Near the end of Terrence Malick’s World War II film, “The Thin Red Line,” which comes as close to poetry as movies can get, there’s a scene in which First Sergeant Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) listens to Sergeant Storm (John C. Reilly) wearily expound on his feelings — or lack of them — after battle. “When I look at that boy dying,” Storm says, “I don’t feel nothing. I don’t care about nothing anymore.”
Welsh’s response (“Sounds like bliss”), and his later response to the see-everything light of James Caviezel’s Private Witt (“You’re a magician to me”), sets him up as the film’s everyman. He’s the guy stuck between two ways of dealing with the horrors of the world: feeling nothing (Storm) or feeling everything (Witt). He’s envious of those who can feel nothing, but, by the end, he also grudgingly admires Witt, who can feel everything. Welsh is stuck in this awkward middle. Like most of us.
It’s a great scene in a great movie, but what truly astounded me was Penn’s brief reaction shot to Storm’s declaration. Myriad emotions — anger, admiration, envy — flitted across his face in a flash. I thought, “How does he do that?” I thought, “That’s not acting; that’s being.” I’d long been an admirer of Sean Penn but I decided right then to write about him.
The problem with watching Sean Penn is that generally you have to watch him in Sean Penn movies. “The Thin Red Line” is a glorious exception. Most Penn movies are less story-driven than character-driven, and the characters are invariably unpleasant. They’re not even grandly unpleasant in the manner of a Jack Nicholson character. They’re small men with small lives.
In “Bad Boys,” Penn plays a small-time punk responsible for involuntary manslaughter whose girlfriend gets raped by his enemy. In “At Close Range” he plays a small-time punk whose girlfriend is raped and murdered by his father. In “Casualties of War” he plays a tough sergeant in Vietnam responsible for the gang rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl. In “Dead Man Walking” he plays a con on death row responsible for the gang rape and murder of a young couple.
And these are the good movies — movies that at least make an attempt at structure and resolution and possible redemption. It doesn’t take into account all of the flat movies he’s made: “Shanghai Surprise” and “We’re No Angels” and “She’s So Lovely” and “Hurlyburly” and “The Weight of Water”: Movies where the elements don’t add up to what they should.
You could have a great debate about which Penn character is the most pathetic. There’s Daulton Lee, the spoiled California drug dealer/traitor in “The Falcon and the Snowman,” who thinks he’s smarter than the KGB, and whines and lies to his family, “I was working for the CIA!”; David Kleinfeld, the scumbag lawyer in “Carlito’s Way,” who tries to frame one client and murders another; Emmet Ray, the second-best guitar player in the world in “Sweet & Lowdown,” who doesn’t need to brag pathetically but does, and who only realizes retroactively that he’s thrown away the best thing in his life; and Samuel J. Bicke, the failed salesman of “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” who’s too uncomfortable in his own skin to hold onto a wife, a job, a friend, a brother, and, ultimately, a life.
Penn’s pathetic characters generally have thin, reedy voices, pencil-thin moustaches, heroin/coke habits and a self-delusion that lasts through the end of the movie and, one suspects, into eternity. Rupert Pupkin has nothing on these guys. Travis Bickle is a smashing success in comparison. No one does pathetic like Penn.
My vote for his most pathetic, though, would go to Eddie, the marginal, misogynistic Hollywood player in David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly,” who continually loses mind-games with Kevin Spacey’s Mickey, and who comes up with the most pathetic way of asking a woman for oral sex in the history of the world — bouncing up and down on his balcony and whining, whining, whining. The scene should be funny. Just describing it is funny. But there’s something so committed in Penn’s performance, so self-contained and unwinking, that you can only turn away in disgust at how utterly small and obtuse a human being can be.
It’s a great irony that for all the angst of these characters, Penn’s most famous character is still Jeff Spicoli, the “Hey bud, let’s party” stoner/surfer dude from the broad comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” It was one of his first roles. He’s been a bit darker since.
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The anti-movie star
What do we know about Sean Penn? He travels well: To Iraq in December 2002 and ’03; to Iran in June 2005; to a Hurricane Katrina-decimated New Orleans in September 2005.
His movies travel well, too. “The Interpreter” made 54 percent of its total box office in foreign rentals; “I Am Sam”: 59 percent; “21 Grams”: 73 percent; “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”: 80 percent.
In many ways he is the anti-movie star, but in no way more than this: Most movie stars play admirable or heroic characters in the movies while their off-screen lives are often less than admirable. Penn plays less-than-admirable in the movies while his off-screen life is often admirable. Maybe even heroic.
