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The Tree of Life (2011)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 10/11/2011

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/19/2011

If you're visiting this website, then you most likely watch a lot of movies. How much is "a lot"? I don't know, but I do know that I've seen a lot of movies. Thousands? A million? Who knows? One thing is for certain, after decades of watching movies, at times I feel as if I'm simply watching the same film over and over. (See my recent review for The Howling Reborn for examples of this.) So, when a movie which is actually different comes along, it can certainly take one surprise. It's like stumbling across a new breed of animal -- there's excitement and shock and an uncertainty on how to take it. This was my reaction to Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, a flawed, but unique movie.

The Tree of Life's narrative is a bit tricky, but essentially it tells the story of the O'Brien family and offers a snapshot of their lives from the 50s. The family consists of Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The bulk of the story is told through Jack's eyes, as we get a mixture of boyhood fun and adventure with his brothers, as well as family turmoil, as Jack rebels against his strict father. This is all done as a flashback, as we see adult Jack (Sean Penn), who is clearly dealing with some tragic news.

The thing which makes The Tree of Life unique isn't the story, but the way in which it is told. Malick has created a film where the story takes a backseat to the sensory experience of the film. To me, the movie had the feeling of what it would be like to try and experience someone else's memories. We rarely get what could be considered a "scene" in the classic sense in the movie. Instead, it is made up of little snippets of visuals, showing Jack and the family doing various things. There is always a sense of place, as most of the action takes place in the family's home, but there is rarely a sense of time. We see the boys as babies, but after that, there is no way of knowing if what we are seeing is taking place in chronological order. The movie is a mixture of shots showing the family and some handheld POV shots, again enhancing that feeling of looking through someone else's eyes. We don't always know exactly what is happening in a given scene, as there is often little in what we normally get in the way of framing a scene, but we get somehow feel what the characters are experiencing.

Making a movie like this is clearly a tricky exercise, and The Tree of Life illustrates the pros and cons of this approach. The movie asks us to let go of any pre-conceived notions of story and structure and to simply give into the experience. This is obviously a different way of doing things, and some viewers my be resistant to it. (I know that I was at first.) However, once you grasp where the movie is going, the journey is fascinating at times. Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (and the five editors who worked on the movie) have done a great job of blending various visuals and visual styles to place us right in the action. We are there, even if we aren't sure what is happening.

Which brings us to the shortcoming of The Tree of Life. Even if we appreciate what Malick is doing, we can't help but crave some sort of story or structure. At times, the movie is simply too experimental. There were several moments, especially those involving Mr. O'Brien's business, where just a bit more detail would have helped immensely. We see a great deal of Mr. O'Brien in the movie, and he becomes a fully developed character (more on that in a moment), but the same can't be said for his wife. And you've probably heard about the "Creation" segment of the movie. Yes, this 17-minute section of the film contains various images which represent the creation of life in the universe and one Earth. And yes, there are CGI dinosaurs here. OK, I get it. The movie deals with grief and this passage is telling us that the creation of life is a very complicated affair and that death can be instantaneous. That's a powerful message. But, 17-minutes of Discovery Channel footage? This comes early in the film and some viewers may be able to jump back into the movie, but others will simply assume that someone changed the channel. Also, the ambiguous ending makes the finale of Lost look solid.

I was very surprised to see that The Tree of Life opened with the following message: "For optimal sound reproduction, the producers of this Blu-ray recommend that you play it loud." (Shouldn't that be "loudly"?) My first impression was this would keep you from hearing the person next to you saying, "'What the hell was that?" It's actually because there is whispered dialogue throughout the film. This is simply another example of how the movie does its own thing. The Tree of Life clearly isn't for everyone, but if you can be patient and you want to encounter a movie which is a sensory experience, then it's worth checking out.

The Tree of Life offers one of the more random levitation scenes in a movie on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 35 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source material. The picture has a very nice crispness to it, which lends it a pleasing amount of depth. The level of detail is good as well and we can easily make out the textures on objects. The colors look very good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 5.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is an interesting track, as much of the movie is comprised of very quite and unassuming moments where the audio is clear, but there aren't many outstanding effects. However, the "Creation" sequence offers an abundance of surround, stereo, and subwoofer effects, all of which are nicely detailed. Also, at several points in the film, there will be a low-frequency rumbling which gives the sub a workout.

The Tree of Life Blu-ray Disc contains only two extras. "Exploring The Tree of Life" (30 minutes) is sort of a making of, but (just like the film itself) not in the traditional sense. For starters, Malick doesn't appear here -- I don't think he was even in any of the on-set stills. We do get comments from Pitt and Chastain, who talk about their work on the film. Pitt, being a producer, talks about the production and Malick's shooting style. We learn some about the casting and the production design. Of course, there's a discussion of the creation sequence. Possibly the most interesting thing here is that David Fincher and Christopher Nolan give their views on Malick's work. The other extra is the TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2011 by Mike Long