THE TREE OF LIFE
Review by Gordon Justesen
Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain
Director: Terrence Malick
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 139 Minutes (Theatrical), 189 Minutes (Extended)
Release Date: September 11, 2018
“Brother...keep us...guide us...to the end of time.”
As a film lover, you possess a certain desire. That desire is to have the chance to experience classic films on the big screen. Specifically, the legendary watershed films that came out prior to your existence.
Just an exhilarating a feeling is to witness before you, in a big screening house, a film that is the closest thing imaginable to seeing that classic you've been wishing to see in the same way for the longest time. I wasn't able to see the original Star Wars in theaters simply because it was released two years before I was born, though I was eventually granted the opportunity in the form of the Special Edition theatrical release. And it wasn't until the release of District 9 that I finally got that experience which, to me, mirrored how I would've reacted had I'd witnessed what everyone else got to see in 1977.
Another film I've always long to experience on the big screen is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is arguably the one film every film lover should have the chance to see in that very way. Luckily, one of my most beloved filmmakers of all time was able to bring me the closest I've ever gotten to experiencing Kubrick's immortal classic in the way it was meant to be experienced. Because just like the effect District 9 had on me in relation to Star Wars, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life will go down as the only film in my lifetime that will serve as the closest I got to seeing 2001 theatrically, which is indeed another way of saying that this is one of the most astounding, powerful, beautiful and brilliant films I will ever have the pleasure of seeing.
And the comparison to 2001 is well deserved because Malick has made a film here that, like Kubrick's, is incredibly bold, unique, polarizing, remarkably challenging, extravagantly ground-breaking, will stand the test of time and above all else is a magnificent work of cinematic art resulting from a singular vision. And just like the late great Mr. Kubrick, Malick worked on his own terms and never allowed studio intervention to even be a possibility. Whatever he created was exactly what would end up on screen.
I became an admirer of Malick's ever since first seeing The Thin Red Line (for me, the best war movie PERIOD) in theaters. I then immediately sought out his previous works, Badlands and Days of Heaven, and from that point vowed to never miss out on another one of his films theatrically, no matter how long it would take for it to reach the screen. And it would always be worth the wait, because films that are as beautifully poetic as the ones he makes are a major rarity, and always result in a powerful film experience.
What can be said first and foremost about The Tree of Life, which won Best Picture at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) is that if Malick chooses never to make another film, he has found the absolute best project to consider his swan song (though he has gone on to make a few films in the years since). Because this film goes into areas and depths that no film of Malick's before it has gone, which is really saying something. And it also proves to be a challenging film experience even for devoted fans of the filmmaker, and you should allow those words to sink in your head before you consider watching.
If you're being drawn to this based solely on the notion that this is the new film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the chances are pretty good that you will be more than unsatisfied. More often than not, Malick keeps his cast (no matter how star-studded) in the background in order to allow his poetic filmmaking approach to be the driving force of the film. This means a great deal of imagery accompanied by distinctive voice-over narration.
But even if you're a Malick devotee and are used to those qualities in his films by now, this film will still be something of a test. I'll get to why this is as I delve into the film itself, though I urge all who are fortunate to experience the film to be patient. A film this rewarding doesn't come very often.
And it is only now, as I'm typing this review, that I've just begun to realize that no other film I've penned a review for is more difficult in terms of applying description. Not because the central story is difficult to interpret descriptively, but rather because it's simply hard to do justice to a film of this type through a series of words. Then again, what film of Terrence Malick's has been?
In a story structure that completely defies conventional narrative, Malick composes a mosaic piece that simultaneously details the journey of an American family and the evolution of the universe that God has created. Another great strength of this film is although it delves into spiritual themes, and more passionately so than any other film in existence, you don't have to have a religious preference in order for this film to work on you. Any viewer can walk away from this film with his or her own interpretation, though I do believe this film should be quintessential viewing for Sunday school classes and church groups.
At the center of Malick's observance of life are The O'Brien family, who at the beginning of the film are completely devastated by tragic news. One of the sons in the family has died. The mother (Jessica Chastain) and the father (Brad Pitt) are very much grief-stricken beyond belief, though show it in individually different ways. She is emotional to the point of not being able to compose herself in the aftermath of finding out, while his reaction is that of near stunned silence.
This also has long term effect on the eldest son in the family, Jack (Sean Penn). Even as we observe him residing over a successful career in a construction firm, and it's clear that a great deal of time has passed since the tragedy, he simply hasn't been able to shake the haunting effect that his younger brother's death has produced. He simply refuses to let go.
Of course, dealing with this pain also leads to Jack reflecting on the years when he and his brother were very close. This is where the meat of the story takes place, which is in 1950s Texas. Malick is a native Texan, thus confirming this is quite possibly a reflection of his childhood as well.
We see young Jack (Hunter McCracken), along with younger brothers Steve (Tye Sheridan) and R.L. (Laramie Eppler) being raised in what is essentially a conflicted environment, parent wise. The mother is a saintly figure who truly believes in the power of love above all else. The father, meanwhile, is exceedingly strict and constantly tough on his boys when it comes to respect and following rules.
This ties into the main theme of the film, which is there are two ways of life; the way of nature and the way of grace. The father clearly represents the force of nature, while the mother represents loving grace. And these conflicting methods of parenting do have an effect on the man Jack grows up to be.
Throughout the film, Malick does intercut the storytelling with some of the boldest imagery to ever be seen in a single feature film, probably since 2001. And just like “The Dawn of Man” segment that opens Kubrick's film, this film contains a portion that will serve as the breaking point for those who aren't quite prepared for the film that's about to unfold before them. But this differs in that unlike 2001, this sequence doesn't open the film but occurs at around the 15 minute mark.
