Saturday, December 08, 2007
Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)
I think that you have to recognize the blindspot Sean Penn surely had while making this movie- indeed, the film would probably not exist without it, for had Penn not been so enamoured by this story, he would not have worked so hard to get it made, and it probably would have dropped out of sight. So, with the film's reason for being also comes its inherent weakness, and one that, surely, can only be laid at Penn's door. He is too enamoured of the story. He is too in love with the idea of what Christopher McCandless did to really get across the deep ironies ingrained in the story. Read reviews or comments on this film and you seem to get an unsurprising thick line drawn between two parties: those who see Chris as some kind of a hero, and those who think he was a selfish, foolish idiot. The book, although I haven't read it, on which Penn bases his script, apparently have a more balanced version of things, seeing Chris as both a hero and a fool, and this is how, despite the way Penn tries to skewer things, I saw him: what Chris (played by Emile Hirsch in a terrific performance) did was brave, commendable and free-spirited, but at the same time he was undeniably rather foolish, clearly not prepared for what he wilfully treks into. Jena Malone, who spends more time narrating than appearing as Chris's sister Carine, at one point speaks of how Carine feels a bit hurt, a bit betrayed, that Chris didn't try to contact her, even if his reasons for abandoning his parents (played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt in roles that are remarkably small and really don't deserve them) are made clear- Chris's reasons are obvious, understandable, and even sympathetic, but in his desire to cut himself off from human relationships he fails to realize that family is something that you can't ever cut yourself off from- tellingly, and in one of Penn's best moments of actual insight, the film opens with Harden waking in the night and distressingly announcing that Chris is dead.
Penn can't keep the balance, but many of his other decisions are interesting: though this structure may come from the book, I found it fascinating how Penn interweaves Chris's journey (accompanied by four chapter titles, rather unsubtly representing stages of life) with what is, essentially, his death- several months on the "Magic Bus" where he was eventually found. Commendably, too, Penn doesn't just glory in the wide, open, gorgeous landscapes, all showing us an America that we've really never seen before in the movies, but in the minute details of nature, too- insects and plants photographed in close-up, as if they're as massive as the imposing mountains. Penn's blindspot as a human is made up for by his growing skill as a filmmaker (this is a long way from the stolidity of The Pledge), and, if nothing else (I hasten to add it is more than this), Into the Wild is a beauty as a visual spectacle. Grade: B