Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Into the Wild" -- * * * 1/2

Sean Penn's lyrical adaptation of Jon Krekauer's book "Into the Wild" is an ambitious and fascinating piece of work that almost inexplicably succeeds on virtually every account. Despite the groundswell of positive reviews, I admit I just couldn't get myself excited for this one; however, around the one-hour mark, I was won over by its artfulness and its rich tapestry of characters, locales and strong performances.

The film follows the adventures/explorations of 22-year-old Emory graduate Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) from 1990 to 1992, after fleeing his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), and freeing himself of material things (he donates his $24,000 college fund to charity, and abandons his car in the Arizona desert). Calling himself "Alexander Supertramp" once on his journey, McCandless' goal was to make his way to the Alaskan wilderness.

Penn jumps around from McCandless' time alone in Alaska living in an abandoned bus, to his time on the road, his adventures (including paddling down rapids, running among horses and hunting moose) and encounters with various people on his two year journey that led him there. The most notable friendships he makes are with a middle-aged hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a seductive 16-year-old singer (Kristen Stewart), South Dakota farmer Wayne (a slightly subdued Vince Vaughn), and lastly-- and most poignantly-- an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) who's lost his wife and son and starts to have grandfatherly feelings towards Christopher.

Narrated by Christopher's admiring sister Carine (Jena Malone), "Into the Wild" is a lengthy film (2 hours and 34 minutes) that moves at its own pace, but never drags. And despite the movie being a series of encounters with various folk, the journey seems to naturally flow and never feels like vignettes strung together. Had any been excised, the film's impact would be diminished to some extent. Penn's filmmaking style feels intentionally loose, free-form and borderline unfocused; we get snippets of conversations and bits of non-sequiter scenes (such as one where McCandless expresses his love to an apple) that drift into the next, particularly in the early going. But rather than irritating, the loose structure works in the movie's favor, and only feels appropriate given the subject matter.

Considering he's in virtually every frame, and playing a character whose likability is questionable, Hirsch does a fine job as McCandless, though he sometimes comes off as a bit of a blank-slate. It's an especially tricky and demanding role, and without the right performer commanding the screen, the film would be a slog to get through. If the film gets the kind of attention I think it will, this may finally be the star-making turn that eluded him with "The Girl Next Door" and "Lords of Dogtown."

Hurt and Harden do fine as McCandless' parents, but they occasionally veer into caricature, and we don't really spend enough time with them to ascertain whether or not Christopher's feelings towards them are justified. Keener is very strong, particularly in a moving scene where she reveals she has a son Christopher's age who she hasn't seen or heard from for 2 years, and expresses concern for Christopher's parents.

But the finest performance in the film comes from veteran actor Holbrook, who doesn't show up till the two-hour mark and has only about 15 minutes of screen-time. It's not an especially showy performance, but it's touching, resonant and almost unbearably heartbreaking. In a particularly strong ensemble, he's the one that really sticks with you, and greatly increases the final half hour's emotional impact.

How McCandless' adventure ended is fairly well-known by now, but it still should be considered a spoiler of sorts. I'll hold my tongue for the few stragglers, except to say the sequence Penn chooses to close the film is beautiful, haunting and wildly impressive, at the very least from a technical standpoint.

Penn's depiction of McCandless is slightly less even-handed than in Krekauer's book (the film skews more towards the positive), he deserves credit for not painting him as heroic. Though the film certainly glorifies his experience, it also implies it might have been misguided, and doesn't shy away from McCandless' self-righteousness and simplified ideals (when asked what awful things he's getting away from, he answers "Parents, hypocrites, politicians, pricks").

After his last two extremely dark directorial efforts, "The Crossing Guard" and "The Pledge" (both starring Jack Nicholson), "Into the Wild" emerges as Penn's best film to date, and certainly his least bleak one. Regardless of where the story ends, it's a film filled with genuine passion, sadness and a reverence for nature and exploration that's infectious. Regardless of where you fall down on McCandless, the film is never less than compelling, and I have a feeling will only be enriched by repeat viewings.

"Into the Wild" is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities this Friday, and will slowly make its way to theatres nationwide throughout October

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Picture, Director (Sean Penn), Adapted Screenplay (Sean Penn), Supporting Actor (Hal Holbrook)Cinematography, Art Direction
We'll have to see how the film does at the box office, but if it maintains its momentum and buzz throughout the season, this could be a real contender. The combination of 'true life story,' 'written and directed by well-liked Oscar winning actor' and the fact that it's a movie people really seem to be liking, might be enough to push it into the awards derby


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