Some may disagree, but I admire his attempt to find out more about Iraq before we invaded it; would that the Bush administration had done the same. I admire his rescue mission in New Orleans; would that FEMA had been so quick. I admire him for sticking up for fellow actor Jude Law during the Oscars two years ago, and for telling “Team America” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker to stick it. I admire his mix of caring and toughness and f-you attitude. I admire his taste in women. Hell, I admire him for punching out the paparazzi in the 1980s — a feat for which he got no end of grief. If someone messes with you, mess back.
Dude smokes like a chimney. That’s not so admirable. Even as I write this there are reports he broke an anti-smoking ban in Ontario by lighting up during a press conference. He smoked on “Inside the Actors Studio,” too. Almost all of his characters smoke — at a time when few characters in movies smoke (it helps that he plays no one you want to emulate). The smoking stinks of a kind of prolonged adolescent rebellion that goes with his taste in literature: the Beats and Bukowski. He’s written articles about his travels for The San Francisco Chronicle, but he’s obviously an amateur there.
Not much fun
As an actor, though, he’s beyond professional. In John Lahr’s New Yorker profile last April, Woody Allen says of Penn: “The feeling you get about him is that you can’t call his bluff, because he’s not bluffing.” Compare this sturdiness with the fragility of his Sam Bicke character in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.” The panic in his eyes throughout the film. Bicke is a man trapped by circumstances and inarticulation and neediness, and by his sense that the world isn’t the way it should be. People lie and get ahead? That’s not right. It’s another seamless, unwinking performance that leaves you exhausted.
Are his performances too unwinking? Too self-contained? Watch “She’s So Lovely,” an awful title for a flawed film, in which Penn plays Eddie Quinn, another small-timer who — I think this is the point — goes crazy when his girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) lies to him about the bruises on her face. He spends the next 10 years in a mental institution because of this lie. When he gets out, she’s married to Joey (John Travolta), a rich construction something-or-other with maybe mob ties. Travolta’s character is boldly drawn and external — the way Cagney was always external — and the movie becomes fun for a moment. We draw energy from Travolta. Then Penn’s character shows up again, all intricate and internalized and self-contained, and the fun disappears. We lean forward. We try to understand. In this way Penn draws energy from us. He exhausts us. He’s not much fun.
If movie stars can be said to seduce audiences, then in their performance there must be some infinitesimal awareness of the audience — of us, in the theater, watching — because you can’t seduce what you’re not aware of. But Penn’s performances are so self-contained, the audience doesn’t seem to exist for him at all. In the New Yorker profile, Lahr writes about Penn’s “guarded nature” and his “unreachable quality.” Are even his characters unreachable? “I’m the Indian runner,” the childhood game goes in Penn’s 1991 directorial debut. “I’m a message, and the message is ‘Bet you can’t find me.’” That’s Penn. His commitment to his craft is so complete, it’s as if he’s keeping us out.
This may be his greatest flaw; or it may make him the greatest actor in the history of movies.
Every man a king
Which brings us to “All the King’s Men.” What can I say? Penn stuns again. He stuns in another movie that doesn’t quite work. The backstory in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is extensive; and yet without that backstory, the front story of Willie Stark, Sean Penn’s populist governor who becomes corrupt fighting corporate interests, makes no sense. So we get the backstory in short and then longer bursts. Willie Stark, the center of the first half of the movie, disappears in the second half, and the movie suffers.
What’s fascinating about Willie Stark is that he’s big. He’s grand. He has large appetites. He is the biggest character Penn has ever played, and Penn inhabits that bigness like he was born to it. Penn is often compared to Brando and De Niro as the best actors of their respective generations; but unlike Brando and De Niro, Penn has yet to star in any of the best movies of his generation. Brando had “Streetcar” and “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather,” and De Niro has “The Godfather Part II” and “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” It helps that both actors frequently collaborated with a great director: Elia Kazan for Brando; Martin Scorsese for De Niro.
Penn has had no such collaboration. The only director he’s worked with more than once is Brian De Palma, with whom he’s worked twice: “Casualties of War” and “Carlito’s Way.” But these were supporting roles, and neither movie is considered De Palma’s best, let alone the best of a generation. I know it’s asking a lot — like having the best baseball player play for the best team — but for Penn to star in one of the best movies of his generation, bigness is the way to go, and Willie Stark is a good first step.
Something happens, in fact, as you watch Penn as Stark, and it doesn’t happen often in a Sean Penn movie. You watch him stare down James Gandolfini over a bottle of orange pop. You watch him deliver an angry populist speech in a mangled Louisiana drawl. You watch bashfulness appear in his increasingly corrupt face as he looks over a scantily-clad skater. You watch it all and you think, “Hey, this is fun.”
Erik Lundegaard wonders why you still haven’t seen “The Thin Red Line.” He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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