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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Tree of Life

October 11th, 2011

The Tree of Life - Buy from Amazon: Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack

Terrence Malick is a director who has developed a very loyal fanbase, despite not having a prolific career. He's only directed five films in a career that has spanned nearly four decades, none of which were serious box office hits. The Tree of Life is his latest film, and while its debut in limited releases was outstanding, and while it did earn some significant measure of mainstream success, it was never able to expand beyond a few hundred theaters. Is this a film that will please fans of art house films, but has no appeal outside that demographic? Or is this a movie that deserved to find a wider audience?

The Movie

The film's plot is rather hard to describe as it takes place in three time lines. There's modern day with Sean Penn as Jack O'Brien, a middle-aged man going through a bit of a crisis. But most of the movies features newcomer Hunter McCracken, who plays Jack as a child in 1950s growing up with a distant father, a loving mother, and his two brothers. And then there's a large chunk of the film that looks at the history of Earth from a molten ball to the origins of life to the end of the age of the dinosaurs. There are large stretches of the film with little or no dialogue and very little that you could call a conventional plot. It makes it a movie that you have to experience for yourself.

Is it worth the experience? For the most part yes. The segment of the film about the origins of life on Earth would be worth checking out as a separate film. There are many amazing shots throughout with incredible visuals. The acting is top notch throughout, with a couple caveats. (Neither Sean Penn nor Brad Pitt are in the movie long enough to warrant too much praise.) On the other hand, Hunter McCracken is excellent in his first role. His discovery could be a major legacy of the film. Also, where the hell did Jessica Chastain come from? It's like she came out of nowhere with Jolene, and while the movie was bad, her performance was the film's only saving grace. Since then, she's proven herself in a number of very diverse roles and is quickly becoming an A-lister. Her performance here is arguably the best part of the film.

On the other hand, this film will test the patience of some, even in audiences that should be the most receptive to a film like this. It was booed at Cannes earlier this year. Granted, the audiences at Cannes tend to be more demonstrative of their emotions. If the filmmakers do something wrong in a movie, they will boo those parts, even if they think the overall film is Award-Worthy. That's certainly the case here, as it won the Palme d'Or in the end. But there are long stretches of the film that just show a bunch of boys playing in the 1950s with very limited dialogue and not a lot of movement in the plot. Art house fans were certainly appreciative of the film and its opening per theater average of more than $90,000 attests to that. However, even after that start, it was never able to expand wide and never reached the top ten, so its appeal with mainstream audiences is more limited.

The Extras

The film is only coming out on the Blu-ray / DVD combo pack, but the DVD portion has no extras. The Blu-ray has as 30-minute making of featurette, but that's it. It's well made and certainly worth checking out, but there could have been more. On the other hand, you can't ask for more when it comes to the way the film looks and sounds. The film is reference quality material on high definition. The detail level is excellent, colors are strong, blacks are deep, etc. There's no compression issues to deal with. The 7.1 audio presents clear dialogue with an impressive amount of activity in the surround sound speakers. There are ambient sounds, directional effects, pounding bass sounds, etc.

The Verdict

There are parts of The Tree of Life that will test all but the most enthusiastic and / or patient fans of Terrence Malick and the overall film doesn't have the mainstream appeal of the average summer blockbuster. Those that like his previous films will want to buy the Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack, while if you've never seen his previous work, at least give it a rental.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Tree of Life