Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has easily been my most anticipated movie of the year. You can imagine my excitement when I was able to get my hands on the script of the film a couple weeks ago and it certainly did not disappoint. First thing first, a couple of warnings before we start talking about the script. Obviously, there might be some slight spoilers about the movie as we describe its broader outline. Also, the script has most likely been rewritten several times since our version is a draft dated June 2007. Knowing how meticulous Malick is in the editing room (the movie is still in post-production), the film will certainly look somewhat different from what we are about to describe.
Reading the script, you can’t help but recognize Terrence Malick’s trademarks and quirks that have defined him as a filmmaker, all the little things that only he can pull off successfully in a film. However, in many ways, The Tree of Life is by far Malick’s most artsy, ambitious and challenging work-to-date. The script is, as you would imagine, extremely descriptive and reads almost like a novel, rather than your standard one-page-a-minute movie script.
The story begins in 1956 and revolves around a Waco, Texas family with three sons: eleven-year-old Jack (our main character), R.L., 9, and Steve, 6. Brad Pitt plays the unnamed father while Jessica Chastain plays the unnamed mother. At first, everything seems idyllic as the parents happily watch their young children play in the backyard. Fast forward twelve years and we witness the family mourning the death of their middle son R.L. with the mother particularly hit hard. In that peculiar novelistic style that is Malick’s, Jessica Chastain doesn’t have any dialogue here but the script is extremely descriptive in the emotions she needs to convey silently with the help of poetic visuals.
Suddenly, we fast forward to a grown-up and depressed Jack (now played by Sean Penn) living in a contemporary unnamed city. We see the world through his eyes, and the entire universe seems to commiserate in his despair. Malick, who has always been fascinated with nature and shot all his films in rural or completely natural settings, describes the city as follow:
“The buildings hem him around like the trees of a wild forest. A false nature; a universe of death. A sightless world, roofed over, shut off from things above. Here one must stoop to walk. A world that would exclude the transcendent, that says: I am, and there is nothing else. A world without love.”
As Jack walks through the city, he sees a tree at the edge of the city. He makes his way to it and touches it. What follows is most likely going to be the most visually stunning and talked about film sequence of the year. This time, we flash back to the beginning of the universe. We watch as “the chaos of nothingness” gives way to the formation of galaxies, stars and new worlds. We witness the birth of the Earth, first as a bulb of hot gas, progressively cooling to “a mighty inferno of magma and pitch”.
“The sky fills with steam. Rains fall for millennia, cooling the surface by degrees. For ages, there is no clear day of sun, no night of stars; only thunder and lightning. But by and by the mists drift off, the cloud part and the first land appears, a low island of meteoritic rubble and stark volcanic stone”
Life on Earth begins tentatively from single-cell bacteria to multicellular organism, from worms and amphibians to the mighty dinosaurs and our modern mammals including, yes, humans. We see in quick succession how Man moved from “nomadic savagery” to modern civilization. The descriptions are absolutely stunning to read, having a poetic quality to them while remaining true to scientific facts. It will be truly fascinating to see how Malick can make this sequence work from a visual and visceral standpoint.
This all leads up to Jack as an embryo in his mother’s womb, his idyllic early childhood completely sheltered from the external world. We learn about his relationships with his saintly and loving mother–a theme present throughout the movie– and ambiguous father, as well as his connection with his younger brothers. The film comes full circle to the beginning of the film in 1956 Waco, Texas with a shot of an oak tree standing in the O’Briens’ backyard. This constitutes the first 25 pages of the script.
The main section of The Tree of Life (about 100 pages) focuses on the relationship between Jack and his father. Like many of Malick’s films, it is not plot-driven. Rather, little moments build upon each other, often highly descriptive yet with little dialogue. I have extremely high hopes that this may be Brad Pitt’s best role to date. He plays the mercurial paternal figure who often treats his boys with an authoritarian fist thanks to his passive-aggressive way of interacting with his children:
“He has the unshakable belief that he must approve or modify everything the children do. He is full of petty and exasperating cautions. Watch! Step there. Open the door!”
Far from being some archetypal figure, he is also capable of being a loving father, often showcasing both extremes in the same scene. The relationship between Jack and his father could be described as tense and Jack is a bit of a rebel, causing him to show his darker side much to the chagrin of his mother. Jessica Chastain portrays a mother with saintly, nearly transcendent qualities of maternal love. The boys clearly love her as much as she loves them and Jack’s rebellion against his father stems in part because he makes his wife unhappy.
The third and final part of the film fast-forwards to the end of the Earth and Sun. By then, mankind has moved on to new worlds yet unknown. Eventually, we watch the end of the universe itself trillions of years from now. Yet, according to Malick, not all is over as he visualizes a world according to the Multiverse theory (a.k.a. parallel universes)
“Though that all that lives is doomed to die, something yet remains. Though even our universe is not eternal, there yet is that which is.”
I will leave the ending untouched except to say that we come back to adult Jack standing by the tree of life at the edge of the city and some powerful imagery ensues as we become aware of the surroundings. What is the meaning of all this metaphysical abstraction? I am still wrapping my head around this script and don’t pretend to understand more than a fraction of Malick’s intentions. However, Malick sees parallels between a person’s life and the universe as a whole. This process of birth, aging and death exists and is repeated within every entity in the universe, from the tiniest bacteria to distant stars and galaxies.
An incredibly rich and fascinating script that does nothing to quell our excitement for the movie’s release later this year. It remains to be seen how Malick will be able to convey the powerful and transcendent ideas in the script through visuals only but this has always been his forte and I’m sure he will not rest until he is fully satisfied with the final product.
Script rating: A
What do you think about The Tree of Life‘s script? Does it feel overly artsy or metaphysical? Are you more interested in seeing it now? Less likely? Let it be known in the comments!