In Contention


Sean Penn bitch-slaps ‘Tree of Life’

Posted by Kristopher Tapley · 10:41 am · August 21st, 2011

It seems actor Sean Penn is still upset about the fact that so much of his performance in “The Tree of Life” was left on the cutting room floor. I guess he and Adrian Brody can drown their woes in a few down at the pub. Said the actor to French magazine Le Figaro:

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.

The thing is, I don’t entirely disagree with him. The bookend nature of his role is the weaker element of the film, particularly the reprise at the end. But I do think the early stuff works because it’s a brilliant, human lead-in to the film’s central question: “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Penn asking the almighty “Where were you” when his character’s brother died leads to the film’s extended cosmos sequence, and that is key, something I dug into when I wrote about the film at length in May.

I don’t doubt Penn’s sincerity but I also can’t help but sense some irritation over the fact that his role was significantly diminished, a complaint we’ve certainly heard before. But as a two-timer with Malick now, surely Penn understands as much as anyone that when you sign up to work with the maestro, you’re taking the risk that your work will be slashed and positioned to the director’s will.

I haven’t read the original script so I can’t speak to what was on the page, but we all know Malick is a master of imagery and whatever is on the page is merely a vague road map for his vision. As Richard Brody quotes Fritz Lang in “Contempt” at The New Yorker: “In the script it is written, and on the screen it’s pictures.”

[Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]




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36 responses so far

  • 1 8-21-2011 at 10:57 am

    qwiggles said...

    I rather like Brody’s backhand compliment to Pen:
    “Penn brings an acid yellow to the glass-and-metal grays of his scenes.”

    Acid yellow indeed!

  • 2 8-21-2011 at 10:57 am

    qwiggles said...

    …err, Penn.

  • 3 8-21-2011 at 11:28 am

    Al said...

    To me it isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with his sentiments. No, its about the fact that Penn is an ass.

    I really can’t stand when actors try to distance themselves from something they choose to participate in. Be classy and keep it to yourself. I’m not trying to say every comment has to be positive, but I just can’t stand bitching about art that you are a part of.

  • 4 8-21-2011 at 11:37 am

    Maxim said...

    Al, et al, at no point do I feel that Penn was bitching but rather provided a valid and perfectly valuable take on something he was a part of and the expectations he’s built his perfromance on.

    The problem isn’t people like Penn, it’s people who try to misterpret what he is actually saying without so much as trying to give him a benefit of the doubt.

  • 5 8-21-2011 at 11:38 am

    Drew said...

    I just saw this yesterday, and while part of me wants to dismiss Penn’s response as an ego-driven rant, I think part of what he’s saying as well as what Kris is saying right, the film got kind of out of hand with so many themes and subjects tht might have too much to tackle for even a cinematic feature, and while I was moved and effected by what I saw, and I will be left pondering it for some time, I still feel that it was edited almost haphazrdly and that some more pivotal moments remained absent.

  • 6 8-21-2011 at 11:39 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I agreed with him to an extent. But the fact remains it’s not new for actors to whine about their place in a Malick film once they see the finished product.

  • 7 8-21-2011 at 11:40 am

    Fitz said...

    I honestly wasn’t expecting this from Penn, who should know by now how strenuous it is to have all of your scenes make it into the final product of a Malick film.

  • 8 8-21-2011 at 11:48 am

    Edward L. said...

    The main issue I had with Penn being in the film is one of timeframe: if he represents the grown-up version of a kid who was, what, 12 in the mid-1950s…and if the Penn sequences are set in the present day (which I imagine they are, given the architecture, though I may be wrong), then shouldn’t Penn’s character be pushing 70?

    By the way, I liked the film, and I respect both Penn and Malick…Just wanted to mention this point.

  • 9 8-21-2011 at 12:24 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Perhaps it is bad form for Penn to make these comments, but his assessment of the film and of his puzzling appearance in it are accurate.

  • 10 8-21-2011 at 12:33 pm

    Chris138 said...

    I can understand some of his frustration, although I do think that the scenes of him in the modern day worked in the beginning of the film rather well. However, I agree with what Kris said about how you would think actors would be used to the possibility of their work not entirely making it in the final product, as many people who were part of The Thin Red Line would know.

  • 11 8-21-2011 at 1:13 pm

    tony rock said...

    How is it bad form? He’s not a politician, he should be able to speak his mind. “Professionalism” is just another word for censorship/cultural enslavement.

  • 12 8-21-2011 at 1:46 pm

    Red said...

    I know there’s probably several versions of the script out there, but my blog partner got his hands on the screenplay a couple years ago. He was pretty clear that Penn’s part was going to be pretty small, so I’m not sure why Penn is complaining so much.

    Again, Penn may have seen a different screenplay, but it’s kind of hard to imagine that his role was cut to the extent that Penn is saying here.

  • 13 8-21-2011 at 2:16 pm

    Jason said...

    Incendiary! Penn’s poison tongue not only bitch-slapped Malick, but also put him in a headlock, mussed up his hair, wrestled him to the ground, locked him in a half-nelson, and gave him a wedgie. Then he did a touchdown dance and crowed “BOOOOO-YAAA!”

  • 14 8-21-2011 at 4:13 pm

    Raguabros said...

    Thanks for the SPOILER ALERT, Kristopher!!! Your international readers whose countries have not premiered the movie will be THANKFUL

  • 15 8-21-2011 at 4:30 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The brother dies 10 minutes into the film. You’ll survive.

  • 16 8-21-2011 at 4:51 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Is Penn complaining about his work being cut so much as him not being satisfied with the final product?

    It’s Sean Penn I just doubt he is burdened by his footage being cut. He is not someone trying to make a name for himself like Adrien Brody when TTRL came out. I will go ahead and believe that it’s the quality of the finished product itself that Penn is disappointed in more than anything.

