"To judge from the admiring but bemused conversations with his cast and crew, Malick is less like a conductor and more like a muse, perhaps, or an elusive father figure, or a benign god in whom an apostle can have faith but nothing so presumptuous as understanding. What emerges isn't a group of people striving to fulfill an artist's vision, but rather striving to figure out what that vision might be."
When "The Tree of Life" premiered at Cannes (to both applause and boos) in 2011, Penn stated:
"The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I've ever read but I couldn't find that same emotion on screen. 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,..Nevertheless it's a film that I recommend provided one goes in without preconceptions."
His comments led the LA Times to ask the question, "Is Sean Penn Right about Terrence Malick, or is he Just Bitter?" "Tree" went on to snag a spot on Roger Ebert's Ten Greatest Films of All Time list, many Best of 2011 lists, as well as ranking at #102 on Sight & Sound's 250 Greatest Films of All Time list. Basically, Penn wound up with a smaller-than-hoped-for role in a landmark film.
For his part, Pitt's "Tree of Life" performance was arguably one of his best, and the experience of working with Malick likely prepared him for the equally stellar Oscar-nominated performance he delivers in "Moneyball." On the other hand, Affleck's performance in "To The Wonder" left many critics disappointed. Affleck is called out for being "largely a blank" and "isn't given a chance." Still, some critics are smitten with the film (any others have yet to weigh in). Affleck himself, who told TOH that he loved watching the master at work and stole some pointers for his directing gig on "Argo," gives his Malick experience a sun-kissed review:
"I see it as using actors as paint. What I'm doing is blue, and Olga is magenta, and Rachel is yellow. In most movies you're doing the painting while you're shooting. But Terry is just collecting colors; he'll do the painting in the editing room."
The question for an actor is whether or not it's worth it to take the chance that your bit of a Malick movie will wind up in the American film canon --or on the cutting room floor.