Santa Cruz Good Times

Friday
Apr 18th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Sweet Mystery of Life

film_treeMalick's 'Tree of Life' an uneven, yet visionary original

Don't expect linear storytelling from Terrence Malick. His rapturous last film, The New World, plunged viewers into first contact between English Puritan colonists and native American peoples without a road map, or a translator, or any idea on either side of the customs and culture of the other. Audiences who expected conventional storytelling were dumbfounded; there was no way in except to surrender to the strangeness—as the colonists and tribespeople themselves must have perceived it—and let the experience wash over you.

Malick's new film, The Tree of Life plunges us into more familiar  terrain—growing up in suburban Middle America in the second half of the 20th century—and turns it into something strange and mysterious, a metaphor for the eternal search for grace and meaning in life.

Given the enormity of this theme, the results are somewhat less rapturous, but there are still moments of blistering power, and images of heartbreaking beauty, even if the case for absolute surrender isn't quite as compelling this time.

The plot is birth, death, and everything in between, from the formation of the cosmos through the dinosaur age to modern American family life, ca. 1950s. (We observe the wonder of creation from space, followed by Nova-worthy dinosaur vignettes to show that life is bigger and more transitory than we can ever imagine.) In the main story, a father (Brad Pitt) strives to teach his three sons goodness, manliness, and the ways of the world, in lessons that are often harsh. Their mother (Jessica Chastain) loves the boys unconditionally. The oldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken) rebels in the random, mindlessly destructive way of boys that often endangers his loyal, artistic younger brother (Laramie Eppler). At the beginning of the film, the family is profoundly shaken by a tragedy with which the adult Jack (Sean Penn) continues to wrestle into his later life.

Malick's impressionistic storytelling keeps us mesmerized in these best scenes, the intricately observed minutiae of family life: love and rage, guilt and intimidation, rivalry and solidarity. Pitt's conflicted father is a formidable presence, trying to make his sons strong, even as he himself feels like a failure. The brothers' complex relationship is adroitly done; we feel Jack's sadness and envy watching his younger brother play guitar in counterpoint as their father plays the organ, communicating in a way that Jack never can.

The actors are excellent, particularly the young boys, trying to navigate between selfish "nature" and selfless "grace" within themselves. These family dynamics feel so authentic, it's not until later we recognize a surrogate Holy Family. Pitt's almighty autocrat ("Don't call me 'Dad', call me 'Father,' he tells Jack) demands obedience and trust. Mother is full of grace; the mild son who doesn't want to fight doles out forgiveness.

But if read as some sort of vindication of absolute faith in a cruel, but just, deity, the film won't work. Pitt's Father never strikes anyone out of wrath, but his emotional volatility can be just as damaging to his wary family; as inappropriately as the boy Jack acts out, his anguished mistrust doesn't seem misplaced. On the other hand, as a metaphor for the individual search for spirituality, the film can be stunning. A powerful litany echoes throughout: prayers, pleas, and observations that various characters address to the Lord, God, "You," or an entity they can't name. ("What are we to you?" wonders one. "Was I false to you?" demands an aggrieved parent. "You spoke to me through her," adult Jack says of his first experience of his mother's love.)

At times, Malick loses his grip on our imaginations. We get restless after awhile out in the cosmos, or wandering around the primordial forests. The finale, with all the characters at every age reunited at the water's edge, feels too self-conscious and stage-managed to convey the exaltation Malick may intend. In film_treeoflifeother moments, Malick proves himself a master of lyrical imagery that defies rational comprehension, but just works: the abundance of nature; a sea of birds swarming in arcane patterns around a shiny skyscraper; the boys' mother floating and pirouetting serenely in mid air.

Stirring music from the likes of Smetana, Gòrecki, and Tavener add another soulful dimension to this uneven, yet truly visionary tone poem on the pure wonder of being.

THE TREE OF LIFE

★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 138 minutes.

 

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Cardinal Grand Cross in the Sky

Following Holy Week (passion, death and burial of the Pisces World Teacher) and Easter Sunday (Resurrection Festival), from April 19 to the 23, the long-awaited and discussed Cardinal Cross of Change appears in the sky, composed of Cardinal signs Aries, Libra, Cancer, and Capricorn, with planets (13-14 degrees) Uranus (in Aries), Jupiter (in Cancer), Mars (in Libra) and Pluto (in Capricorn), an actual geometrical square or cross configuration. Cardinal signs mark the seasons of change, initiating new realities.

 

Sugar: The New Tobacco?

Proposed bill would require warning labels on sugary drinks Will soda and other saccharine libations soon come with a health warning? They will if it’s up to our state senator, Bill Monning (D-Carmel). On Feb. 27, Monning proposed first-of-its-kind legislation that would require a consumer warning label be placed on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California. SB 1000, also known as the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, was proposed to provide vital information to consumers about the harmful effects of consuming sugary drinks, such as sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas.

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of April 17

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >

 

Growing Hope

Campos Seguros combats sexual assault in the Watsonville farmworker community Farm work was a way of life for Rocio Camargo, who grew up in Watsonville as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her parents met while working the fields 30 years ago, and her father went on to run Fuentes Berry Farms.
Sign up for Tomorrow's Good Times Today
Upcoming arts & events

Latest Comments

 

Foodie File: Red Apple Cafe

Breakfast takes center stage at Gracia Krakauer's Red Apple Cafe Before they moved to Aptos, Gracia and her husband Dan Krakauer would visit friends in Santa Cruz County and eat at the Red Apple Café all the time. Then they moved up here from Santa Monica five years ago, and bought the Aptos location (there’s a separate one in Watsonville) from the family who owned it for two decades.

 

How would you feel about a tech industry boom in Santa Cruz?

I feel like it would ruin the small old-town feeling of Santa Cruz. It wouldn’t be the same Surf City kind of vacation town that it is. Antoinette BennettSanta Cruz | Construction Management

 

Trout Gulch Vineyards

Cinsault 2012—la grande plage diurne The most popular wines on store shelves are those most generally known and available—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are all superb for sure. But when you come across a more unusual varietal, like Trout Gulch Vineyards’ Cinsault ($18), it opens up a whole new world.

 

Waddell Creek, Al Fresco

Route One Summer Farm Dinner You’ve been buying their insanely fresh produce for years now at farmers’ markets. Right? So now why not become more familiar with the gorgeous Waddell Creek farmlands of Route One Farms?