Sean Penn’s Into the Wild

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In the opening segments of Sean Penn’s version of Into the Wild, a mother’s nightmare of her missing son segues to a freight train curving through crisp Alaskan scenery, its long, metal body weaving around snow-capped mountainsides. It’s an impressive beginning. Neither in the dream nor in the boxcars do we get a full-on glimpse of the son, Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch). He may be there, in the margins or the shadows, or we may only imagine that we see him in our peripheral vision. Penn, however, stretches this distancing effect out of shape. The director chooses an aerial shot of a pick-up truck dropping McCandless at the edge of a field as the 24-year-old former college Republican (from Emory University) sets off on what, we all know, was a fatal excursion. We hear the voices of McCandless and the driver; the tires leave parallel snow tracks on the frame’s outermost left. Still, Penn keeps Hirsch’s face from us, filming him from the back, then alighting on a wide vista of the Denali range as the northern peaks might loom in an adventurer’s eye.

Finally, Penn shows us Hirsch. As Eddie Vedder’s gravelly baritone cascades over the soundtrack, we’re shown Hirsch/McCandless’s bearded visage in close-up. Penn lights the young actor in a snowy aureole that felt like mythologizing to me — the wrong kind of mythologizing. Hirsch looks the part of a determined dreamer, yet moments into McCandless’s discovery of the abandoned Fairbanks Transit bus that was to be his home base in the wilderness, as well as his eventual deathbed, Penn has the boy in the driver’s seat conducting imaginary conversations. And unfortunately, all two hours and twenty minutes of this Into the Wild is just as false. Penn keeps McCandless at a distance because the filmmaker has no idea how to approach his subject. The director, lacking empathy with McCandless’s motivations, shovels phoniness on top of phoniness in one poorly staged scene after another.

There’s never a sense than Penn personally identifies with Christopher McCandless. (A woman director might have been more attuned to McCandless’s heady mixture of bravado and naïveté — I’d like to see what either Rebecca Miller or Catherine Hardwicke would have fashioned out of his story.) What made Jon Krakauer’s 1997 reportage so lacerating wasn’t only the author’s journalistic skill (considerable though that is), it was the psychological connection that Krakauer openly felt with and to his subject. Krakauer saw himself in McCandless: what spoke to the writer so powerfully also spoke to us as readers. The unresponsive Penn, by contrast, seems moved by nothing. From the way he poses Hirsch, Penn views McCandless as Christ on the Cross — not terribly original. He thrusts Hirsch’s angel-honey prettiness at us so often that I came to view the actor’s physical beauty as the director’s crutch.

Penn structures the movie with flashbacks shuffled like a deck of cards, and here I ought to say that, with one exception, I’ve enjoyed his previous work as a director. His 1991 debut behind the camera, The Indian Runner, remains an unwatchable bore; 1995’s The Crossing Guard, flawed as it is, represented a leap forward and gave Jack Nicholson an opportunity to be someone other than the expected Nicholson persona — the movie also dared to have an unabashedly religious ending; from there, 2001’s The Pledge was practically a juggernaut into the cosmos. Transplanting Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novella of Mitteleuropean seediness to the American Southwest, Penn didn’t flinch from the sicko aspects of a retired detective’s obsession with nabbing a child murderer. It was precisely because Penn went toe-to-toe with Dürrenmatt, making the story his own while staying true to the Swiss writer’s essential pessimism, that Penn initially seemed to be an adroit match for McCandless’s dark journey. It pains me more than I can tell you to type that, the graphic moose slaughter sequence notwithstanding, Penn has in fact made a Disney movie for beatific hippies.

Penn casts Jena Malone, a fine actress, as McCandless’s sister, then gives her voice-overs. That’s her role. Malone has a lovely timbre, yet it isn’t necessary for her to fill us in on her brother’s “characteristic immoderation,” because when we see him lighting a match to his Social Security card, or chopping up his driver’s license and credit cards, we get the idea. Penn’s storytelling grows ever sloppier as Malone narrates, “When they arrived at the apartment, they found a ‘for rent’ sign,” all the while showing the parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) go through these very motions, including being told by their son’s Pakistani landlord, “He moved two months before.” Can’t Penn simply let the McCandlesses discover this without his telling us that they’re discovering it? This remedial approach creates tedium, not immediacy or drama. When Malone spiels this impossible nugget, by means of establishing her mother and father’s greed, “The careerism emboldened their blindness by the time the consulting firm made its first million,” she sounds as if she’s reading. Worse still, Malone presides over a flashback to her brother, as a child of six, sleepwalking into a neighbor’s house in the dead of night, raiding the candy stash: “Whatever drawer he was opening now must have something pretty sweet in it.” What could Malone — what could anybody — have done with this? Her director’s incompetence defeats her.

