Merie Wallace © Twentieth Century Fox
Pitt as '50s parent (with screen son Laramie Eppler).
The Dinner : Chicken burrito at Tacos Guaymas (1415 Broadway).


The Cosmic Mystery of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and a Burrito

Merie Wallace © Twentieth Century Fox
Pitt as '50s parent (with screen son Laramie Eppler).
The Dinner: Chicken burrito at Tacos Guaymas (1415 Broadway).

The Movie: The Tree of Life, at Egyptian (805 E. Pine St.).

The Screenplate: Since he makes so few movies, any new film by Terrence Malick is an event. However, The Tree of Life, so beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, is being screened at the Egyptian, which lacks the tiered seating and first-class projector that the Cinerama or Pacific Place might provide. (Drive over to Lincoln Square, if you prefer.) The Seattle location is understandable, however, since Capitol Hill is thick with serious filmgoers willing to endure a 138-minute puzzle picture that is, for long stretches, tedious and obscure. But, being a Terrence Malick movie, long stretches of Tree are also moving, profound, and--a word you don't often find in a film review--rapturous. The film, co-produced by its star, Brad Pitt, deals with nothing less than the birth of the cosmos, the place of God, familial love, death, and resurrection. All that, in a 138-minute overstuffed burrito of a movie.

Which is why, for dinner, I first opted for an overstuffed burrito just around the corner . . .

The Pike-Pine area of Cap Hill has lately gained some fine new restaurants, but most of the Broadway strip near the Egyptian offers franchise eateries and fast food. Maybe things will improve when the light-rail station is completed, new zoning is set, and the economy improves. (Look at all the vacant storefronts in those new condo and apartment blocks!) Still, sometimes you want to leave the profundity to the movie, not the meal. Which is why I grabbed a chicken burrito ($6.50) at Tacos Guaymas, located in the QFC block at Broadway and Pike. It's a Mexican-themed chain with cousins all around Seattle; and it certainly lacks the charm of the stucco-clad Taco del Mar just north up Broadway. But it's also clean, quick, and convenient. And the regular-sized burritos are huge. Ordering a super-sized burrito requires two people, at least, to eat. But I prefer ordering for one, which reminds you of your solitary position in the universe. We're born alone, die alone, eat burritos alone, though The Tree of Life makes a sometimes compelling argument to the contrary.

Burritos can be big. The universe is certainly big. But man is very, very small in Malick's estimation. His film begins with a citation from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?" God is taunting Job, the upright man who's done nothing to deserve his misfortunes, putting him in his puny place. Here in the place of Job is pious, stern Mr. O'Brien (Pitt), who, near the beginning of the film, receives a terrible blow: the death of one of his three sons. How could this happen? He and his wife (Jessica Chastain) receive the news separately; and the terrible hurt inflicted upon their loving, occasionally fractious family sends Tree back to a cosmic starting point of swirling stardust. These trippy oil-on-water sequences play like bad outtakes from 2001.

Moving forward to the dinosaur age, Tree seems like some IMAX nature movie gone off the rails. (SW contributor J. Hoberman says Malick took three years to edit the picture; time clearly got away from him.) Only when Tree returns from montage to a relatively concrete place and period (Waco, Texas, in the 1950s) does the film achieve any magic or heft.

Gradually it emerges that Sean Penn's adult character, a sour, grumpy architect first seen wandering around Houston muttering to himself like he's misplaced his cell phone, is Jack, eldest of the three O'Brien boys. Their childhood--obviously near to Malick's own--is a twilight paradise of fireflies and endless playtime, one ruled by a loving, devout mother (Chastain) and a more ambitious, worldly father (Pitt). Preteen Jack is torn between the two: the father who, despite his artistic yearnings, tries to toughen up his sons, and the mother whose love is unconditional and faith improbable. "That's where God lives," she tells Jack, serenely pointing to the sky. Much later in life, he'll design skyscrapers and find nothing up top. "Follow me," a ghostly voice whispers in his ears. When and where was paradise lost? "Find me," he's implored.

Tacos Guaymas doesn't quite command the same urgency or profundity. But it's a more direct and satisfying experience than The Tree of Life. Order burrito. Pay for burrito. Eat burrito. There are no flashbacks or dinosaurs, no Oedipal tensions with one's father, no loss of innocence, no conflict between the spiritual and the material worlds. It is a linear endeavor, this chicken burrito. Once it's done, it's done. The whole cheap, soulless experience takes about 20 minutes. No afterlife, no eternity, no Genesis, no regrets. Just burritos. Tree is all about Jack's rueful recollection of childhood's paradise, that intimate, distant family idyll. "I dishonored it all. I didn't notice the glory," says grown Jack in voiceover.

Is that it? Do we never meet again? Are there no second chances for love and reconciliation? Well, not for the dinosaurs. Once they're dead, they're dead (or they become fossil fuels). Likewise the burritos. But what of us, the living whose existence is so unbearably, cruelly brief? The Tree of Life is infused with Christian themes and Biblical passages, much of them surely derived from Malick's Episcopalian youth. And though the director hasn't given any interviews since the '70s, it's been credibly reported that he lost one of his two brothers to suicide. The O'Brien family's grief is palpably, painfully conveyed in The Tree of Life, as is the wish for ultimate reunion and forgiveness. Whether it comes in heaven, church, a Utah salt flat, or a cheap Mexican restaurant, the yearning is the same. Let us gather again, Lord, and once more enjoy the shelter and protection of thy grace.

And if we can't have that, there's always a burrito joint around the corner.

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