Friday, October 05, 2007

Into the Wild

Director: Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard, The Pledge)
Novel: Jon Krakauer
Screenplay: Sean Penn
Producers: Art Linson, Sean Penn, William Pohlad
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 140 min
read my spoiler disclaimer

reviewed by Andrew James
     Easily Sean Penn's best film to date, Into the Wild is an amazingly gruelling journey of a young man's life shortly after college. The peom that is written on screen is not only beautiful, but also frighteningly introspective and fruitfully plenty with ideas and possibilities - including an Oscar nod or two in several categories.

      Adapted from Jon Krakauer's novel of the same name, Into the Wild tells the story of young Chris McCandless struggle to find "the truth" of existence. He does this not with a job or through material possessions, but instead by changing his name, severing ties with his family to travel across America any way he can, in an effort to finally get to his ultimate destination: the quiet and lonesome stillness of the Alaskan wilderness.

      The story actually begins with Chris arriving at his destination and then as he learns to be self sufficient, most of the story is told in a series of flashbacks to the journey he had taken to get there. We see him working various locations and meeting different people. Mostly a transient, he hitches his way down long, desolate roads, hops on boxcar trains and hikes through hills and valleys and rivers; continually searching for what he keeps referring to as "the truth."

      Although a visual cornucopia of fantastic nature shots and lingering camera views of Chris' exploits from afar, the film is really a think piece about life's demands (societal, parental or otherwise) as one enters adulthood and the possibility of withdrawing from those demands and still living a healthy existence. For Chris, nothing is more alive than doing exactly that. Living with only the bare essentials to survive, Chris finds peace and solace knowing that he can live as one with nature without the help of anyone or any of society's guidelines.

      Interestingly enough, the picture works best while Chris is interacting with other characters throughout his journey. Some of them you'll recognize (Keener, Malone, Hurt), others you won't. Particularly interesting is the fact that this is exactly what the story is trying to teach us. Although it definitely tries to break the mold and get us to realize some of the senselessness of societal norms (like needing a permit to paddle down a river?), ultimately the story explains that what we feel really means nothing. To have a meaningful existence, a common bond and some sort of relationship of love and bonding is what really makes us human and is the lifeblood of survival. Similarly, the movie itself seems to have the most to say and "feel" the best whenever Chris is interacting with others; not when he is walking alone through the barren, arctic scenery.

      This isn't to say some of Penn's shots aren't bold and beautiful, because they are. They just don't have much to say in terms of emotion. In fact, although interestingly shot and fun to look at, a lot of it feels hollow in the sense that they feel contrived or that Penn is trying just a little too hard to be Terrence Mallick. Many of the middle scenery shots just feel like a series of touristy postcards strung together. Again, pretty but not very real within the context of the rest of the movie and as the film is well over two hours long, sort of needless.

      Many of the shots, again although impressive, remind me of old Warren Miller (IMDb) skiing films. Particularly the kayaking scenes. Slow motion shots of rugged terrain and ravaging rapids accompanied with the cliche "triumph" shot of Chris feeling good about himself. I realize this is a minor gripe and maybe even a little nit picky, but it seems very obvious and can get distracting at one or two points.

      As I mentioned, several of the actors you'll recognize and others you won't. One in particular who absolutely steals the limelight you may know by name and face, but by comparing this performance to others I have seen by him, he is virtually unrecognizable. That is the veteran (and aging) actor, Hal Holbrook (IMDb). His performance is so incredibly powerful that he tells a thousand words just with facial expressions. In fact I'll be shocked if there isn't an Oscar nomination forthcoming for this performance. He brings it all to the table and does it remarkably well. At times witty, other times wise and most of all jarringly touching, I can't think of a more welcome comeback than we have here.

      Another recognizable name involved with the project is not onscreen at anytime, but instead part of the post-production. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder wrote most of the scoring and musical tracks that play throughout the film. I didn't feel it totally worked all the time. Many of the tunes were too "bubble-gummy" for my tastes and didn't really fit into what appeared on screen. However, other times it really did work to shake things up. A few tracks of more ambient tones along with a raspy, American Indian-like chant really brought some power and emotion to specific scenes. But really it just became distracting. Every time the music kicked in I thought, "hey, it's Eddie Vedder!"

      A remarkable film that unfortunately isn't being shown in enough theaters. However, I'm confident once word of mouth gets out, you'll be seenig this fine piece of cinema popping up more and more around the country. A wonderful story with poignant ideas and powerful relationships and well above average acting. If you love the outdoors, love life and love relationships of many types, this is the perfect mood film for you. Although maybe a bit too long for many people, I can't see anyone saying they hated this movie who doesn't have a real cold heart. Oscar worthy on several levels, emotionally stunning and even more potent and stirring because of it's true story roots, Into the Wild is definitely among the upper echelons of film titles in 2007.

Click "play" to see the trailer:

IMDb profile - full cast and crew
Official Site
Flixster Profile for Into the Wild

Posted by Andrew James in

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