Release: 17th November 2018
In this highly philosophical film by acclaimed director Terrence Malick, young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is one of three brothers growing up as part of the O’Brien family in small-town Texas. Jack has a contentious relationship with his father (Brad Pitt), but gets along well with his beautiful mother (Jessica Chastain). As an adult, Jack (Sean Penn) struggles with his past and tries to make sense of his childhood, while also grappling with bigger existential issues.
If you watch Terrance Malick post 2011, you’d be forgiven for not believing that his films were once seen as an elusive, rare treat. It had been 6 years with The New World before Tree of Life, 7 years before that with The Thin Red Line, and a whopping 20 years before that with Days of Heaven. Now, however, those sporadic moments of poetry have been replaced with a torrent of poncy drivel (what the hell was Song to Song!?). So, it could be said, without being hyperbolic, that Tree of Life is currently the last true Malick film; and possibly his best.
Released here by Criterion we are treated to twin versions of the film; a theatrical (true) cut and an extended cut. For the sake of time we will focus mostly on the extended cut, as why the hell haven’t you seen the original!?
So, what’s the big deal; the big whop that warrants Criterion involvement? Well first up, these people have made it their mission to protect and circulate great achievements in cinema. Here is no better candidate. Although, let’s get it out of the way, the theatrical version is better, both cuts have a charisma and wonder that is rare in modern mainstream cinema. A pensive 3 hours of natural light, flowing wide angle dances and internal mumbles, Tree of Life feels like the closing moments of a dying mind. It is existential to the point of being transcendent. The extended cut spends a bit more time with each character, fleshing them out and adding some discourse to Jack’s “whys” in adulthood; namely building up exposition from sibling interactions and parental ontogeny. But beyond that, the tone stays the same, the pace feels about right, and little benefit is seen in the additional sequences. Some might prefer ‘answers’ provided by the extended cut, but part of the film’s beauty always came in its ambiguous otherworldliness.
These releases have also been generated from 4K scans, making them as close to Heaven as some of us will ever get. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki worked hard to use natural light throughout the picture (a skillset that would take him to his 5th Oscar in a career of 8 so far), and the film looks absolutely stunning. Little bits of grain add texture, while Malick’s sensibilities as a voyeur turn The Tree of Life into a luxurious tapestry of beautiful moments that are one part memory and one part home movie. Jessica Chastain remains the reason to watch, while Pitt churns out one of his bravest performances to date. The “kids” have since gone on to do good things, but never will they likely find themselves in anything quite as special as this.
Film Grade: A
Documentaries old and new abound. There is the standard making of from the original release, and some retrospective interviews with the likes of Chastain. A couple of video essays do their best to answers questions that could so suitably have been done by Malick himself…if only Criterion could have locked in him a recording studio!
Special Features Grade: B
Forget Inception. Tree of Life is truly a dream within a dream. Only this time, you get two dreams for the price of one!