Is Sean Penn right about Terrence Malick--or just bitter?


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Sean Penn didn’t do many, or really any, interviews at the time that ‘The Tree of Life’ was released this spring. Now we know at least one reason why: He isn’t a big fan of the movie.

Breaking his silence on the Terrence Malick opus, Penn told the French paper Le Figaro that he didn’t connect with the movie, in which he has a supporting role as a spiritually haunted man wandering both a cold metropolis and an ethereal beach.


‘I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact,’ he told the paper, according to New Yorker blogger Richard Brody.

And then, in the capper: ‘Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. ... Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.’

It’s rare for any actor not named Shia LaBeouf to diss his own film, much less an Oscar-winning actor (though judging by reader reaction on various sites, Penn has some supporters out there). And his comments play in sharp contrast to many other actors who’ve worked with Malick, from Sissy Spacek to Penn’s ‘Tree’ costar Brad Pitt, who’ve come to embrace the auteur on a professional and personal level and even feel protective of him. (Pitt said as much when we interviewed him in Cannes.)

On the other hand, Penn’s comments aren’t that surprising. When we talked to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki earlier this year, he said that Penn, perhaps because of his background as a director, was more thrown than the other actors by Malick’s unconventional way of shooting.

And as Brody points out, Penn may have a little bit of a reason to be bitter: The film didn’t allow for the kind of submerge-yourself-in-the-character performance that Penn loves. In fact, it didn’t even really allow for speaking.

Whether Penn’s riposte comes off as honest or sour grapes probably turns on whether you feel ‘The Tree of Life’ is a masterpiece or a naked emperor, a subject about which there’s been no obvious consensus. Still, it does make one thing clearer: When Penn in the film convinces us he’s tormented and annoyed, he may not have had to act that hard.


Cannnes 2011: Brad Pitt and ‘The Tree of Life’ gang defends Terrence Malick’s absence

What Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ is actually about

‘Tree of Life’ cinematographer: It was like no set I’ve ever worked on

-- Steven Zeitchik