THE TREE OF LIFE Part 2: From Questions To Structure

THE TREE OF LIFE Part 2:  From Questions To Structure

By Jacob Krueger

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the question around which Jack’s journey in The Tree of Life is built: “Why Should I be Good If You’re Not?” Struggling in a world in which both God and Father can act in such contradictions of beauty and violence, Jack the son is left with a profound question: will he build his life in their image, or in another.

Structurally, this question is raised in both the present and the past story with two powerful inciting incidents, both involving the death of a child.

You Let A Boy Die

No one could forget the moment early in The Tree of Life, when Jack’s mother receives the letter, and with it, news of her son’s death. Thinking in traditional screenplay structure, this moment provides a powerful inciting incident for the film as a whole, ripping a hole not only the family’s universe, but the universe of the film itself. We slip from a character driven drama into an epic sea of juxtaposing images, dinosaurs, births, and big bang cosmology that at once seems to dwarf and echo the problems of the family:

How can the world possess such beauty and such violence at the same time? How can a woman whose only philosophy is “love everyone and everything” be punished in this way? Where is God?

Two Levels of Structure

In creating the structure of a screenplay, it’s important to think about the moment that incites the film as a whole—that opens the door to change, introduces the central question of the film, and locks the audience into the journey of the movie. And whether you’re writing an art film like The Tree of Life or a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s vital that you get to this moment as quickly as possible, to create the feeling that your movie is moving, and to create the lens through which the audience can interpret the events of your story.

When you’re building a movie that jumps around in time, you actually have two different layers of this structure: the primary linear structure of the main character’s journey, and the secondary structure of the way that information is revealed the audience. For the audience, the journey begins when Jack’s mother receives the letter. But for the main character, Jack, the journey begins much earlier, when a boy dies right in the middle of a “perfect” day at the local swimming hole, and Young Jack is forced to confront the fact that neither life, nor God, is what he thought it was.

Young Jack whispers his dismay to God. “Where were you? You let a boy die. You’ll let anything happen.” For Jack, as for his mother and father, the fruit of knowledge of good and evil leads to a fall from the Eden of his childhood.

Two Inciting Incidents For Two Linear Structures

These two moments of unexpected death provide the two inciting incidents that get the structure of The Tree of Life moving forward, propelling both threads of The Tree of Life’s narrative structure:

The Fall From Eden: The story of young Jack’s fall—from an idyllic childhood where death was present but not perceived—to his gradual disillusionment, with God, his father, his mother and himself, leading up to the moment where his brother dies and all hope of Eden is lost.

The Return to Eden: The story of grown Jack’s (Sean Penn) surrender—through which he finally comes to terms death of his brother, the opposing philosophies of his parents, the beauty and ugliness of the universe, and the inexplicable nature of God.

For the audience, these two threads are chopped up and juxtaposed one against another in a way that transcends time and captures the emotional feeling of Jack’s experience. But on the primary structural level, these two threads comprise a single linear journey for the main character, as he first loses and then seeks to return to Eden.

Finding The Drum Beat of Your Movie

Every movie needs a drum beat—a clear structure that lets us know where we are and helps us imagine the road ahead, so that we can hope for, be disappointed by, or pleasantly surprised by the turns that the story takes. And this is doubly true when you are building around a structure as complex as that of The Tree of Life. Commercial movies tend to have more of a rock and roll drum beat—while The Tree of Life is more like experimental jazz—leaving the beat behind for extended sequences of improvisation—and then returning to the beat to get the story flowing again.

We first see this jazz-like improvisation in an extended way with the epic montage of big-bang images early in the film. But just when it seems like we’re just going to drift in an endless meditation, we find the beat again with a much smaller big bang: Jack’s birth, and the idyllic memories of his early childhood-a childhood filled with beautiful moments where death is present, but not perceived. Each of these moments foreshadows the road ahead, preparing us for the inciting incident in Jack’s journey, when the boy dies at the swimming hole, the question of the film arises and his fall from Eden begins.

Hegelian Dialectic and the Drum Beat of Life

The Tree of Life is quite obviously a film about ideas—about characters grappling with profound questions (and even narrating those questions aloud in the voiceover soundtrack which punctuates the piece—as if the audience were listening through God’s ears). But for all its poetry, The Tree of Life is also a film. And as a character in a film, Jack cannot simply ask his questions with words; he must grapple with them through action. As the writer, this means Malick must take the profound ideas he wants to explore, and bring them into active conflict through the characters of the film, the actions they take, the choices they make, and Jack’s journey in relation to those choices. The structure through which Malick gives shape to this journey is known as a Hegelian dialectic.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, in which I’ll be breaking down the Hegelian dialectical structure in relation to The Tree of Life, The Empire Strikes Back, The Big Lebowski, and There Will Be Blood.


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  1. Ruth Alfasi 4 years ago

    Wow, I can’t thank you enough for your coverage of this movie. I am an aspiring screenwriter, with an idea that plays out in my head much in this same structure and I’ve had a hard time finding examples of how this can be handled in the script. I haven’t seen the movie (i live in Israel and not in a city), but hope to find the script online. Can you answer a question though? In Slumdog we have a similar structure (I think) using flashbacks, two storylines, etc. and the pace is amazing. But there’s action. While say in Forrest Gump, you have really only one: the flashbacks. They bounce off Forrest sitting on the bench waiting, but I’d guess, as a newbie, that secondary storyline should be pumped up a lot, or can flop if not handled well. My idea was to tell mine much in the same way, but i fear making my “Forrest Sitting at Bus Stop” scenes really boring. Any suggestions? Mine’s not much of an action film, but I’m not sure if I need a fully developed storyline as in Slumdog. Can the story be told without the flashbacks turning it all to mush?

    I very much appreciate your feedback.

  2. Evan Cardon 3 years ago

    Very neat post.Thanks Again. Will read on…

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