When the mother questions where God's presence was when her son died, we are taken back to the beginning of time...literally, and pay witness to God creating the universe. This is done specifically through visual effects and breathtaking cinematography. We even see dinosaur activity at one point.
It's a sequence that runs a good 15 minutes and is completely without dialogue. This is the point in the film that will test the patience of some viewers. Even I at first was close to wondering where Malick was going with this, but by the film's end I knew exactly what it was...and I was left speechless!
There are countless moments here that will live in my mind for years to come, thanks to work of Malick, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Jack Fisk. Knowing Malick's reputation as an all-around perfectionist, it must have taken an extravagant amount of time to pull off the photography of the endless beautiful images, and even more so in the editing room. But the end result, I can assure you, is the cinematic equivalent of multiple classic paintings in an art museum coming to life before your very eyes.
And talk about having a sequence move me to tears on the strength of both beauty and meaning. Towards the end of the film, we see present day Jack on a beach shore confronted with all the people he knew and loved from his childhood, which is to give him a glimpse of what he is to expect when he passes on. It's impossible for me to do this sequence justice in a review, but trust me when I say this moment should leave any viewer at the very least purely awestruck!
Though I mentioned earlier that Malick has a tendency to keep his actors more or less in the background, the performances in his films manage to be nothing short of remarkable. I've always felt that Brad Pitt has become a greater actor with age, and his performance here illustrates that brilliantly. You forget you're watching one of the best looking guys in all Hollywood, because Pitt becomes this strict American father from the very first scene.
With then newcomer Jessica Chastain, what we have is a case of one of the most perfect pieces of casting of all time! She is just glowing in her every moment on screen, possessing an angelic beauty and displaying a wonderful sense of loving grace, just as the character is meant to be portrayed. She didn’t garner an Oscar nomination, but she was ever so truly deserving of one.
The limited presence of Sean Penn (his screen time only adds up to about 10 minutes), had many wondering why he was even in this film to begin with. Even Penn himself later admitted in an interview that he didn't bring much to the table in the finished product (his presence is more expanded in the extended cut). But I guess I'm in the minority on this matter, because I think Penn gets across more than enough through silence and simple facial expressions.
And, as if this film hadn't already pulled off enough miracles, we have what may be the best acting ever given by a set of child actors. Hunter McCracken, in particular, is nothing short of astonishing in his scenes as the eldest son. All of the young boys are first time performers as well, and they each possess a natural acting ability you simply don't see in actors this young.
It goes without saying that no other film surpassed The Tree of Life as the absolute best of its year, and it will more than likely go down as the single best film this decade! It's an experience I will never forget, in terms of a purely amazing theatrical experience and how I connected with this film. The most challenging films are more often than not the very greatest ever constructed. Kubrick did it with 2001, and Terrence Malick has done it with this film!
I honestly didn’t think anything could surpass Fox’s Blu-ray release in 2011, but then again at the time I didn’t realize Criterion was ever going to grab hold of this film. And having applied a 4K restoration (supervised by both Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), they have crafted pretty much one of the most visually astonishing Blu-ray releases you will ever see! Next to the big screen, this is hands down THE ONLY way one should go about experiencing this magnificent work of art. I can't say enough about how jaw-droppingly gorgeous this film is in the 1080p! Where to begin???? The dreamlike cinematography, the rousing color appearance of each frame, the staggering image detail that lingers throughout, the appearance of the visual effects, and so on and so forth. The truth is I just don't have enough room to explain how mystifyingly beautiful this film is on Blu-ray. If anything, you should be moved to tears by the final frame as a result of being subjected to endless beauty! Criterion has mastered Blu-ray perfection with their work here, as it might just be the single greatest looking disc to ever surface!
And it doesn't end there! Though Fox’s release contained a 7.1 mix, and Criterion’s only carries a 5.1 mix, absolutely nothing is lost whatsoever. In fact, the impact is just as potent as ever. The film's sound design is one of a kind, and this top-notch sounding presentation will have you fully engulfed in the proceedings as the poetic voice-overs, Alexandre Desplat's haunting score, the thunderous sound resulting from Malick's interpretation of nature and various other elements will have you struck with awe multiple times.
It is here where Criterion delivers the upgrade that admirers of this film have been waiting for. Among the extras provided here, the prime showcase is that of an Extended Cut of the film (which runs 3 hours and 9 minutes), adding more beauty and impact to an already beautiful and impact delivering piece. Although Malick considers the Theatrical Version his preferred cut, this new version is a wondrous expansion of the director’s immense poetic vision, and both cuts are equally remarkable.
As for the remaining extras, we have new interviews with actress Jessica Chastain and senior visual-effects supervisor Dan Glass, as well as a new video essay by critic Benjamin B about the film’s cinematography and style, featuring audio interviews with Lubezki, production designer Jack Fisk, and other crew members. We are also treated to a new interview with critic Alex Ross about Malick’s use of classical music, as well as a video essay from 2011 by critic Matt Zoller Seitz and editor Serena Bramble, a documentary titled “Exploring The Tree of Life”, featuring interviews with admirers of Malick including David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, a Trailer and an excellent booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones, as well as a piece on the film written in 2011 by none other than the late, great Roger Ebert.
Poetic. Challenging. Bold. Filmmaking art at the highest existing form. Those are the most perfect words in describing Terrence Malick's beautiful masterpiece, The Tree of Life, which has now been given the Criterion treatment is certainly deserves. If anything, it is a work of art that feels like a pure gift of cinema that will be lovingly endured for years to come.