Tree of Life, The (US - BD RA)
Jonathan revisits one of his 2011 favourites in glorious high-definition...
This epic yet intimate story follows the life journey of Jack O'Brien (played as an adult by Penn), the eldest son of a fractured Texas family. Pitt delivers a powerful performance as the cataclysmic force of nature in Jack's world, his complex and rigidly authoritarian father. Hailed as a visually breathtaking masterpiece by critics and audiences alike, The Tree of Life won the Cannes Film Festiva's highest honor, becoming one of the year's most talked about films. (From the Fox synopsis)
I make no effort to disguise my love for Terrence Malick's films. I'd go as far as saying that some of his films are the closest thing to a religious experience captured on celluloid. Many critics believe his works to be masterpieces, and I can't disagree. Yet at the same time, I would never think less of a person for disliking his films. They are art in its most subjective form. Once a philosophy professor at MIT, Malick has proven time and time again that he has no interest in using a conventional narrative or script to tell a story. His movies are typically composed of moments of ethereal beauty and abstract themes, often related to nature and human existence. For some its an unmatched thing of beauty, for others its a complete bore. His latest, The Tree of Life, is arguably his most challenging and least accessible movie to date. As the trailer spells out, the main philosophy behind the movie is that there are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. In the film, the way of grace is personified by Jessica Chastain, a nurturing mother that cares and comforts her children as she shepherds them through life. She's merciful. On the other hand we have the way of nature; survival of the fittest. This is brought to us in the form of the father, played by Brad Pitt in one of his finest performances to date. He is a harsh and demanding patriarch, who takes out his own frustrations and failures on his family. Make no mistake, he loves his children, but he fails to realize the emotional damage he is causing with his words and insults.
Early on the film, there is a good 10-15 minute stretch of imagery with no narration or dialogue. In it, we see impossible images of celestial bodies, microscopic organisms, and early life on the planet. Some of the images are overwhelmingly beautiful and intriguing. The special effects team, which included 2001: A Space Odyssey's Douglas Trumbull ending a 29 year hiatus, deserves an Oscar nomination for their work. This is where it becomes apparent that Malick is reaching for something monumental with this film. He's never been one to aim at simple ideas, and he's not starting now. If he falls short for any reason, its because he grasps at concepts that are nearly impossible to capture in this medium. The majority of the run time focuses on young Jack, the oldest son, growing up in the 1950's. His concept of God is greatly influenced by the philosophies of his father. As he grows older, he begins to recognize how cruel and harsh the world can be. "If you're not good, then why should I be?" he whispers at one point. Perhaps to God, perhaps to his father. He bottles up his feelings, fearing his father's wrath. This contempt manifests itself in destructive behavior, which is not unlike what many children go through. Malick isn't set out to tell us a new story. In fact, storytelling doesn't seem to be his goal at all. He seems far more interested in exploring the anger and belittlement we feel as children, the origins of those feelings, and the residual effects they can have.
Sean Penn plays Jack as an adult, living in today's world. He seems to be sleepwalking through life; a wandering soul in search for answers. Shots of tall trees are replaced with towering architecture. He leaves behind the city, strolling along beaches where others walk in search of answers. This a very literal representation of his journey towards understanding, and forgiving his father. These are some of the films more abstract sequences, but if you are not put off by that, there is plenty of emotional catharsis to be had. Religion definitely plays a role in the film, and what you take away from it spiritually is completely dependent on what you bring to the movie. You could argue that the parents, as personifications of grace vs nature, are also representing creationism vs evolution. The implications are certainly there, but its not an argument that drives the film. There is no shortage of philosophical material that could be discussed at length, should you choose to do so. Emmanuel Lubezki, whose cinematography probably awed you in Children of Men, continues to do amazing work here. If you take away nothing from the movie, its impossible to deny the power of its images. The sun is practically a character in this film, watching through the tree tops and massaging the edges of anything Malick chooses to place in front of it. The editing has some unusual touches that I never adjusted to. The use of jump cuts didn't bother me, but some quick and jarring cuts to black caught me off guard. I kept thinking the projector was going out.