    In other words we might have gotten 60 minutes of Sean Penn screen time but he still may have had a problem with the narrative and lack of emotion on screen.

  • 17 8-21-2011 at 4:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I don’t doubt it, but never underestimate ego.

  • 18 8-21-2011 at 5:17 pm

    Chris138 said...

    It seems that ever since Days of Heaven there is some member of the cast who is unhappy with the way Malick’s films have turned out. I remember reading an interview with Wes Studi where he expressed disappointment with The New World.

  • 19 8-21-2011 at 6:24 pm

    Keith said...

    Having seen the film, I don’t entirely disagree with Penn either. I agree with you, Kristopher. As much as I like Penn, it’s hard not to imagine ego isn’t playing a part in his reaction, at least as it’s revealed in the above quote.

    I’m still struggling with my reaction to Tree of Life. That in itself is a testament to how great a film it is, probably. But I’m still teasing out the things I loved from elements that didn’t work for me, such as a number of Penn’s scenes.

  • 20 8-21-2011 at 8:13 pm

    Rashad said...

    I don’t think it’s ego, since he’s not complaining about what was cut. He’s complaining about the parts that are in the film. He’s saying he didn’t add anything to the movie, and that the movie lacked the emotion of the script. Has nothing to do with Pitt getting buzz

  • 21 8-21-2011 at 8:34 pm

    DylanS said...

    Everybody criticizing Penn’s statements should put themselves in his position for a second and think. Actors devote themselves entirely to the character they are playing and grow an attachment to them. If you poured your soul into a performance and then saw the arc of that character whittled away in the editing process by the director’s grand vision in the final product, I think that might be a little devastating on a personal level.

  • 22 8-21-2011 at 9:25 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “Has nothing to do with Pitt getting buzz.”

    Who the hell said it did? Massive leap.

  • 23 8-21-2011 at 10:05 pm

    Glenn said...

    I like that Penn actually admitted to not quite “getting” the film. Not every actor understands the films they work on and, hey, that’s okay.

  • 24 8-21-2011 at 10:39 pm

    Al said...

    I can sympathize with being saddened to see the bulk of your work gutted and gone. What I can’t abide is that sadness being channeled into a criticism of the film. Even if it wasn’t necessarily a mean spirited statement.

  • 25 8-21-2011 at 10:49 pm

    Rashad said...

    But he isn’t sad that it was gutted, not from that quote at least.

    Kris: I can’t remember where but I saw someone say that as some sort of reasoning for his comments. Guess I just put it in this response by accident.

  • 26 8-21-2011 at 11:48 pm

    Kevin Ketchum said...

    Didn’t James Horner pull this same kind of stunt with The New World? Seems like there’s always some actor or crew member who is disappointed/whatever with the final product when working on a Malick film. Makes people like Desplat, who tell people ahead of time “Don’t expect miracles from my work, Terry will edit it to fit his vision” and being OK with that refreshing. Frankly, this business of people shitting on Malick’s films they are involved in because it didn’t match their expectations/whatever is getting old. Shouldn’t Penn be used to the films not reflecting the original script? Hell, a large number of big name actors were cut out of The Thin Red Line entirely. After 40 years (and one previous collaboration on Penn’s part), you’d think people would know that Malick’s films never reflect the initial scripts. To complain about it after 5 films with evidence to the contrary seems rather silly and immature if you ask me.

  • 27 8-22-2011 at 12:28 am

    pascal le duff said...

    Aren’t blogs about bitch slapping films and actors in movies? If any one can express his opinion, quite anonymously, why can’t actors ? You can disagree with what he says or writes, but Sean Penn has every right to express his disappointment. His opinion is quite legitimate. I quite agree with Maxim : ” The problem isn’t people like Penn, it’s people who try to misterpret what he is actually saying without so much as trying to give him a benefit of the doubt. ” Sean Penn is not ‘ whining ‘ ( what a dreadful word to use there ) like a two year old. child. He is doing what everyone is doing on this very page : expressing his thought. Dismissing his opinion by using the words whine, ass, ego and so forth, THAT is quite silly. If you prefer to hear Shia LaBeouf say that Michael Bay is the best director of all time, be happy with such a profound thought.

  • 28 8-22-2011 at 2:39 am

    red_wine said...

    Penn would have NEVER agreed to star in this film if he knew ahead of time what his role was gonna look like in the final cut. NEVER EVER.

    He has NOTHING to do in the film at all, he is just the frame story. I think he had tops 2-3 lines in the film. The role did not required Penn at all, not in the slightest. It is basically a person staring dejectedly here and there into space. ANY actor could have done it because it literally did not require any acting.

    It is perfectly valid for an actor of Penn’s caliber to be offended by people questioning his judgment in participating in this role and his performance and his own ideas about the kind of acting he wants to do.

  • 29 8-22-2011 at 3:48 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I think it’s worth including the rest of Penn’s statement to Le Figaro (which I’ve roughly translated from the original French), which ends on a rather more gracious note than this excerpt implies:

    “But it’s a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It’s up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved.”

    Personally, I think Penn is well within his rights to offer his own individual thoughts on the film, particularly given his stature and the fact that he has a history with Malick. To me, he doesn’t comes across as sour or petulant here — merely reflective. Not every project an actor takes on turns out as he might expect or hope; it’s okay to say as much without getting accusatory.

  • 30 8-22-2011 at 11:10 am

    Al said...

    Of course Penn has the right to say things. Everyone does. It just isn’t classy when you’re apart of it.

  • 31 8-23-2011 at 12:09 am

    julian said...

    “If you prefer to hear Shia LaBeouf say that Michael Bay is the best director of all time, be happy with such a profound thought.”

    Ha! You got that right…:)