated after the passage of time. There are visual and structural similarities between it and Stanly Kubrick’s alt-masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that is also rife with unexplained visual narrative. But The Tree of Life is also not perfect. If it errs, it’s in the sense of aiming too high. As talented as Malick is, the subject matter of the meaning of life could very well be unfilmable (unknowable?), and he doesn’t necessarily do himself any favors by including computer-generated dinosaur footage. And some of the concluding dialogue at the end also feels a bit too neatly wrapped, given the heaviness of some of the preceding struggles in the story.
But it’s much more perfect than not, and any criticisms pale in comparison to the grand spectacle – both beautiful, and sometimes starkly painful – achieved from the soul searching within the film. Visually it’s a feast for the eyes, with beauty and raw humanity captured in every frame. But fortunately it’s also much more than just a pretty picture; it’s a deeply moving exploration of ourselves, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
There simply aren’t technical terms that do justice to how good this film looks. It doesn’t hurt that each frame is its own visual masterpiece, but fortunately the top-notch encoding is crystal clear enough that you’ll soon forget about cold, mechanical words such as “encoding” and “black level”. There isn’t a pixel out of place here, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more effective case made for why high definition in general, and Blu-ray specifically, is breathing some much needed new life into home video. This is an absolutely beautiful presentation of a remarkable film.
The audio is equally polished. The note that the producers recommend you play this film loud isn’t a new one for Malick’s films, and it’s almost a necessary warning. There is a very wide range of sonic levels. From near-quiet whispers of prayers, to the explosions during the formation of the world, it would be almost silly to try to normalize the sound field in order to achieve some lowest common denominator volume level. But even so, you’ll need a still environment and/or understanding neighbors to enjoy both ends to their fullest. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is more than up to the challenge, delivering nothing short of sumptuous music, as well as clear dialogue, throughout. Just as the creation sequences will enrapture your visual senses, it’s nothing short of joy to hear the magestic cue of Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau” during the early childhood sequences. This is just a winning presentation all around.
If any film could benefit from a robust supplemental section, where the themes and subtleties to the storylines and impressionistic images are explored in more detail, it’s this one. Unfortunately, that’s not what we get here. The Tree of Life sports a rather anemic bonus section, which basically consists of one featurette entitled “Exploring The Tree of Life” (HD, 29:56). But it’s a surprisingly good one, and highlights both the actors and crew (with the expection of Malick himself, of course) digging into the unique and lengthy production. It’s both insightful and enlightening, but even at half an hour in length it feels abbreviated. Also included is the fantastic trailer for the film (HD, 2:08) which is a mini work of art on its own.
The combo pack for this release comes with the Blu-ray disc, a bare bones DVD disc (even the scant Blu-ray bonus features aren’t included), as well as a Digital Copy disc. A Digital Copy activation insert is included, but nothing else is provided in the packaging.
If words and phrases such as “art house”, “impressionistic”, “philosophical” and “abstract” don’t or haven’t scared you off, you might be a candidate for enjoying this weighty but powerfully moving film. Its art gallery presentation will prompt more thought and questions than it necessarily strives to answer, but Malick’s unique cinematic gifts are at their height with The Tree of Life. Both beautiful in form and rich in subtle, almost elegaic poignancy, this is a film to own and pore over with multiple viewings.