Hurt, by the way, gives one of the movie’s two good performances. As the arrogant Walt McCandless, the NASA scientist who roused his son’s hatred to tragic proportions, Hurt has a superlatively pantomimed bit of collapsing in the street. He falls with the gait of a man who has carried grief inside for years and can’t contain his sorrow a second longer. The other worthwhile turn comes from the 82-year-old Hal Holbrook as “Ron Franz,” a pseudonym for the ex-military man who grew to love McCandless. As an old-timer experiencing a late in life emotional re-engagement, the actor uses his authentically halting speech patterns and hobbling stance to poignant effect. (Those who’ve read Krakauer’s book may be amazed that Penn omits what ultimately became of Franz, following McCandless’s demise. After The Pledge, how could Penn be afraid that we wouldn’t be able to take it?)

Early on, a silent nature shot of Hirsch observing fauna in a summer forest comes off well, yet even here, on what should be the most inspired terrain, the woods or the shore, Penn has a tendency to falsify. McCandless meets a pair of earthy vagabonds (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) at the Pacific Ocean. They learn the difference between leather tramps and rubber tramps; somewhere along the way, Hirsch quotes Thoreau to Keener. He recites heavy wisdom about the universe (voice-over, again) as he and Keener swim in sun-dappled waters. Penn chases this with footage of seagulls flocking in unison against a sky of dusky ochre — as obscene as a greeting card. Keener’s character, Jan, had a point in the book. She was a sharp, resourceful woman. Here, she’s generic. One of the screen’s gutsiest actresses has been reduced to an inarticulate cipher who does most of her acting with an insecure grin. When McCandless departs from their weekend of bliss, bidding the couple goodbye with a drawing in the sand, Keener trails off, “He reminded me of…,” then her walrus-whiskered companion finishes her sentence: “I know.” The movie withholds, until much later, that Jan had a son McCandless’s age. Penn cheats whereas Krakauer was straightforward. Then there are more slow-motion shots of seagulls just above the crashing waves.

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Into the Wild only becomes substantially worse from that moment on, with the very next scene close to the movie’s nadir. Hirsch munches an apple and talks to it: “You’re so tasty! You’re so organic!” No one, no one on God’s earth, not even in the back room of a natural foods co-op on produce delivery day, has ever, ever, said anything like that. Lines like those attest to screenwriter Penn’s emptiness; saddled with this, Hirsch has zilch to draw on in reviving McCandless. Everyone he meets on the road is supposed to be deeply impressed by his wisdom-beyond-his-years. On the page, I believed it. On the screen, Hirsch sounds self-consciously pedantic — the real McCandless, as difficult a personality as he likely was, couldn’t have been this gee-whiz insufferable and still cast an indelible spell on the people he met and left behind. (About the best I can say for Hirsch is that he has magnificently foufy hair; in profile, holding the rifle with which he hunts game, he slightly resembles The Stranger’s (once) lean and virile Bradley Steinbacher.)

In a couple of scenes, such as the Mexico border crossing via kayak, and especially in a whitewater rafting sequence, Penn works up genuine visceral excitement. Why, then, does he insert an insipid “comic relief” interlude involving Euro-trash sightseers from Denmark? When the writer-director pulls an embarrassing stunt like this, he’s admitting that not only is he incapable of responding truthfully to what Krakauer wrote, he’s daring anyone to respond to it in a way that feels honest. Similarly, his terrific use of split screens during the Mexican customs interrogation (the left quarter of the frame becomes a vertical postcard of shifting medium shots; the center and right a panoramic horizon of waterways) he follows with a train-hopping montage idiotically scored to Roger Miller’s trite “King of the Road.”

Penn’s musical choices are regrettable throughout, from folksy guitars that at one point sound on the verge of breaking into Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind,” to Eddie Vedder’s amplified “ahhh, ahh, ahhhhh” moans that accompany speeded-up Koyaanisqatsi-esque stop-motion theatrics. This is Penn’s mise-en-scène? Far from being the same man who reconceived Dürrenmatt in compelling cinematic terms, the director’s new sensibility seems formed by exposure to Dawson Creek and shopping sprees at Urban Outfitters. The movie’s lemon yellow, soft-gelled grubby chic feels as if it were begging to be co-opted by something corporate this way comes. Into the Wild could have been strong medicine; instead, it’s an insidiously condescending mess that insults the memory of the late Chris McCandless and his surviving family and friends. I can think of no greater condemnation than that. — NPT

September 20, 2007

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