Monday, September 24, 2007


Sean Penn's INTO THE WILD ****

It's been a few days since I saw INTO THE WILD, and in that time I've also seen the final version of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, which happens to be my favorite film of the year. INTO THE WILD is currently at #3 on my list. Sean Penn, the actor, is an intense screen presence, bringing a masculine brio to almost every role he takes on. As a filmmaker, Penn has been able to channel that searing intensity into the films he's written and directed: THE INDIAN RUNNER, THE CROSSING GUARD, and THE PLEDGE. His latest film, INTO THE WILD, based on the true-story, best-selling book by John Krakauer, is his best and most ambitious film to date. Part ravishing travelogue and part spiritual journey, the film is anchored by a larger-than-life, uniquely compelling performance by Emilie Hirsch, who should certainly be rewarded with a best actor nomination at next year's Academy Awards.

At first I wasn't sure what to make of Hirsch's character, Christopher McCandless. Here's a newly college-graduated young man, born into wealth, who is at odds with his domineering parents (especially his father) over basically every facet of his life. Not wanting to follow in his father's footsteps by getting a real-world job and starting a family, McCandless dumps everything he has to his name--credit cards, drivers license, social security card, cash, and the rest of his "college fund" (roughly $24,000 which he dontated to Oxfam). He's a kid that has everything (jobs, girls, money, a future) at his finger tips, but didn't want any of it. McCandless resented everything that his parents stood for. Played by the always reliable William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, his parents never wanted to understand their son, nor did they ever try it seems. Frustrated with them and, in a way, himself, McCandless set out to explore America in his beat-up junker but didn't make it very far. His car gets destroyed when he encounters a flash-flood in the dessert, vividly brought to life on screen. Ditching his wheels, he hitchhiked and walked everywhere. His ultimate destination: Alaska, where he'd be at one with nature and free from the strict confines of normal-day life. Guided in his travels by the writings of Kerouac, Hemingway, Thoreau and Tolstoy (to name a few), McCandless relied on the generosity of strangers and the diverse opportunities that life on the road presented him with. And he never spoke to his family again.

In truth, for the first 20 minutes or so, I was kind of annoyed with the guy. Coming off like a wannabe hippie about 30 years late to the party, he reminded me of some of the more foolish, pretentious kids I went to college with. But as the film moved along (it's two and a half hours though it never drags for a moment), I became fully consumed by McCandless's journey. Unlike, say, the demented thought process that brought a sociopath like Timothy Treadwell (showcased in Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary GRIZZLY MAN) to the remote Alskan wilderness, McCandless was a smart, focused, and totally in control person. He may have been a tad naive, but he was always in control of his destiny. Along his journey, he becomame friends with a variety of people: two older hippies with relationship problems (Catherine Keener and the phenomenal Brian Dierkner); a farm/mill owner who gives him some work (Vince Vaughn, in a welcome dramatic performance which also injects the picture with some much needed humor); a cute, teenage trailer-park singer (Kristen Stewart) that eyes him in more ways that one; and most memorably, a lonely, widowed WWII veteran, played by the great Hal Holbrook, who wants to adopt McCandless as the grandson he never had.

One of the best aspects of the film is the time and patience that Penn, as writer and director, brought to the picture. In the hands of a less attentive or invested filmmaker, INTO THE WILD could have felt truncated or shallow. The long run time allows Penn to fully develop every character that McCandless encountered, giving everyone an arc and a distinct voice and personality. The scenes with Holbrook are among the very best in the film. Here, McCandless reawakens the old man's spirit to live and take on new challenges; their firendship is touching and in the end, extremely uplifting. One scene in particular, where McCandless dares the old timer to meet him at the top of a small mountain peek, is outstanding; I cried. Holbrook also deserves Academy recognition.

Penn opts for a shooting style that is both intimate and epic all throughout INTO THE WILD. The lush photography and nimble, expressive camerawork by cinematographer Eric Gautier, is a wonder to behold. The snow-capped mountains look achingly cold and the river rapids sequence is pulse quickening. Penn also finds ways to incorporate the journal left behind by McCandless (I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that he doesn't make it back from his trip alive; the details I will leave for you to discover) by scrawling his journal entries across the screen in a stylish fashion. The Terrence Malick-esque voiceovers and introspective moments of character observation blend beautifully with the overall rebellious nature of the story. Penn bites off almost more than he can chew, but he brings it all together in a truly powerful way.

But the star of the film is Hirsch, who at times feels like a young Leo DiCaprio. Tough, poetic, and handsome, Hirsch delivers what amounts to a tour de force of a performance. His physical transformation during the last third of the film is startling (he apparently went the Christian Bale route of rapidly losing weight) and as McCandless started to lose his grip on his surroundings, Hirsch never feels out of control or over the top. During the intense "magic bus" sequences, he is an actor on fire. It's a mesmerizing performance, one I won't soon forget. And the film's final shot, one of the most haunting moments I have seen on screen this year (or any year) is truly spectacular. Penn takes a cue from Brian De Palma in the film they worked on together, CARLITO'S WAY, and stages a bravura swooping camera move that is beyond compare.

Attention must also be paid to the driving, exciting musical score provided by Eddie Vedder. I have never been a huge fan of the group Pearl Jam, more a casual listener. But here, Vedder's compositions work tremendously well with the visual style that Penn and Gautier devised for the film. The brand new recordings from Vedder signify change and fulfillment for McCandless; it's another directorial move by Penn that brings the film together in a sublime way.

INTO THE WILD is a tough film for serious audiences. There is excitement, sadness, poetry, and a sense of deadly foreboding that permeates through every scene of the film. It's an art film, to be sure, and I for one congratulate Penn for making the film in the fashion that he did. It couldn't have been easy to get this film made (for a variety of reasons) but I'm glad Penn took the time to tell this story. Always fascinating, and in the end, down right moving, INTO THE WILD is Sean Penn's masterpiece as a director, and one of the best films of the year.

**** stars out of ****

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