When a majority of your performance ends up on the cutting room floor, it’s understandable if you find yourself a bit disappointed with the final results of a highly anticipated feature film. Three months after “The Tree of Life” was honored with the Palm d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, cast member Sean Penn is still trying to figure out the purpose of his character in Terrence Malick’s critically praised epic.
“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,” Penn is quoted as saying. “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.”
An acclaimed filmmaker himself for films such as “Into the Wild” and “The Indian Runner,” Figaro reporter Jean-Paul Chaillet must have caught Penn in a strikingly candid mood or the two-time best actor winner has been biting his tongue since appearing at “Life’s” Cannes debut this past May. Penn was blunt, but you can’t argue that his character Jack (the grown up son of Brad PItt and Jessica Chastain’s characters in the film) doesn’t seem to have a real purpose in the context of the picture. Of course that didn’t matter to most critics who were swept away by the stunning visuals and moving moments from Chastain and the young actors in the flashback portion of the film.
In fact, with an 85 on Metacritic and an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes from top critics “Life” is one of the best reviewed movies of the year so far and distributor Fox Searchlight has serious hopes of conveying the passionate supporters of “Life” into a best picture nomination this January. It’s debatable how much Penn’s opinion will affect their campaign (especially so early in the season) and you can expect some sort of “clarification” from the actor about his support for the project any moment now (even Penn can understand this makes him seem a tad ungrateful for the chance to work with the legendary filmmaker even if he disagrees with his artistic choices). And to be frank, that’s what it is really all about.
For all is praise, “Tree of Life” is a polarizing film for most. Either you are swept away and moved by Malick’s mix of unconventional and traditional narrative styles or you find it meandering and hard to comprehend. It’s one reason that “Life” will no doubt make a slew of critic’s top ten lists, but disappear as a real best picture nominee player (just $12.6 million in domestic box office doesn’t help either).
Perhaps Penn thought the ship had sailed on “Life”? That may be, but he no doubt got an earful from someone this morning about keeping it to himself.
Agree or disagree with Penn? Share your thoughts below.
For year-round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HItFixGregory.