The autobiographical threads in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” have been well-documented since the film took Cannes by storm in 2011. The central story, set in 1950s Waco, Texas, mirrors Malick’s own upbringing, and in many ways the entire film represents Malick meditating on the loss of his younger brother, who committed suicide in 1968. “The Tree of Life” is no doubt Malick at his most personal and self-reflective, and it turns out he had originally envisioned an ending that would’ve hit even closer to home.
On the heels of “Song to Song” premiering at SXSW, Texas Monthly released a lengthy profile of the iconic director, entitled “The Not-So-Secret Life of Terrence Malick,” that details an interesting alternate ending to his magnum opus (via The Playlist).
The theatrical cut concludes the central story of young Jack by showing his family moving away from their suburban home to an uncertain future, but apparently that’s not where Malick was going to end this part of the tale. As Texas Monthly explains:
In an earlier, unreleased version of the film, the story of the protagonist, Jack, ends not with his family’s departure from Waco but on a more triumphant note: he arrives as a boarding student at St. Stephen’s…In the unused ending, Jack leaves behind his tumultuous relationship with his father and finds a new kind of family. We see him walk past St. Stephen’s limestone chapel, the highest point on campus, those “green, undulating hills” standing in the background. “Jack is just enraptured,” said [Malick friend Joe] Conway, who has seen the cut. “He’s having this intellectual and spiritual awakening. If you take Jack as in any way reflecting Terry, well, St. Stephen’s is where he found a community that he embraced and that embraced him.”
St. Stephen’s was the school Malick was sent to after continuously butting heads with his father, Emil. Texas Monthly explains the importance this place had on Malick’s life:
Malick thrived in a culture that emphasized spirituality, intellectualism, and rugged individualism. “When I first got there, it was made known that he was the local genius,” [Malick friend Jim] Lynch told me. Malick had the highest standing in the class his junior and senior years, served in student leadership positions like dorm council, played forward on the basketball team, and co-captained the football team, playing both offensive and defensive tackle, an accomplishment of which he’s still proud.
The alternate ending of “The Tree of Life” makes clear just how essential St. Stephen’s was in cultivating Malick’s own identity growing up and would have been a fitting end to a story that is already so heavily autobiographical. Head over to Texas Monthly for more of their in-depth profile on the Austin filmmaker.