The uninitiated may find the film daunting. And they should. Its challenging in a way that good art and poetry should be. This is a poet with a budget of $32 million and a great cast at his disposal. For some it will undoubtedly induce boredom and disdain. I could hear unrest and disappointment among fellow moviegoers as the lights came up, possibly having just seen their first Malick film. It is extremely easy to dismiss this film immediately as languid pretentious garbage, but in this reviewer's humble opinion that would be a terrible mistake. Whether you walk out feeling awestruck, confused, or just plain unimpressed, there are two things that are guaranteed: you will never see anything quite like it, and images from this movie will stay with you for a very long time.
Wow. This is an absolutely stunning 1080p video transfer from Fox. Malick used a variety of formats for Tree of Life, including 35mm, 65mm, Red One digital, and the Phantom HD camera known for its incredible frame rate. Due to the wide variety of formats, the image doesn't always look the same from scene to scene. Some footage is incredibly clean and smooth looking, while others have a fine filmic grain presiding over them. In all cases, this digital presentation holds up very well and appears exactly as I remember it from my theatrical viewing earlier this year. Colours are particularly lifelike, with the greens of endless treetops and grass bursting with lifelike natural hues, and don't even get me started on the impossibly beautiful nebulae or the many shades of stained glass spiraling into the ceiling of a church. I'm giving this video transfer an award because it is, for the most part, absolutely stunning and one of the finest images I've seen on the format to date, but I did notice some occasional banding from compression. It's very hard to avoid banding when you have sharply contrasting colours (think lights in the dark) right next to each other, and this movie has a lot of astronomical images where nitpicky videophiles will notice this artefact, but if you're like me you'll be so glued to the beauty and majesty of what's happening on the screen during these segments that you'll hardly mind.
I should note that the software I normally use for taking screen caps did not like this Blu-ray disc, so I had to use some unconventional methods to get these stills for the review. If the software is updated and cooperates with the disc in the near future, I'll update this article with more accurate screen caps. Hopefully these will still give you a pretty good idea of how gorgeous the image is.
This walloping DTS-HD 7.1 track from Fox packs some enormous punch. That shouldn't be surprising, since immediately after you press play on the Blu-ray menu, you're greeted with the above message. I strongly suggest that you adhere to it so that Alexandre Desplat's rich score will have direct access to the hairs on the back of your neck. The music in this film is very loud and powerful when it needs to be, but is also appropriately subtle when a scene calls for it. The scenes of volcanic explosions and the rumbling of an eroding planet will stretch the capabilities of your subwoofer and rock your living room. But being loud isn't the only thing this track is good at. The voices, both from the scene recordings and the narration, are clear as can be and never find themselves drowned out by the ambitious soundtrack. I'm not sure the 7.1 mix was necessary, as the film's mostly visual nature doesn't take much advantage of surround effects, but the ambient sounds of waves hitting the beach or wind rustling through the trees all sound terrific and fill the room nicely to create an immersive experience.
And now we reach the only weak part of this release. Aside from a theatrical trailer (which is very good in its own right), there is only Exploring The Tree of Life (29:56, HD). Malick, who is known for not talking about his movies or conducting interviews, does not make an appearance, but the other filmmakers weigh in and speak very highly of him. Directors Christopher Nolan and David Fincher share their love for his work. The producers, which includes Brad Pitt, talk about how they got involved with the project and speak on the mythical status of the project. It is a great segment for fans of the film, but it left me yearning for more.
The Tree of Life is certainly not for everyone, but those who find themselves on Malick's frequency will find an enormously rewarding experience waiting for them. Love it or hate it, it is impossible to deny the ambition on display and the power of the images. Approach it with an open mind and a healthy curiosity. This Blu-ray from Fox is one of the best I've seen all year with it's stunning video transfer and powerful 7.1 audio track. Sadly there is only one special feature, but fans will find it very worthwhile.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 11th October 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Exploring The Tree of Life, Theatrical Trailer, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Length: 139 minutes
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