Can anyone explain to Sean Penn the purpose of his character in The Tree of Life?

In an interview to Le Figaro, Sean Penn (Into the Wild‘s director) showed his disagreement to Terrence Malick’s directorial work in The Tree of Life, in which the actor plays one of the main roles:

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.  – Sean Penn

Here some possible answers to Sean Penn’s concerns proposed by Philosophy and Film students:

Justyna: 

The character that Sean Penn plays in The Tree of Life rounds out the film by providing a present-day context to the events of the past. In the beginning, we witness the parents of three boys learning of the death of their middle child. On the anniversary of his brother’s death, adult Jack (played by Sean Penn) lights a candle, goes to work, calls his father, but, confronted with grief, is unable to be present in his surroundings. Now a successful architect living in a beautiful white cube of a house with an understanding wife, Jack feels like he is “bumping into walls” when he is at the architecture firm’s office. He goes for a walk and introduces the audience to a long sequence of flashbacks by saying “I see the child that I was.” Jack also contemplates his relationship to God and the unanswerable question of, “If there is a god, why is there suffering?”  Through fantastical sequences that show the vast and unstoppable forces of nature that have been at work since the beginning of time, and through witnessing snippets of Jack’s childhood as bystanders, the audience is bidden to share in the same questions and in the family’s grief. Through this reflection, Jack comes to a realization that it was his Brother and his Mother that led him to God, that God was always there calling him, and that his Father and his Mother will always wrestle inside him. In the end, in an abstracted time and space, the family finds the middle son and find a form of resolution and peace with the loss of him. The Mother offers her son to God. Through Sean Penn’s character, the audience is given context for the complex images throughout the film; however, that does not explain why Sean Penn was chosen to play adult Jack. After all, Jack had hazel eyes and a flattened nose so it does not make sense that he would grow up to have blue eyes and a nose that is definitely not flattened. Such incongruities add unnecessary confusion to a film that already is not exactly straightforward.

Piragashini (Perry) Chandrakumar:

I personally don’t think Sean Penn was supposed to add anything to the movie. He was simply a prop in this movie for Terrence. It was about a family who suffered a loss. The family was controlled by the father and I believe he was the hardest on the eldest son. The eldest son as a result of this was kind of the pillar and strong member of the family guiding his little brothers. In the future, Sean Penn (one of the brothers) seemed like he became successful but was very lost. He didn’t have guidance anymore because his brother was gone. His purpose in the film was to show us how socially awkward he became and how lost he was in the world without his older brother to guide him. Near the end of the movie he is asking for guidance from his brother and finds some sort of peace.

Shalini Shanmuganathan:

I think Sean Penn was trying to figure out what he was doing in the end when he had an illusion that he reunited with his family. He was going up the elevator and I guess he felt like he was going up to his “tree of life” revisiting the people from his past like his friend who was burned in the house fire, his youthful mom and dad, and his two younger brothers. I think Sean Penn felt like he needed to give his mother closure for the loss of his brother. In the end, he reunites his little brother with his parents. Of course, his mother is extremely happy and emotional. She eventually is seen with two ladies, whom I think are angels and tells God “I give you my son”. The dead brother is then seen walking out of a door to a deserted place that resembled heaven. Sean Penn then starts going back down the elevator and then they also show the camera descending from the tree. I think that resembled him getting back to reality and the present. Once Sean Penn got off the elevator and walked outside he looked emancipated as if he just knocked back into reality. He seemed a lot happier as if he himself found closure. For him, the closure was giving his mom happy.

Jelena Macura:

In my opinion, Sean Penn’s character in The Tree of Life adds to the context of the film as the audience, through the character’s childhood memories and flashbacks and current state of being are able to generate a deeper meaning of the film’s story.  I feel that Sean Penn’s character is very central to the story because his current mental state allows the audience to better understand the significance of the character’s childhood.  As such, I feel that the audience is able to fully experience the character from his birth, rebellion, tragedy, and ultimately adult life in which the character finds himself in a confused state still haunted by the death of his brother, the memories of his strict father, and the memories of his overall childhood.  

Maryam Rahimi:

In my opinion, the whole movie can be looked at as Sean Penn’s mental process as he ruminates through the past. The memories of his relationship with his parents and siblings, of passing through puberty, of the rebellious teenage years. He also remembers being lost between what his mother teaches him about God and nature and what he sees of the world. The movie shows even as a grownup he is still lost in the world and has unresolved issues. His role is to show a human being who is suffering the pain of being confused about his being; the existence of the world, God, nature; and origin of the world. The adult audience needs him to relate too.

Daniel Rokhvarger:

I think what Sean Penn adds to the film in structure and perspective. The whole story is told through the images of experience that his character had along with his family in childhood. Images forwarding to the future show a confused, disoriented, older Sean Penn who, like in childhood, is still struggling to make sense of his life and reach a sense of inner peace. His character is the embodiment of man’s timeless struggle to find meaning in life. In a way, his character serves a significant narrative role as it guides the film’s plot and gives it purpose.

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