Fox // 2011 // 139 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 24th, 2011
One of the year's most talked-about films.
"The nuns taught us there were two ways through life -- the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow."
We first meet Jack (Sean Penn, Dead Man Walking) as an adult, but we spend most of The Tree of Life looking into his childhood (where he is played by newcomer Hunter McCracken). Jack's father (Brad Pitt, Inglourious Basterds) is a stern authoritarian whose no-nonsense demeanor masks a host of unfulfilled dreams. His mother (Jessica Chastain, The Debt) is a kind, gentle woman who often allows her own needs and desires to give way to those of her husband and children. Over the course of a Texas summer in the 1950s, we observe Jack's evolving relationship with his parents, his younger brother (Laramie Eppler) and God.
Anyone who has seen The Tree of Life knows that the plot description I've just provided hardly begins to suggest the enormous ambition and sprawling reach of Terence Malick's latest cinematic symphony. The majority of the film takes places in 1950s Texas and offers something which very much resembles a coming-of-age tale, but that story is merely a microcosm of the larger themes Malick is interested in exploring. This is a film about the conflict between nature and grace, the agonizing mystery of God and the meaning of life itself. It's the most ambitious film yet from a filmmaker who has never made anything less than wildly ambitious, and the rare film that actually attains the profundity and transcendence it strives for.
The Tree of Life is a film that will affect viewers in many different ways, as it's very much a film that draws upon whatever you may bring to it. The first time I saw the film in the theatre, I was deeply moved by the boldness and tenderness of Malick's gorgeous conclusion (the nature of which I will not spoil for you in this review). However, several individuals in attendance were intensely displeased, grumbling loudly and storming out of the theatre in irritable dissatisfaction before the credits even began to roll. It's a passionate film which is likely to inspire a passionate response; my own was one of awestruck ecstasy.
This is a deeply spiritual film, and not just in an abstract, new age-y sense. There's no doubt that Malick's universe is one which was created and is overseen by God, though the film has no concerns about allowing Darwin's ideas to sit comfortably alongside such notions (one imagines Malick nodding in appreciation at the denouement of Inherit the Wind, in which Spencer Tracy conclusively claps his copies of The Bible and On the Origin of Species together). Characters frequently address God throughout the film via narration; always in a reverent whisper: even when they question and doubt him, they address him with awestruck respect. The Tree of Life certainly isn't the first film to raise some of the spiritual questions we hear (how could a loving, all-powerful God allow an innocent child to die, or allow good people to suffer?), but it's rare to find a filmmaker asking these questions who doesn't arrive at cynical conclusions (consider the films of Ingmar Bergman, whose spiritual angst was similarly heartfelt yet which led him to increasingly downbeat answers). Malick's concerns, doubts and troubles are effectively countered by his appreciation for the wonder of God's creation and the miracle of grace. The God of Malick's film is inscrutable and distant, yet majestic and omnipresent.
In the film's most immediately memorable sequence, Malick leaps back billions of years to the beginning of creation, employing one jaw-dropping image after another as he conducts a staggeringly beautiful cinematic movement. This is followed by a brief scene in which an youthful dinosaur sees another of his species lying helplessly on the ground. It seems the second dinosaur is dying (or at least badly wounded), and the first dinosaur's initial instinct is to place his foot on the wounded dino's head with the intent of finishing the job. But then something happens: the first dinosaur observes the misery of the second, reconsiders and then wanders off. The first instance of grace transcending nature, perhaps? Malick suggests that our instincts are bad (it might be put in more explicitly religious terms as, "a sinful nature"), but that there's also something within us capable of overcoming those instincts ("by the grace of God").
These notions are explored at great length during the Texas section (which takes up the vast majority of the film's running time), with Pitt and Chastain serving as the respective embodiments of nature and grace and McCracken playing a young man in the process of recognizing that it's much easier to succumb to the former than to achieve the latter. Via a series of exquisitely-captured vignettes, Malick offers a series of familiar yet deeply personal moments of insight into human nature (and human grace). Why does a young man blow up small animals, or destroy someone else's property, or steal his mother's underwear, or ask his younger brother to place his finger in front of the barrel of a BB gun? Not because he is full of hatred and malice, but simply because it's his nature. Malick's handling of Jack's adolescent guilt is sublime; recapturing a sense of youthful anguish that many of us have undoubtedly felt. Even more importantly, he never allows the symbolic elements the characters represent to make the characters less than credible as human beings; Pitt's stern father in particular is a tremendously nuanced creation (he never succumbs to "overbearing movie dad" conventions; you sense the love, thoughtfulness and good intentions which inform his occasionally misguided actions).
The Tree of Life is perhaps the most blatantly spiritual film I've seen recently, but Malick's questions and assertions are too genuine and honest to suit anyone's small-minded religious dogma. I no longer attend church services on any sort of regular basis, but The Tree of Life is more powerful, uplifting and transcendently joyful than any service I've ever attended or sermon I've ever heard. The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job, which many filmmakers and writers have pointed to as evidence of God's cruelty (including Scorsese's Cape Fear, the film I reviewed just before tackling this one -- Robert De Niro's Max Cady makes a reference to Job as a way of dropping hints about the pain he's about to inflict upon Nick Nolte's character). However, the quote Malick employs is a gentle piece of perspective from The Almighty: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" It's fitting that the final word we hear in the film is "Amen" (at the conclusion of the Agnus Dei of the Berlioz Requiem), as the structure of Malick's creation runs closer to a prayer, poem or hymn than a more traditional narrative (for that matter, the structure is also reminiscent of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the few films I've seen with ambition and beauty comparable to what The Tree of Life offers). Malick's film is one that inspires introspection of the richest and most valuable sort.
The Tree of Life (Blu-ray) is something wonderful to behold in 1080p. This is one of the strongest hi-def transfers I've seen to date, offering eye-popping colors, breathtaking detail, stunning black levels and sublime shadow delineation. Malick's film's are always gorgeous to behold, and this one is the sort of film that singlehandedly justifies your decision to invest in a Blu-ray player and HDTV. Wow. The film dazzles from start to finish, but the Creation sequence in particular stands out as the perfect "showcase your home theatre" scene. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track is similarly spectacular, with every little nuance well-captured and the entire film proving exceptionally immersive. The film opens with a note advising viewers to turn the volume up loud in order to better appreciate the work which has been put into this track. I urge you to do so as well, as this disc delivers an audio experiences which ranges from intricately subtle to room-shakingly powerful (don't worry, balance levels are solid enough that you won't need to adjust the volume. The only area of this release that disappoints in any way is the supplemental package, which consists of a half-hour featurette called "Exploring the Tree of Life" (Malick is predictably absent, but you do hear from other crew members plus filmmakers Christopher Nolan and David Fincher), a trailer, a DVD copy and a digital copy. That's it.
The Tree of Life is a film which reminds us of what the medium is capable of. It's arguably the best film of Malick's career and the best of 2011. The Blu-ray release looks and sounds as strong as any I've seen to date. I can't recommend this release highly enough.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy