The Tree of Life (2011)

2018 #192
Terrence Malick | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Tree of Life

Writer-director Terrence Malick made just five films in the first 38 years of his directorial career, this being the fifth. In the seven years since it came out, he’s made five more. Why the long gaps before, or the sudden increase now? Who knows — Malick is notoriously interview-shy. But the answer may indeed lie with this film, sitting as it does at the fulcrum of his career. It was a project Malick had on his mind for decades (he shot material for it as far back as the ’70s), which for various reasons — primarily funding and technology, I think — it took him until this decade to achieve. Many think it was worth the wait: lots of people love it, including the Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. Many others… don’t: plenty of people regard it as pretentious, or at least too abstruse to care about. It’s a film that, I think, can only elicit an entirely personal reaction. So here’s mine.

The Tree of Life is about… um… oh dear, we’ve hit a snag already. Well, once it settles down (which takes the best part of an hour), what it’s literally about is a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s — dad (Brad Pitt), mom (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The kids play around doing the kind of thing young lads did in the ’50s — running around in the woods, swimming in rivers, throwing stones through windows, murdering frogs — while being torn between the influences of their parents: their kind, gentle, caring mother, and their strict, authoritative, borderline abusive (or just straight abusive?) father.

But the film also occasionally shows us Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, working some high-level job in a present-day city. And it also shows us an extended sequence about the birth of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And that’s to say nothing of the epilogue… Or, indeed, the prologue, which introduces a massive event in the family’s life that is then, arguably, unreferenced by the rest of the movie.

So… yeah.

Pondering or ponderous?

Much of The Tree of Life is more like visual poetry than a traditional narrative film. Beautiful images glide before our eyes, some with obvious meaning, others less so. Some of the images resonate or rhyme with each other, urging us to infer our own interpretation of what we’re seeing, and why, and what it signifies. This is mostly true of the opening chunk — which lasts a good 45 to 60 minutes — and the ending. In between, more of a narrative is discernible — the stuff about the young family — although it’s constructed in a poetic fashion, with minimal dialogue, lots of vignettes, fragments of day-to-day life that don’t necessarily have an immediate significance.

To me, it felt like we were watching someone’s dreams or memories, presented as we really remember things: random fragments from our lives. If you think about your memories of childhood, they don’t take the form of a neat narrative in concise scenes with all the important landmarks accounted for. We do remember big events, of course, but also many small things; and some things we remember extensively, but others only fragmentarily. If you could view a person’s memories, they’d create, not a biopic, but an impressionistic collage or our lives — and this film is that, I think.

But that can still leave the viewer to question what it’s all about, especially given the extended sequence of space gases, forming planets, burgeoning microscopic lifeforms, and dinosaurs. Yes, in arguably the film’s most baffling sequence (there are many contenders), we see an event in the life of some dinosaurs. Actually, I say it’s the most baffling, but only if you stick to the film itself: of all the confusing things herein, that’s the one with the most concrete explanation, thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink having a little chat with critic Jim Emerson about Malick’s intentions for the scene. Not everyone likes firm answers to this kind of stuff, so I’ll just link to where you can read it if you want to.

Motherly love

That said, some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned in passing I only know definitively thanks to extra-textual sources. Well, if you count the film’s end credits as extra-textual, which I suppose they’re not. But it’s only thanks to those that I know for certain which of the boys Penn was supposed to be, or that the creation-of-the-universe stuff is indeed meant to be that (based on genuine science, donchaknow), and that these scenes show us the “astrophysical realm”, because there are effects credits for that. And more still can be learnt from, of all places, the Blu-ray’s chapter menu: the long creation sequence is indeed called “creation”, in case you weren’t sure. The ending is “eternity”, followed by “was it a dream?” Others include “grief”, “innocence”, “mother”, “father”, “I do what I hate” — all showing us the way towards important themes… maybe. Or perhaps they’re just convenient chapter points…

Praise for the film’s imagery is due not only to Malick, but also cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And it’s not even the guy’s best work — I’d argue for consistent beauty he’s surpassed it with some of the stunning, Oscar-winning stuff he’s done since — but you can see how he got from here to there: the very best shots in The Tree of Life are kind of what he does all the time in films like The Revenant. As for constructing those images into a meaningful flow, I’m never sure how much is down to an editor’s own creativity and how much is them operating machinery under the director’s instruction — I guess, like most things in the movies, it’s a collaborative mix of both. Anyway, the film has five credited editors — Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, and Mark Yoshikawa — who I’m sure must’ve been vital to the process. (Relatedly, here’s a fun anecdote from IMDb: “an Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s ‘crazy editing style’.”)


