It’s rare for an actor to offer a subtle, multi-layered analysis of a movie, but Sean Penn – love him or hate him – is hardly a common actor. So it’s interesting to note that, in a recent interview with French magazine Le Figaro, Penn gripes about his role in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but he essentially gripes about the same stuff that plenty of non-Sean Penn individuals were griping about in regards to Tree of Life. First and foremost, just what exactly was Sean Penn doing in that movie? “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there!” the actor admits, while noting that even his director didn’t seem to know the answer to that: “Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” Penn also notes that the film’s overall time-hopping, free-flowing tone left him cold: “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and impact.” In short: If you’re somebody who thinks that Tree of Life could have used fewer dinosaurs, then you and Sean Penn are in agreement.
Penn is hardly trying to insult Malick – he calls the Tree of Life script “the most magnificent I’ve ever read,” and also notes that he still recommends the film because each person can find a “personal, emotional, or spiritual connection.” But still, it’s fascinating to see someone who actually worked behind the secrecy-shrouded veil of a Terrence Malick movie admit that he is very artistically opposed to some of the director’s decisions. (Representatives for Penn did not respond to EW’s calls for further comment; Malick remains happily ensconced within his no-comment cone-of-silence.)
It’s worth pointing out that Penn’s role in the movie isn’t exactly the stuff of method-actor legend: The actor spends most of his scenes wandering around a symbolic Very Tall Skyscraper looking like someone in the grip of a low-level panic attack. And this is hardly the first time that an actor has felt a bit miffed about the ultimate shape of a Malick film: Adrien Brody was famously a main character in The Thin Red Line, but the theatrical cut left him with hardly any screen time. More recently, The New World’s Christopher Plummer told Vulture that he wrote Malick an angry letter after seeing his role in the film chopped away into near-obscurity.
All of these actors have legitimate gripes, I suppose. In some alternate Fringe universe, there is probably a version of The Tree of Life that is more straightforward – a version of the film where you actually hear the characters’ names, and where apparently important scenes aren’t regularly elided down to a couple abstract shots of nature – but Malick’s primary fascination with all of his movies has always been on less about the interplay between specific people than about the interplay between people and nature. In that sense, I actually find Penn’s role in Tree of Life oddly moving. While we see his childhood dramas play out in a mid-century suburban wonderland of rivers, forests, and backyards that seem to go on forever, Penn is trapped in a modern-day glass metropolis – a vision of a man literally cut off from the natural world.
It might not be the deepest or most original story, but it’s certainly rendered vividly, and much of that is due to Penn’s anxious performance. (Actually, given what little we know about Malick, it actually seems likely that Penn was playing an autobiographical stand-in for the director.) Still, I’d be intrigued to hear what you think, PopWatchers: Do you think it’s unfair for Malick to gleefully chop actors’ screen time down to suit his vision? Was Penn’s role completely extraneous? Does anyone else think it’s interesting that Malick coaxes great performances out of first-time actors (Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World, the kids in Tree of Life) while apparently casting superstar actors to play uni-dimensional archetypes?
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‘Tree of Life’: A Deconstruction