The Tree of Life
Four decades into an already legendary career, Terrence Malick realized his most rapturous vision to date, tracing a story of childhood, wonder, and grief to the outer limits of time and space. Reaching back to the dawn of creation, Malick sets a story of boyhood memories on a universal scale, charting the coming of age of an awestruck child (newcomer Hunter McCracken) in Texas in the 1950s, as he learns to navigate the extremes of nature and grace represented by his bitter, often tyrannical father (Brad Pitt) and his ethereal, nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain, in her breakout role). Shot with nimble attention to life’s most fleeting moments by Emmanuel Lubezki, the Palme d’Or–winning The Tree of Life marks the intimately personal, cosmically ambitious culmination of Malick’s singular approach to filmmaking.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life receives a new 2-disc Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection, presenting the original theatrical cut and a brand new extended cut. Each cut appears on their own respective dual-layer disc and both are presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Both have also been scanned and restored in 4K from the 35mm original camera negatives.
Fox’s Blu-ray was pretty much reference quality to begin with, so I wasn’t expecting any improvements here and there aren’t any that I could point out, while I also can’t point out any issues. Both cuts are gorgeous looking films and they really look spectacular. Colours look stunning, black levels are rich and deep, delivering spectacular shadow detail even in some of the darker shots. The image is always crisp and clean, delivering an astonishing amount of detail, from every small leaf in a tree to every pebble on the beach in the closing “eternity” sequence. Textures are rendered perfectly, depth is incredible, and literally every frame in this film would make for a stunning photograph. The creation sequence, with its presentation of colours and blacks, is probably demo material all on its own. It’s really something.
Though it looks like this was primarily shot on film, and both encodes render the grain naturally and cleanly, the extended cut does also contain footage that appears to come from archival material along with standard-definition digital. The archival footage shows print damage and the quality of the standard-definition material is sub-par, not even average quality standard-def material. Outside of this, though, the rest of the picture looks gorgeous. Colours are graded a little differently in the extended version (it’s less yellow, a bit cooler) but I honestly did not notice this while watching and it only stuck out when I was making screen captures. Outside of these differences the quality overall is about the same and they both look pretty wonderful.
Malick’s sound design is always something and The Tree of Life is no exception. For what is ultimately a very personal family drama (with the creation of the universe thrown in!) there is a lot going on in the audio. Malick mixes in a lot of classical music throughout the film and its presentation is full and rich, with incredible depth, fidelity, and range. Dialogue, even the whispering narrative littered about, is so clear and sharp itself, as are the subtle gusts of winds against the leaves and the drapes in the house. There is so much going on, moving through the speakers cleanly and naturally, and it really pulls you into the film. It really is a gorgeous mix, faultlessly presented here.
Fox’s Blu-ray wasn’t much of a special edition, but it was rumoured Criterion was releasing their own edition, I just didn’t realize it would take six years.
The big addition to this release is, of course, the extended cut of the film. Running about 50-minutes longer at 188-minutes and taking up all of the second disc, I was a bit disappointed to discover this cut wasn’t an entirely new retelling of the story but really just as it states: the film with more material added. The basic “narrative” is the same and the sequence of events unfold in the same manner (though one key moment seems to have been placed at a different time), but there is a lot of new story points thrown in. The first half doesn’t differ too much but the most significant change is the editing of the first “Jack” sequence. The sequence is now about twice as long it was in the theatrical cut, and really pushes Jack’s torment more. One of the odder inserted shots has the Indian wrestler The Great Khali appearing to be stalking Penn’s Jack down and then grabbing him by the throat.
It’s probably the last “half” of the film where a majority of the new material is inserted. There are some pretty lengthy sequences, most of them being extended bits between Pitt and his sons, along with a wind storm sequence, an issue between neighbours (who are only mentioned in passing in the theatrical cut), more about Pitt’s job, as well as a few additional characters. There are then some other quick little moments, like an incident with a mixer and Pitt telling his son the “seven ate nine” joke. Even Fiona Shaw’s role is expanded upon.