There’s a lot of really great music and sound design as well — something Malick clearly considered important to a Lynchian degree, given that before the film plays the Blu-ray flashes up a notice advising you to “play it loud”. Alexandre Desplat is credited for the music, but a very, very long list of sourced tracks too hints at what actually happened: most of his music went unused in the final cut, with only a few minutes making it in. I imagine that feels quite unedifying, to have your work sidelined; but maybe it’s better than being ditched entirely in favour of a new score, as has happened to plenty of other composers in the past.

It’s easy to get hung up on all this filmmaking when thinking about The Tree of Life, because that’s where its own focus seems to be, as opposed to the usual things a reviewer might think to discuss first, like the screenplay or performances. But there are still actors here, and good ones at that. The movie is really centred around Hunter McCracken, and he’s very good. The casting directors saw thousands of Texan school kids while trying to cast the boys, and the effort paid off; though McCracken hasn’t done anything else since, so maybe not for him personally. The other two brothers don’t have so much to do; in fact, I kept almost forgetting one of the trio existed, so little is he on screen or relevant to events. Ironically, he’s the only one of the three who’s gone on to have a career: it’s Tye Sheridan, most recently seen as the lead in Ready Player One.

As for the adults, Sean Penn is one of the many lead actors in a Malick film whose performances have wound up on the cutting room floor. According to Lubezki, there’s enough deleted footage to make a whole movie focused on Penn’s character. Yep, sounds like Malick! Obviously such a movie would be completely different to this one, but I’d be curious to see it. More screen time is devoted to Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, who both achieve a lot with comparatively little. Chastain is the focus early on, but it later becomes apparent that Pitt has a showier role, in a way, because of his character’s arc. There’s a pullquote on the back of the UK Blu-ray that calls it “the strongest performance of his career”, but considering his performances in the likes of Se7en and The Assassination of Jesse James, or that he’s been Oscar-nominated for his turns in Twelve Monkeys, Benjamin Button, and Moneyball, I thought that was a bit of an outlandish claim to make. To each their own, though.

Affection or headlock?

Anyhow, all this is “technical” stuff quite apart from what The Tree of Life is really about. Not that I’m totally clear on what that is, still. I guess maybe it’s there for us to infer what we like from it, be that religious, scientific, humanistic, or, for many a viewer, just boredom. Whether you love it or hate it — and there are certainly plenty of perfectly reasonable people at both extremes — it’s definitely an Experience; one every person who considers themselves serious about film appreciation needs to have.

4 out of 5

A new edition of The Tree of Life, which includes a different cut that’s 50 minutes longer (but, intriguingly, is not an extended cut), is released by Criterion in the US tomorrow and in the UK on November 19th.

Into the Wild (2007)

2017 #7
Sean Penn | 148 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Danish | 15 / R

Into the WildThe true story of Christopher McCandless, who abandoned regular life after college to go hitchhiking and become one with nature or something, then accidentally killed himself by being a pretentious wanker.

The filmmaking is driven by this same youthful pomposity, which when you consider it was “screenplay and directed by” (to quote the awkward credits) a 47-year-old Sean Penn makes it feel both inauthentic and also, frankly, a little pathetic.

At least there’s some stunning scenery; and Hal Holbrook’s performance as a lonely old man, whose outward cheerfulness masks inner sorrow and a need reengage with life, is suitably affecting.

2 out of 5

Into the Wild was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Game (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #34

Players Wanted

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 15

Original Release: 12th September 1997 (USA)
UK Release: 10th October 1997
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Michael Douglas (Wall Street, Basic Instinct)
Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Milk)
Deborah Kara Unger (Crash, Stander)

David Fincher (Panic Room, Gone Girl)

John Brancato (The Net, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)
Michael Ferris (Terminator Salvation, Surrogates)

The Story
What do you buy the man who has everything? After high-flying businessman Nicholas Van Orton is enrolled in a mysterious alternate reality game by his estranged brother, it’s no surprise that unusual things start to happen. But as those happenings begin to take on a sinister edge, it may be Nicholas has been targeted by something more serious, and potentially life-threatening.

Our Hero
Nicholas Van Orton is an immensely successful financier, but so low on friends that he even spends his birthday completely alone. He could do with fun in his life, or so believes his brother… or does he?

Our Villains
The game is run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services, or CRS. But they just run games… or do they?

Best Supporting Character
Early on in his experience, Nicholas runs into waitress Christine, who has also been affected by the game… or is she actually a part of it? Just who can he trust?!

