Santa Cruz Good Times

Apr 24th
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.


★★★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


Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share


Best of Santa Cruz County 2014

The 2014 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll Come on in, and have a look around. There’s a lot to see—hundreds of winners selected by thousands of GT readers across Santa Cruz County. So if some of this looks familiar, it’s probably because you helped make it happen. But there are always new things to discover, too—you could go to a different winner or runner-up every day in the Food and Drink category alone, and you’d be booked just about until next year’s Best of Santa Cruz County issue comes out.


Something Essential Disappears

Lunar and solar eclipses follow one another. Lunar eclipses occur at full moons, and solar eclipses at new moons. Two weeks ago at the full moon we had the blood red moon—a total lunar eclipse (the next one is Oct. 8). On Monday night, April 28 (new moon), as the Sun, Moon and Earth align, a solar eclipse (Sun obscured) occurs. Eclipses signify something irrevocably is changed in our world. The Sun is our essential life force. Monday’s new moon, 9 degrees Taurus, is also an annular solar eclipse when the Moon moves centrally in front of the Sun, yet does not cover the Sun completely. The Sun's outer edges, still visible, form a “ring of fire” around the Moon.


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 >
Sign up for Tomorrow's Good Times Today
Upcoming arts & events

Latest Comments


Palate-Stretching 101

A wine education with Soif’s experts As a veteran of many weekend wine “seminars” at Soif, I have to confess that I’ve never known less (going in) and learned more (coming out) than I did last week at the Spanish Wine Tasting with ace rep Brian Greenwood. These are classy, casual events and it’s hard to imagine having this much flavor fun anywhere for $20.


Martin Ranch Winery

Sauvignon Blanc 2011 One of my favorite wines is Sauvignon Blanc, and this one made by Martin Ranch is particularly lovely. Bright, crisp and refreshing, it’s perfect to pair with fish and shellfish—and good for picnics as it has an easy screw-cap bottle. There’s nothing worse than setting down your blanket, pulling out your sandwiches—and then realizing you don’t have a corkscrew.


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