Sean Penn offers intriguing critique of Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life': 'I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there!'


Image Credit: EWP

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?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:
‘Tree of Life': A Deconstruction


Comments (28 total) Add your comment
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  • Devin “Badass Digest” Faraci

    Horrible actor. Malick is a genius.

  • Joe

    I get what Sean Penn’s saying. His critique of the final version of the film is why this film was so polarizing for so many people who saw it. But, I still think the film is a beautiful piece of work and Sean Penn did a great job. I also think he’s correct in saying you should see this film without any preconceived notions…. it’s not for everyone.

  • MCS

    I wanted more dinosaurs. The universe sequence was the best thing on film in the last 10 years.

    • Mark


      • David

        hahaha mark you suck.

    • tracy bluth

      I agree about the universe sequence (I guess that makes me a moron?) but I thought the short moment between the dinosaurs was perfect. If stretched out people probably would’ve complained about them as much as a lot of people complain about the apes in 2001.

      • protorio

        The dinosaurs! So many critics and commentators have focused on that. Its clearly an allegory for the father and son, if not the father and the mother. Play dead.

  • Brooke Richards

    I wish Sean Penn would do more movies. We see too little of him on the big screen.

  • stu

    Let’s see, so while the film itself was polarizing Brad Pitt’s performance has been recoginzed as outstanding by most critics, and may put him in contention for nominations. And it just so happens that Sean Penn has an Oscar-bait film coming out in December. Wow, I’m shocked that he is suddenly trashing Tree of Life now. Shocked.

  • MultiPass

    How the hell do movies like this even get made? I’m flabbergasted.

    • Ethan

      Mallick is a movie director you either laugh at or you think is brilliant. I think he’s brilliant, and so do the people who finance his movies. You don’t have to like him or see the movie, those of us that like him will make the movie profitable. Actually Tree Of Life is an extraordinary movie that I thought about and felt for days afterwords, so, if you feel like you don’t want to see it, I’ll take your ticket.

  • Regina George

    Whatever, he’s just mad he didn’t get as much screen time as he wanted.

  • Ethan

    Tree of Life is an extraordinary movie whose clearest flaw is that it’s hard to figure out what to make of Sean Penn’s character’s conflict. I guess I disagree with Penn in saying a “clearer narrative” would help, I think the movie still blew my mind plenty with that flaw in place.

  • Joseph

    Many pointed out how Penn’s character should be much older if his scenes indeed took place in our “present.” I thought maybe Malick wanted Penn in the role over someone older because Penn lost his own brother a couple years earlier prior to shooting the film. If his role was to be one of grief over the loss of his younger brother, done as a silent performance, maybe Malick wanted an actor who might bring something raw and natural to the scenes. And if that’s the case maybe Malick didn’t want to convey too much to Penn about that out of fear that it would make Penn self-conscious.

  • Captain Obvious

    Artists are rarely ever good judges of their own work. Bergman hated The Virgin Spring, calling it a “pale imitation of Kurosawa” (it won the oscar for best foreign film that year). Lucas is famously unhappy with the original theatrical releases of The Star Wars films. Harrison Ford hates Blade Runner. Tom Waits said he’s embarrassed by his early albums. There is a reason why many Director’s Cuts of films are significantly inferior to the theatrical versions…Penn’s comments are meaningless. The Tree of Life wouldn’t work as a straightforward narrative film if you ask me.

  • Jeremy DC

    I am always wanting to like Malick’s work more than I do. The visuals in his movies are so great but his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. Just when things start picking up and I become interested, he starts having those ridiculous stream of consciousness voiceovers. It can be very frustrating sometimes.

  • CineRam

    Who says Malick chops his actors’ screentime “gleefully?”

  • tracy bluth

    I thought everything about Tree of Life was absolutely fantastic- even the dinosaurs and unconventional narrative. I enjoyed the images of Sean Penn’s older Jack being “trapped” in a city oddly moving as well.

  • tg

    I didn’t hear Penn as “trashing” Malick at all. Malick is known for making unconventional editing choices that leave some actors out to dry. In this case, it sounds like he was questioning more than that, but still feels like overall he was a fan of the film. Without question, he gave a great performance in both this and in The Thin Red Line. Whoever commented that Malick is generally more concerned with the relationship to nature than to the actors made a good observation.

  • Faris

    Penn actually served his purpose in the movie. Malick showed a three stories on earth….The beginning, Current, and future… a poetic style. Some parts i still don’t get why they were in the film and seemed a bit like a drag.

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