Is it different? It is, and it adds a lot of good material and expands some of the characters a bit more, particularly Jack. Yes, a lot of Penn’s new footage is still of him just wandering around, but it feels like there is more at stake to the character’s crisis. Is it a better film? I like the theatrical cut and I also like the extended cut, but they both have their problems and advantages, and it won’t win over any converts. The material added to the extended cut is good, but I felt the length of the film while watching it, where I was always surprised by how quickly the theatrical cut went by. Ultimately it will come down to preference but it’s still one hell of an addition to this release.
The rest of the supplements are found on the first disc with the theatrical cut of the film.
First up is a 30-minute making of from 2011 entitled Exploring “The Tree of Life,” featuring interviews with producers Grant Hill, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner and Sarah Green, co-producer Nicolas Gonda, visual effects artists Douglas Trumbull and Dan Glass, composer Alexandre Desplat, costume designer Jacqueline West, production designer Jack Fisk, actors Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, and directors Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. It follows the typical format you would expect, from its inception (apparently the project first came up while Malick was making The Thin Red Line) to casting (Pitt, who was originally just a producer, stepped in when the original actor dropped out) to filming, effects work, and then final editing. It’s primarily a talking heads documentary with clips from the film but there is behind-the-scenes material looking at the practical effects work that went into making the creation sequence, along with footage of the young actors from the film revisiting the film’s location. As a making-of it doesn’t stand out too much but the film has an intriguing production history that’s worth visiting.
Criterion has then recorded three new interviews: actor Jessica Chastain (19-minutes), visual effects artist Dan Glass (22-minutes), and then critic Alex Ross (19-minutes). Chastain’s interview is particularly charming as she reminiscences on the casting process, with footage from her actual audition to accompany her (unfortunately we don’t get to see the footage she describes of having to look dreamily into the eyes of a giant Ethan Hawke photo), and just the general experience of working on a Malick film, particularly the spontaneity of it.
Glass’ contribution talks about the various type of effects in the film, most notably in the creation sequence, which was a mix of practical effects (high speed footage of coloured milk being injected into another liquid for example) for the space sequences, entirely digital (the micro-organisms) and then a mix (the dinosaurs). The digital footage isn’t too much of a surprise, though the research that was put into it is interesting. I was most fascinated by the material around the practical effects, which is always fun to watch (basically a bunch of guys in a warehouse setting fire to stuff).
Ross on the other hand offers a more academic segment, going over the film’s use of classical music and how it servers the film’s narrative. This even gets right down to providing the context for the music in question, the story behind it, and how that relates to what is going on in the film.
Another academic feature is a new visual essay by critic Benjamin B on the film’s cinematography. This 16-minute feature, which goes over the rules Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki came up with for the films they did together, has a somewhat annoying text presentation that will probably make you wish for the innovation that would go into a PowerPoint presentation for a Timeshare seminar, but it thankfully pays off. Most of the payoff is thanks to the excerpts from interviews recorded with Lubezki, Joerg Widmek, Erik Brown, and Jack Fisk. The group talk about the art of just shooting everything you can (because they were always ready they were able to get that shot of the butterfly landing on Chastain), working with natural light, and then properly setting up the sets so that anything could be done at any point, to the point of even keeping the drawers and cupboards in the kitchen stocked. I was put off by the format at first but the interviews are fascinating and it ends up being a fairly breezy 16-minutes.
Criterion next includes two parts from Matt Zoller Seitz’s program All Things Shining, which looked at the work of Terrence Malick and was created in 2011 for the Museum of the Moving Image. Running a total of 24-minutes, Seitz’s essays explain how he feels that The Tree of Life (Malick’s most audacious and problematic film) is the culmination of what Malick had been building up to. He looks at many of the themes found within the film, offers a defense for the creation sequence, and makes comparisons between it and films like The Mirror and The Long Day Closes. It’s really well done and beautifully edited together (in this case by Serena Bramble), making it disappointing that Criterion didn’t include the other parts. One of the release’s best features.
Packaged in a digipak, the release also includes a booklet, loaded with a number of stills from the film and then an essay by Kent Jones and then a reprint of Roger Ebert’s reaction to the film after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
One thing that has been sort of lacking in the previous Malick releases from Criterion are academic components and this edition ends up filling in the void a bit, while also covering the film’s production (and effects) in a satisfying manner.
Like the previous Malick releases from Criterion this edition delivers on all fronts, with engaging academic features and a stunning presentation.