Release Date(s)2011 (September 11, 2018)
Studio(s)River Road/Plan B/Fox Searchlight Pictures (Criterion – Spine #942)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
The Tree of Life holds the distinction of being the only movie to feature both Brad Pitt and dinosaurs. A spiritual journey of sorts in one man’s mind, it is composed of images, memories, reflections on grief, and a visual montage of the creation of the world as Jack (Sean Penn) ponders the mysteries of life and loss on the anniversary of his brother’s death. The result is an episodic, variegated, often beautiful excursion into a man’s soul that dispenses with traditional narrative.
Jack’s boyhood memories are portrayed in fragmented images as his younger self (Hunter McCracken) comes of age in Texas in the 1950s, navigating the extremes of human nature in his own household with an authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and a selfless, nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain). Jack’s mind jumps through many of life’s mysteries, even picturing the Big Bang, the formation of the planets, and the process of evolution on Earth. He imagines that something so phenomenal must have involved the hand of God. Because of all the suffering in the world, he wonders whether God is good. Operatic arias, organ music, and church choirs add to the religious mysticism running through the movie.
The Tree of Life was director Terrence Malick’s fifth feature film, made 38 years after his first. His films have always generated excitement because of their infrequency. The first four range in quality from excellent (Badlands and Days of Heaven) to mediocre (The Thin Red Line) to disappointing (The New World). The Tree of Life is tough to place along this range because the structure defies typical cinematic narrative. Some might find the movie innovative and exhilarating, others might see it as pretentious and self-indulgent. One thing is certain: it is different.
Performances are secondary to style, with excellent actors relegated to representations rather than characters. Ms. Chastain is especially effective, given that she is playing the essence of Motherhood rather than a particular wife and mother. This was one of the actress’ early films and led to bigger and better roles. Pitt plays a typical 50’s father concerned about raising a child who can succeed in a competitive world. Though this father is not cruel, neither is he particularly nurturing. Sean Penn has very little screen time as adult Jack. Hunter McCracken conveys young Jack’s attempts to make sense of his immediate world and his relationship to it. None of the actors has much dialogue. Their performances rely on facial expression and body language to convey internal feelings and longing.
In a word, The Tree of Life is impressionistic. Paintings of that style create recognizable images made up of small brush strokes, color variation, and the artist’s inventiveness. If you step too close, the individual elements become apparent. With The Tree of Life, Malick starts with those bits and pieces to create a complete canvas that portrays the majesty of the universe and the philosophical meaning of life. Many scenes, though frustratingly confusing, do create a nearly hypnotic spell.
The Tree of Life received wide release back in 2011, though it is really an art film with a generous budget and name cast. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is vibrant, atmospheric, mystical. As a whole, however, the movie leaves me cold. In his attempt to be profound, Malick loses me. The film medium offers amazing tools for directors, Malick seems like a kid discovering a room filled with great toys – he simply has to play with all of them at once. Film connoisseurs will undoubtedly want to check out the film and draw their own conclusions, but I believe most moviegoers would find it heavy-handed and dull.
Another downside to The Tree of Life is its length: 2 hours and 20 minutes. Director Malick is asking the viewer to be patient not only with an artsy kind of movie but also with his interminable showboating of cinematic technique and puzzling images. The sequence chronicling one explanation for life on Earth alone runs 17 minutes. Though visually striking, it could use some judicious pruning.
The 2-disc widescreen Criterion Collection Blu-ray release features a new 4K digital restoration supervised by director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Visual quality is sharp and vibrant.
Bonus materials include a new extended version of the film containing an additional 50 minutes of footage (more on this in a moment); the 2011 documentary Exploring The Tree of Life; new interviews with actor Jessica Chastain and visual effects supervisor Dan Glass; new video essay; new interview with critic Alex Ross about Malick’s use of classical music; video essay from 2011; theatrical trailer; and a booklet containing an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 2011 piece on the movie by critic Roger Ebert.
According to Malick, the 139-minute version is what he regards as the final cut. He refers to the 3-hour-plus cut as an alternate version, with a different rhythm and balance, not necessarily a better one. Malick and Criterion experimented with technology that would allow the additional 50 minutes to be inserted randomly, thus giving the viewer a different version each time. However, they ultimately decided to create a single version because they didn't want an inconsistent experience for viewers. New actors appear in the extended version, new foley and sound effects have been added, and not only new footage but the entire film required new color grading. The most difficult task was locating 35-millimeter negative reels and scanning them into 4K digital files.
The extended version deals with the lives of the O’Brien family, filling in information only mentioned in the theatrical version. The upbringing of the parents figures more prominently and there is additional footage of Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, who searches for spiritual meaning after his brother’s death. The creation sequence has not been changed.
- Dennis Seuling