This review was first posted at my original online home. As I’ve since established in this space, Jon Krakauer is among my favorite writers, and his intricate, methodical, deeply felt Into the Wild was the instigator of that. I may have come down a little tougher on Sean Penn’s directorial effort because of that, but I remain confident that the film is overloaded with problems. Around this time, I recall Penn expressing interest in chucking acting altogether to stay behind the camera. It didn’t work out that way. Penn has only recently worked on his follow-up, though it’s been causing him some unique problems lately.
It’s possible that Sean Penn over-identifies with the protagonist of his fourth directorial effort, Into the Wild. The film is based on Jon Krakauer’s exceptional book of the same name which details the journeys of Chris McCandless, a young man who commemorated his graduation from Emory University by embarking on a vagabond quest across America with the wildest wilds of Alaska as his ultimate goal. Krakauer is first and foremost a reporter, and he relays this story with a compelling even-handedness. Penn seems to be attracted to McCandless the tenacious maverick. The resulting film leans towards making McCandless overly saintly, moving people with his casually beatific presence. He can be the instigator to the healing of a wounded relationship, the inspiration for a lonely girl on the brink of womanhood, the surrogate child for any number of acquaintances and still have time to float naked down the river in a Jesus Christ pose.
This fussiness extends to the entirety of Penn’s craft as a director. He stuffs the film so full of techniques–slow motion, fast motion, jump cuts, split screens, words leaping from printed pages to be emblazoned across the screen–it’s as if he’s constructing a primer on the grammar of moviemaking for a remedial film class. Maybe Penn is trying to imbue his film with the added importance of 1970’s American cinema by overly aping the stylistic free-for-all that came with a time when the rules of clean, simple narrative storytelling were completely optional. On the other hand, he could be operating from some instinctual feeling that his story is so lacking in big, showy movie moments–the sort of high drama that punctuated his other directing efforts–that it needs dressing up with tricks to keep it visually interesting.
Disproving that notion is the fact that, despite Penn’s misguided efforts, the story of Chris McCandless has real resonance in the film. It’s hard not to feel a tug of empathy as Chris faces his direst days in the abandoned bus that he calls home in the desolate part of Alaska he finally treks to. It helps that Emile Hirsch, who is unable to give the role any inner life or noticeable spirit, is able to step up in these scenes and effectively pull off the harrowing, externalized moments. These are scenes of acting as a test of physical endurance more than thoughtful plumbing of depths, but is impressive nonetheless.
Who knows, maybe in the end I over-identify with the original book since the part that moved me most was the film’s closing image, a photo of the real Chris McCandless originally included in Krakauer’s pages. He sits weakly and triumphantly in the depths of that Alaskan wild he coveted so, a gigantic grin splitting his gaunt face. I find more tragic beauty in that single image than Penn, for all his groaning effort, is able to muster for his cluttered, problematic film.