Not only is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life one of the most beautiful films of the year, it’s also sparked some of the most fascinating online discourse. Critics are fairly divided, with some arguing that “The Tree Of Life has a vision that makes most movies look like crude stick drawings,” while others opine, “Tree of Life? Tree of sanctimonious mopey male egotism disguised as a search for meaning, more like.” Overall, though, the film has a high ranking on Rottentomatoes and has performed respectably at the box office.

But one thing that I’ve heard numerous times is that Sean Penn is wasted in this film. And a recent interview that Penn gave seems to affirm that the strong-willed actor himself believes his character was not put to good use. Hit the jump to read his comments.

Tree of Life mostly occurs in the past, while an older Penn occasionally makes appearances to reflect on the experiences of his younger self. But in my opinion, his appearances are too brief and add little to the film, up until the final sequences, where maybe they add a bit too much. On the /Filmcast, we’ve made clear our lukewarm thoughts about the film (see here, here, and here; a full review will come later on). I admired the film and was enchanted by the cinematography, but ultimately found it to be an unsatisfying exploration of the themes it broaches.

In a recent interview for Le Figaro, Penn described the depths of his dissatisfaction with Tree of Life (via Matt Singer; the translation is from The New Yorker, whose Richard Brody also wrote on this):

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. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.

Of course, on a very basic level, I agree with Penn’s assessment. I’m not entirely sure what he’s doing there either and attempts to explain it to me have felt pretty far-fetched (see below for an example). Aside from that, I found this to be a pretty stark example of an actor calling out the emperor as having no clothes. I’m fascinated by what a “conventional version” of The Tree of Life would have been like. The current film’s structure (or lack thereof) seems so intertwined with its purpose and essence that it would have been a drastically different film in the hands of a different director.

But would it have been better? There’s no way to tell. What we do know is that The Tree of Life, despite any perceived flaws, is a singular creation, a film that demands attention and discussion and that rewards it amply.

Richard Brody from The New Yorker seems to miss Penn’s point, interpreting his dissatisfaction with the film as dissatisfaction with Malick’s process. Brody argues:

Malick wasn’t shooting it for the pleasure or the benefit of the actors. What Penn conveys in his performance (as the adult protagonist whose memories, in flashback, provide most of the film’s action) is his very stardom, his charisma, his emotional intensity. Malick’s methods don’t let the actor employ much of his accustomed technique, but this doesn’t at all lessen the beauty and the impact of his performance.

To be clear, I believe in the Death of the Author too (or in this instance, the Death of the Actor). Maybe Penn really was adding a crapload of gravitas to the film, and he was so brilliant, he didn’t even know it. Maybe Penn’s very presence sent shockwaves through the celluloid, and imbued it with meaning it didn’t otherwise have. I’m willing to accept that possibility. Maybe.

Brody employs some pretty fancy rhetorical footwork to justify his love for The Tree of Life, but in the end I’m left to wonder: Can’t Sean Penn just not like the movie? Can’t all of us be afforded that courtesy, without being lectured on how we didn’t “get it”? In Tree of Life, Malick is willingly or unwillingly flouting narrative conventions in the service of achieving his distinct vision. This is inevitably discomfiting to some viewers, and to many, it simply will not work for them. Does this automatically render their grasp of cinema inferior or lacking? I argue no.

I should point out, though, that Penn goes on to recommend the film (translation courtesy of my high school French teacher):

[I]t is a film that I recommend, as long as you go alone without preconceived ideas. It is up to each viewer to find in it a personal, emotional or spiritual connection. Those who are able to do that usually come out very moved.

Words with which I think we can all agree.

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