The Tree Of Life Part 4: How To Breathe Life Into The Structure Of Your Screenplay

As discussed in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, The Tree of Life is built around a dialectic between Nature, as represented by Jack’s father, and Grace, as represented by his mother.

When using a Hegelian Dialectic to structure your screenplay, it’s important to remember that your characters are more than just the ideas they represent. They are also people, complete with complexities, contradictions, and competing motivations that have nothing to do with your dialectical structure.

In The Big Lebowski, The Dude may represent the hippy thesis, but he’s also a character who loves White Russians and bowling, and spends most of his time pursuing one of these things.

In There Will Be Blood, Daniel may represent capitalism, but he also is a character desperate for a family connection and someone he can confide in. Even Darth Vadar loves his son, and secretly wants to overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy with him.

Character and Dialectic

Rather than fixating on the structural role your character plays in your dialectical structure, you can think of the ideas your characters represent as a kind of North Star-something to navigate by as you construct their choices.

If you spend every moment with staring up at the sky, you’re going to spend most of your time crashing into trees. But if you keep your eyes on the instinctual path of your character, and allow yourself to remember that North Star is there to guide you when you need it, that dialectical idea will help you discover the most profound structure possible for your character’s journey.

Grace and Nature

What makes both the father and mother function so well as characters in the The Tree of Life is that in addition to representing dialectical opposites of Grace and Nature, they both love their children more than anything in the world, and want to protect them from suffering.

The problem is that they have opposing views of how to do this-and in good Hegelian fashion, neither of their views work in the universe.

The Thesis of Nature

The father believes that the Nature of the world is violent and destructive, and he’s right. And that’s why he wants to make his sons tough, so that other people don’t walk all over them, so that they can express themselves as artists, control their own destinies, and not have to compromise the way that he did.

We’ve seen this type of character before in movies like Billy Elliot, The Return and A Prophet– in fact there’s even an archetypal name for him: the terrible father.

But Brad Pitt’s character is more than just an archetype or an intellectual thesis. And that’s what makes him care about him, and keeps him from being a cliché. Unlike the terrible fathers we’ve seen in the past, who want to quell the artistic expression of their children, Brad Pitt’s character wants only to foster it. He loves his children, hugs his children. He is loyal to his wife, and makes sacrifices for his family. His tough Nature is the North Star by which he navigates. But its not his sole reason for existence.

The problem with the father’s Thesis is that it doesn’t ultimately protect him, his family or his children. Rather than earning him his son’s love, his lessons in Nature only destroy the beauty in his family and in Jack, turn his sons against him, tear apart his marriage, and pit brother against brother.

For all his toughness, he can’t protect his patents from the courts, himself from a lost job, or his children from suffering. And his rage at his failures only manifests in more violence against the people he most loves.

The Antithesis of Grace

In dialectical opposition to the beliefs of the father, the mother inherently believes that the world is beautiful. And she’s right too. That’s why she wants to play happily with her sons at every moment, love everyone and everything. That’s why she infuses their life with joy and bliss and their genuine love for one another.

But her Grace doesn’t ultimately protect anyone either. Because she can’t stand up to her husband, or defend her children from his violence. As Young Jack accuses her in a moment of rage, she lets her husband walk all over her-and all over them. Her love cannot protect her children from suffering or from death. And for that failure rather than earning her love from Jack, it only earns her his anger.

Stay tuned for the final article in the series, in which I’ll discuss the way dialectical structure creates a drum beat for Malick’s fragmented narrative, and the ways you can apply these lessons to the structure of your own screenplays.

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