17 September 2007

Into the Wild

Screenplay & Directed by: Sean Penn
(that's the phrasing of the opening credits, which are in desperate need of a grammarian)

Grade: D+
Watch the Trailer

Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild has the distinction of being the only book that I ever read straight through in a single day, a testament to the absorbing nature of the story and Krakauer's journalistic acumen. Sean Penn's filmic adaptation, on the other hand, might take you days to finish if at all, though it's only (only!?!) 140 minutes, because of the constant temptation to walk out or shut it off, depending on the circumstances of your viewing. Penn's film is nothing but a long string of montages (just one is usually the bane of good filmmaking), accompanied by an ostentatious (and instantly dated) musical score, and only occasionally punctuated by proper scenes, whose lengths are invariably less than that of the lifespan of a struck match. Add to all of this the excessive and ornate voice-over narration (also the bane of good filmmaking), and you get American filmmaking at its laziest and most astoundingly pretentious.

Penn's film is unrestrainedly verbal, the screen often cluttered with excerpts from books and letters, demonstrating that Penn has no concept of the differences between prose and filmmaking. (And as such has no business directing a film!) Added to this, he has only the most simplistic understanding of his source material. Into the Wild, both book and film, tells the true story of a twenty-something year old kid named Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, played in the film by Emile Hirsch, who upon graduating from college ran away from his complacent middle-class life, burning his cash and donating his savings to Oxfam, to search for a life of Thoreauvian independence, embarking on a quest for that uniquely American brand of natural, spiritual freedom. "If you want something in life, reach out and grab it!" he preaches in the film. McCandless eventually wound up in the backwoods of Alaska where, after a few months of successfully surviving off the land, he ultimately died of starvation. In Krakauer's book it's a story about the complex relationship between parents, both biological and adoptive, and children; the common youthful impetus for independence and adventure; and the call of the wild; it's also about the potentially fatal dangers that come with the latter. Where, in Krakauer, McCandless' story is complicated, inspiring feelings of ambivalence, of both admonishment and inspiration, in the reader, though always through the author's sympathetic lens, in the hands of Sean Penn, who directs with the maturity of a thirteen year old who's just discovered The Catcher in the Rye, it emerges as an odiously smug and self-righteous polemic against American materialism.

Penn facilely reduces McCandless' motivations to a repudiation of his mean and miserable parents, the stern father (played sacerdotally by William Hurt) and the passive-aggressive mother (Marcia Gay Harden), both drunks. (A welcome moment of comic relief, perhaps unintentional, comes from a flashback in which a drunken Hurt declares he's canceling Christmas and an even drunker Harden replies, "Who do you think you are? God?") Where the McCandless Krakauer presents cuts a complex and confusing character, Penn cuts him down with easy psychology to a kid who won't live his parents' "lies" within their "sick society". His journey into the wild is posited as a maturation of the soul, with chapter titles (more verbalization!) like "adolescence" and "manhood". Penn the partisan comes out to criticize American culture—soulless, natch—a few times; once, in a ridiculous scene in which Hirsch gets dirty looks from some cartoonish Angeleno yuppies; again when Hirsch makes it back to civilization after a stint in the wilderness only to see George Bush Sr. getting his war on; and most egregiously when he shows a bald eagle, with a gang of coyotes, feasting on the meat from a moose's corpse, a clumsy metaphor for how America and its "rules" are weighing-down on the yearning (and libertarian) McCandless. The "characteristic immoderation" that Jena Malone, as Hirsch's sister (they were last seen acting together as lovers in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), defines her brother by also applies to the film's director.

There are countless possible manners in which to tell McCandless' story cinematically, but unfortunately Penn goes, and rather haughtily to boot, for the rote Hollywood style of uncritical celebration. It's really remarkable that such a proficient actor hasn't got the slightest bit of directorial intuition. While Krakauer never mistook sympathy for apotheosis, Penn relentlessly beats us over the head with McCandless' rectitude and admirability. The whole approach is neatly summed-up by a mid-film scene in which Hirsch is seen kayaking in Southwestern river rapids; the staccato editing gives the sequence a pulsating energy, buttressed by the sound of off-screen observers shouting "woo hoo"s of encouragement and a rollicking blues soundtrack, which leaves the viewer no possible recourse but to either stand-up and play air guitar—isn't this kid awesome?—or roll their eyes and fidget uncomfortably.

It should be noted that the categorical failure of the film is entirely Penn's responsibility, and lies not with the actors; Hirsch is fine in the lead, with a few very nice moments, such as an improvisation with an apparently delicious apple, and Catherine Keener, as a surrogate mother of sorts that Hirsch meets on the road, is especially effective. But Penn's strongest talent, and his only talent (outside of acting of course), is in the casting of old men; two marginal, elderly actors give some of the film's most striking performances: one, a trembling gent on a payphone, heard obscurely begging to be given "another chance"; and two, an artist/burnout/religious fanatic that Hirsch comes across in the desert. But the film's real gem is Hal Holbrook, who turns up in the last act playing one of the many surrogate fathers Hirsch comes across in his peregrinations. Holbrook and Hirsch have an intimacy almost entirely missing from the rest of the film, probably because Penn's directorial stamp is largely absent from these scenes, supplying a palpable tenderness that builds to a heartbreaking climax. Make it through the movie if you can—it's length is more numbing than exhausting—just to get to Holbrook's scenes. Somebody give him an Oscar!


rodjsr said...

That's really too bad. I also loved the book and was looking forward to the movie. I'm still gonna watch it, though.

BTW: Nice blog!

Anonymous said...

