Going in to a Terence Malick film, it must first be stated that most viewers are either going to love it or hate it, there is very little middle ground when it comes to the director's work. All of Malick's films have a very strong polarizing effect that makes the anticipation for the films all the more palpable. You should know what to expect and what not to expect. Similar to The Thin Red Line and The New World (his previous two efforts) The Tree of Life is a meandering, poetic work of art. It's as if the director has so much to say in so small a space and short a time that it all overflows onto the screen in a very beautiful and unrestrained way, which leads to a narrative structure that is sporadic and non-linear. The film is comprised of beautiful imagery, haunting music and constantly eloquent narrative. All these elements are used by Malick to present the biggest question there is: who are we and why are we here? And in one of the my favorite scenes ever put on film, Malick actually answers the question in his own way! More on that later . . .
The main narrative focus of the movie is a 1950's mid-American family: a husband, wife and three boys. The film starts with the family experiencing the very tragic loss of one of their children and spends significant time showing their grief and regret. It then jumps back and forth between the family in the 1950's and the later life of one of the surviving children, whose character is played by a purposefully distant Sean Penn.
The basic premise is Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain's characters are married and have three children. Pitt's character works at an industrial plant and is a loving but strict and sometimes even cold father. His character believes that to get ahead in the world one must be tough and hard-working and not "too nice." Chastain is the opposite, a loving, free spirited woman who is presented as almost angelic. Her character believes that grace is the right way of the world and that to do good is all a person should strive for and that they will be rewarded in turn. This contrast between husband and wife, between NATURE and GRACE, is the focal point of the movie and is the director's view of man's possible divergent paths. The three children that are brought up in the household are of course presented with the two very conflicting beliefs of their parents. The boys struggle with who and what they will become. This essential human struggle is what The Tree of Life is all about and the director goes to great lengths to explain it. To say anymore about what goes on amongst the family would be unfair to those who have not yet seen it . . .
And now, to my favorite scene of the movie and one of my favorite scenes of all time! It occurs about twenty minutes into the movie. It is a wonderful depiction of the origin of life on earth as the director sees it. After showing what appears to be the big bang theory and the formation of the stars and galaxy, earth is presented and populated by sea creatures and dinosaurs. The scene then slows to a single dinosaur resting on a riverbed. It is approached by another, more menacing dinosaur predator which places it's clawed foot on the resting dinosaur's neck and appears to be close to killing it. However, it does not. It looks at it, appears to take mercy on it and simply walks away! Presented at the beginning of the movie with little context and before all of the above character exposition has taken place, the scene might seem out of place and hard to understand initially. However, after careful consideration, it is clear that Malick is showing nature being graceful or, at the very least that nature is capable of grace. Malick seems to be suggesting that the world is not predatory by nature or that it does not have to be, that it is every person's choice to act on nature or grace. This idea is later reinforced in the actions of the three children and how they choose to treat each other and others around them after being shown both the natural ways of their father and the graceful ways of their mother.
All in all, The Tree of Life is a wonderful movie and a personal favorite of mine. Then again, The Thin Red Line is also a favorite of mine and I am a huge fan of Terence Malick and his seemingly aimless adventures. This movie is definitely not for everyone but I do think it is a movie that should be seen, heard and experienced as it truly is unlike any other movie ever put out there. I think it most definitely will be nominated for Best Picture and it should win! Nods should also go to Brad Pitt and especially Hunter McCracken for his work as the young Jack.
Video - 10/10
The Blu-ray presentation of The Tree of Life is almost perfect. The video is excellent with no issues of any kind, except for a few white specks that appear throughout the two-hour plus runtime. The colors and contrast are spot on and the black levels are deep and rich. There is no digital noise reduction or edge enhancement of any kind. The film grain that is present is natural and unobtrusive. A special mention must be made to the creation sequence as some of these scenes were filmed with Imax cameras and look exceptionally great. These are without a doubt DEMO WORTHY scenes that rival those found in Avatar. I will go so far as to say these particular scenes are the best material that I've ever seen on the Blu-ray format so far.
Audio - 10/10
The audio is equally great. Before the film begins it is recommended by the filmmakers to listen to the movie at very loud levels, you have to love that! The same was said on the recent Thin Red Line Blu-ray release and it was awesome advice! The music is very loud and is almost always being played in the background and as a result can make dialogue (what little there is) a little difficult to discern. However, it is not a very big problem and the crystal clear sound effects more than make up for it.
Extras - 7/10
The only real downside to this Blu-ray release is the lack of many supplemental materials. There is a thirty-minute explorative documentary feature that is quite good and informative and a nice theatrical trailer for the movie but that is all that is included. There is also a digital copy and a DVD version included as well.
Overall - 10/10
Supposedly there is a six to eight hour cut of the film that the director has announced will be available at a later date. This would be truly incredible if ever released. However, I won't hold my breath as I have been waiting on an extended cut of The Thin Red Line for over ten years now! But The Tree of Life more than makes up for that . . . ENJOY!!!