Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Wild West Tale

Into the Wild [R]
Grade: B

After picking it up at an airport bookstand, Sean Penn fell absolutely smitten with Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild.” So it’s lucky, and unlucky, that such a high-powered fan is the one bringing the best-seller to the big screen.

Lucky, because Penn sees clearly the romantic idealism inherent in the story of Christopher McCandless, an untethered college graduate tripping through the American West into oblivion. Unlucky, because Penn can’t see past it.

Lucky, because his affection drives Penn to evoke every painterly drop of the story. Unlucky, because Penn doesn’t always know when to stop.

Of course, not knowing when to stop – a trait seemingly shared by Penn and McCandless (Emile Hirsch in a breakout performance) – is a necessary element of this story. The privileged son of a Faulkner-esque suburban clan, McCandless’ sense of enlightened alienation leads him on a two-year cross-country odyssey. Trying to escape what he views as the trap of empty American conformity, he tumbleweeds across the boundless landscape, calling himself “Alexander Supertramp,” camping in the deserts and forests, and living on the kindness of strangers. His long, strange trip would lead to a rusting bus trapped in a Yukon snowfield, surviving on berries and waiting for the weather to change.

With a naturally dramatic Jack-London survival story, you might expect the film to focus on that snowbound excursion. But Penn is more interested in the road story, the adventures that McCandless takes, the lives crossed and touched. The young man hitchhikes the roads, kayaks the Grand Canyon, befriends wandering hippies (Donald Sutherland and Catherine Keener), and forges a moving bond with a lonely widower (Hal Holbrook, never better). All of this is done while inhaling the majestic natural surroundings, which God must have created with the eventual invention of the motion picture in mind.

Into the Wild bears considerable resemblance to one of the best films of the decade, the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, about a young man who goes deeper and deeper into the Alaskan bear country until he ends up in a grizzly’s stomach. The difference between the two films, however, is telling. In his role as narrator, Herzog spars with Timothy Treadwell, and treats his view of nature’s liberating force as naïve fantasy. In doing so, Herzog transforms a bad bedtime story into a fascinating intellectual crossfire on the nature of nature, and man ‘s place in it.

That tension is missing from Into the Wild. Rather than question some of McCandless’ choices, Penn mostly lays on the sympathy. Penn has trouble admitting the youthful arrogance and blindness at the core of his character’s journey. In doing so, he leaves a certain sense of waste on the table.

While Penn comes up short in understanding the colder realities of McCandless’ journey, he’s nothing short of triumphant in understanding its poetry. With the help of DP-of-the-moment Roger Deakins, he captures the natural beauty of the untamed West – from glacial Yukon mountains to the wheat fields of South Dakota to the spare deserts of Arizona – with Malick-like color and fragility.

But the visual beauty is only part of the accomplishment. What Penn has truly done is create the cinematic equivalent of a Kerouac road novel, finding an America unmoored by its greed, shallowness and addiction to “progress,” yet still large enough to shelter kindness and decency. It’s a movie with all things human in its enormous heart, and that will make you want to hit its road.

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