I agree, it is too bad! Although all of the reviews coming in so far (from respectable critics) have been very positive; I feel like we must have seen two different movies. By all means, make up your own mind! I would've still wanted to see it too had I read this review... :)

Unknown said...

yes yes and again yes.
I really, really disliked this movie while watching it for about the same reasons- how can so many critics really be praising this? I can only theorizing that somehow they're seeing the movie this SHOULD be- the complex character study about a young (republican, natch) man who had his own personal reason to live out a fantasy many of us have- rather than what it is- a movie about how our society is sick with materialistic greed and this is how one brave man fought back.

if it wasn't enough to have all the Crucified Jesus shots of Hirsch, Penn actually has a nice hippy tell him "you remind me of jesus", and it's such an uncritical film that you have to think he means it.

The Eddie Vedder songs are particularly difficult, mainly in one section where you actually hear him repeat the chorus "society...with all your greed...say goodbye to me". good heavens.

it's the sort of movie i would dislike particularly for all of its length, but i passionately hate because of the praise it has been getting. Like "Dances With Wolves", it knows the basic language of the well-meaning epic, but it hasn't got a brain in its head, and it starts to really wear on the viewer.

Anonymous said...

What a ridiculous review. The movie was wonderful, beautifully shot, acted and directed. I did not read the book, but look forward to doing so. I am so amazed at what a negative review this was. Loved this movie and know countless others who do as well.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: enjoy the book!

Charlie: at least it's not just me. I like your idea that people are brining to and getting from this movie what they want, as opposed to what the movie actually has to give.

Clayton L. White said...

I got to tell you, I like Penn as a director, I thought The Indian Runner and The Pledge were fantastic movies, and I like Krakauer's book, but something just seems off about this movie. I wasn't going to rush out and see it anyway, but your review has cemented my thought that this might make a decent rental.

I still have a hard time finding the talent in Hirsch. Alpha Dog?!

Cheers Henry.

Anonymous said...

At least David Denby gets it:

"Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is certainly visual—it’s entirely too visual, to the point of being cheaply lyrical."

Anonymous said...

I can’t believe I spent $8.50 on this movie. I thought that maybe it was a para-documentary, like the kind you see on Sundance, or maybe a docudrama like Grizzly man. No, this is just a plain old movie. Meaning, “…any similarity between characters in this movie and any persons real or fictional is purely coincidental”. I left the movie with one nagging question – Who was Christopher McCandless? Who knows!! Was he the neo-hippy free spirit with greater wisdom than an 80 year-old man? Doubtful. Has there been some glorification, mythologization, and outright exaggeration of McCandless’s true character. Likely. Penn himself says that “To criticize Hollywood for being Hollywood, for taking a real story and mythologizing it, is like telling a bear not to shit in the woods.” Nice analogy Sean, I didn’t think you had it in you. Then again, maybe that clever pun was just an accident on your part. At least in Grizzly Man you got to see who Treadwell really was through his many hours of self-documentation; a disturbed young man. I suspect that McCandless had similar problems with his personal adjustment. At the end, maybe McCandless was on a hunger strike for Oxfam – at least then I could have some respect for him.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I agree completely with Cinepinion post, although I could not state it nearly as explicitly as he/she did. Holbrook's performance, although only about 10 minutes of the movie, makes the whole thing worthwhile. He deserves an Oscar, maybe two.

Clayton L. White said...

Saw it this weekend and loved it. Keep your eye out for my review, Henry.

Anonymous said...

Dear Author,

You are ignorant and in need of a "grammarian" yourself:

Screenplay & Directed by: Sean Penn
(that's the phrasing of the opening credits, which are in desperate need of a grammarian)

Directions for author:
1) review subject/verb agreement.
2) figure out how the rules work when "tricky" prepositional phrases are thrown in.
3) hit yourself repeatedly for giving a great movie a D+ and being a dumbass hypocrite.

the movie was great, see it.

Anonymous said...

I'm a filmmaker and I have to say that films are made to move. If all this movie did was make you mad... then it did it's job.

I thought it told an amazing story. I left wanting to know more. I researched what I could and now I'm reading the book. I think it did a great job showing that Chris was just a young man that had his faults too. He just wanted to be free. Was Chris a hero? I'm not sure. Did we need to see all of the God-like shots of Hirsch? probably not. Did it change the fact that the movie was based on a real person, who had an incredible journey? No.

I think seeing the movie and THEN reading the book made a huge difference for me. If I had read the book first I would have been more judgmental of the movie too.

Go and see it.

Don't let someone else's opinion make up your mind.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"

Be self-reliant, form your own opinions.

Anonymous said...

know what......... Christopher doesn't need anyone's approval of what he did. Do's anyone need their life studied?. He lived a simple, yet solitude life and wanted nothing but peace. But here we are being critical. Take what positive things you can from both movie and book. The book moved me to tears. Can you say the same for your own life?Let his life have dignity. I respect what he did and didn't do.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm am genuinely heart broken by this reaction to the film. Let me ask the writer this. Have you ever made a poem. You say that Penn "has no concept of the difference between prose and filmaking" You are a moron. Penn takes the risk to elevate film to the level of poetry (something Mcandless himself would appreciate).

It is close mindendness like this which portrays why Chris felt so trapped in society. You are the kind of person he was trying to escape from.

I hate to be profane, but fuck you.
Someone had to say it.

Anonymous said...

Dude, i just saw it and it really sucks. It seems like a myth made out of a story Penn obviously loved only in the end i think Penn just loves himself for loving it.

This phrase says everything i ranted incoherently towards the screen:

"directs with the maturity of a thirteen year old who's just discovered The Catcher in the Rye"

Materialism rules like Mighty-King-God-Xerxes. Fuck yeah!

Anonymous said...

holy crap. I'm fine with the fact that the movie isn't all that great but insulting Eddie Vedder?? That's a tad ridiculous. His songs couldn't get any more perfect fitting for this movie. And they are all quite true about society.