Blu-ray Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life Blu-raySTUDIO: Fox | DIRECTOR: Terrence Malick | CAST: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler
RELEASE DATE: 10/11/2011 | PRICE: Blu-ray/DVD Combo $39.99
BONUSES: featurette
SPECS: PG-13 | 139 min. | Drama | 1.85: 1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1/Dolby Digital 5.1 | English and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

The most ambitious, challenging and wholly original film of 2011, The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick (The New World) arrives to home audiences exclusively as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

The decision to release the fantasy-tinged drama as a combo pack minus a DVD-only edition is an arguably unique choice, particularly as the film won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has strong business potential in the home market. But, if nothing else, the decision mirrors Malick’s monumental work, which stands proudly on its own and asks you to make your own decision on how to interpret it (or whether or not you should buy or rent it).

The Tree of Life movie scene

The meaning of it all is pondered in The Tree of Life.

Beginning with a quote from the Book of Job — “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…” —  The Tree of Life is nothing less than a meditation on creation, the unswerving forces of nature and man’s place in that cosmic concoction.

On its most nominally narrative level, The Tree of Life tells the story of a small Texas family in the 1950s — a husband (Brad Pitt, Seven), a wife (Jessca Chastain, Jolene) and three boys — and their existence as they face life’s fears, loves, joys, frustrations, tragedies, triumphs and, finally, death. It’s not possible to write up a traditional plot synopsis as the “story” unfolds impressionistically, filled with images and sounds laid out in a splintered chronology that looks forward to the troubled adult life of one of the sons (Sean Penn, Fair Game) and backward to the dawn of creation when Earth’s earliest life forms took shape and rose out of the seas to roam the planet. Heady stuff.

There’s very little dialog in the two-and-half-hour film, but one of most meaningful passages is spoken near the beginning: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace… you have to choose which one to follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself — it accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Nature only wants to please itself — get others to please it, too. It likes to have its own way.”

Over the course of the film, we witness both nature and grace in action, nature in the form of life’s hardships and the way they affect Pitt’s role of the father, and grace as Chastain’s life-embracing wife. The kids? They are the ones with a path to choose. From its grandest moments (the big boom that created the planet and its struggling dinosaur inhabitants, all of which is rendered with carefully orchestrated visual effects) to its gentlest passages (a boy’s euphoric reaction to the incandescence of a sparkler), The Tree of Life seems to be saying that everyone is fair game when confronted with nature’s moods, so enjoy it while you can. Or, at least, be ready for the worst but appreciate the beauty of life that surrounds you now.

Or am I making it too simple?

The ceaseless power of nature is a theme that Malick has explored in all of his films (most notably Days of Heaven and The New World), but never has he offered that proposition with as much humanity as he does in this movie. Human existence may not be part of nature’s design, but that doesn’t mean we have to fight it — be angry at it — to feel fulfilled when things don’t go the way we’re hoping.

The Blu-ray of The Tree of Life offers outstanding image quality and a masterful 7.1 Master Audio mix that’s sweeping and delicate in all the right places. It’s definitely one of the best high-definition renderings of the year.

The Blu-ray’s only bonus feature is a fine 30-minute documentary that delves into the film’s production via comments from the cast, producers and department heads. Also on hand are heavyweight directors Christopher Nolan (Inception) and David Fincher (The Social Network) who wax rhapsodic about filmmaker Malick and the power of his image-driven storytelling.

As for the writer/director himself, the famously publicity-averse Malick is nowhere to be seen in the doc. Like Stanley Kubrick (the filmmaker with whom he’s most often compared and whose 2001 takes on similarly grand themes), Malick lets his movie speak for itself.

Buy or Rent The Tree of Life
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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.