Memorable Quote
“You know, I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again. Here’s to new experiences.” — Ted

Memorable Scene
On the run and tired, Nicholas hops in a cab. He doesn’t notice the doors lock, until the maniacal cab driver begins to speed down the hill. As Nicholas desperately tries to escape, the driver leaps out — and the cab soars into the river, with Nicholas trapped inside…

1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)

What the Critics Said
“Crafted with a commanding, aloof precision by David Fincher in his first outing since hitting the jackpot with Seven, this unusual dive into the ambiguous world of an undefined pastime without apparent rules generates a chilly intellectual intrigue that will arouse buffs, trendies and techies more than it will mainstream [audiences. It] projects the same sense of suffocating enclosure and mounting despair in a style that will inevitably be compared to that of Stanley Kubrick in its steely technical mastery and remote, disenchanted worldview, all in the service of a story that resembles a highbrow puzzle as much as it does an involving narrative.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“just when we’ve finally come to a part of the story we can accept and trust, it turns out that we’ve once again been led astray. In this cinematic game, Fincher’s directorial ability wins out; his ability to pace his films; to completely draw the audience’s attention in whichever direction he requires, as well as keeping them emotionally attached to the protagonists is a balancing act which Fincher has mastered time and again over his career, and The Game is no exception.” — jyapp8715, Through the 4th Wall

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed The Game as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, saying it “is by far at its best on your first viewing, when you don’t know how it will end and it’s stuffed with mysteries and twists. That’s not to say it doesn’t bear repeat viewings — as with most twist-ending-ed films, there’s naturally some interest in seeing it again knowing what’s going on — but a lot of the film’s enjoyment comes from being played with, the back-and-forth of what the truth is.”


In fairness, The Game probably comes near the bottom of my top 100, because I remain a little dubious about its re-watch value — not because it’s poorly made (far from it), but because the twists and reveals are such a big part of its appeal, and once you know them, you know them. Also, arguments continue between its fans and its haters about whether the plot makes sense or not, and how much that actually matters — personally, I think it makes enough sense (maybe for some parts you have to switch on your “it’s a movie” filter, however). The reason it makes my list nonetheless is the quality of a first viewing, especially if you do buy into its conceit and just go with it. Few other films have kept me guessing from the start up to the very closing moments, and consequently on the edge of my seat throughout. That experience may be unrepeatable, but as one-time deals go, it was immeasurably memorable and effective.

#35 will be… the hands that built America.

The Game (1997)

2011 #15a
David Fincher | 123 mins | DVD | 15 / R

The Game

“I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again. Here’s to new experiences.”

So says a fellow member of Nicholas Van Orton’s club when asked about what ‘the game’ is. He could be talking about the film.

Having seen it a few times over the years (it may well have been the first Fincher film I saw, though it would’ve been unknowingly), I’ve come to the conclusion that The Game is by far at its best on your first viewing, when you don’t know how it will end and it’s stuffed with mysteries and twists. That’s not to say it doesn’t bear repeat viewings — as with most twist-ending-ed films, there’s naturally some interest in seeing it again knowing what’s going on — but a lot of the film’s enjoyment comes from being played with, the back-and-forth of what the truth is.

It remains an enthralling, well-made thriller. Information on characters and plot are carefully metered out to the viewer, as it wisely follows Michael Douglas’ Nicholas Van Orton exclusively — the viewer is placed on the ride with him, which is part of why it works and part of why it’s not as good when you know where it’s going. (Obviously we have some superior knowledge even the first time, because unlike Nicholas we know it won’t end after only 20 minutes, or 90 minutes, or…) Aside from the more visceral thrills of a thriller, the film does offer some thematic points about Nicholas’ life — what’s missing from it, from him as a person, etc. — but these are more of a nice undertone than a major factor. Arguably Fincher would explore similar ground more thoroughly, though focused on a younger generation, in his next film.

I also think The Game stands out in Fincher’s filmography as not being particularly Fincher-y. He’s made equally as mainstream-friendly fare since — Panic Room, Benjamin Button, The Social Network — so the fact The Game doesn’t have as shocking a kick as Alien³, Se7en or Fight Club is not that unusual. More so, it’s not as stylishly directed or shot as any of his other films. It’s not badly done at all, but the cinematography is unremarkable and the direction is good without being any more. Many other competent directors could have been responsible — there’s no sign of his unique touch, probably his only film (that I’ve seen anyway) not to display that. To sum up: well-made, just not distinctive.

I’d very much intended for this review to be a defence of The Game — I’ve always really liked it, but it tends to get lost amongst Fincher’s more provocative and, yes, better films. Watching it again, though, I couldn’t help but realise I used to like The Game more than I do now. After a couple of watches it becomes like a holiday photo album: a nice record and reminder of good times had, rather than ones experienced anew.

If you’ve not seen it, I envy you — I wish I could go back and see it for the first time all over again.

4 out of 5

The Game is on ITV4 tonight, Sunday 28th September 2014, at 9pm.

I watched The Game as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.