Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here with some rumblings from the Labs.
Sean Penn is, of course, an icon as an actor. For most of my life, he’s been considered one of the great risk-takers of his generation, and I can quickly rattle off at least a half-dozen of his performances that I think are true genius, that affected me profoundly while growing up. Michael O’Brien in BAD BOYS, Meserve in CASUALTIES OF WAR, Spicoli in FAST TIMES, “Pac-Man” in COLORS, David Kleinfeld in CARLITO’S WAY, his ungodly great work as Matthew Poncelet in DEAD MAN WALKING... he’s able to walk these incredible tightropes as an actor, and I think the performances of his that I can’t stand (like in I AM SAM) are still noteworthy because he lays himself out there. I think you have to be willing to court disaster to accomplish true greatness, and Penn’s proven that time and again.
As a writer/director, I think he’s shown great promise in the past, but the only film of his that I totally connected with was THE INDIAN RUNNER. I don’t think people give that one the credit it deserves. For me, that was ground zero for Viggo Mortensen, whose work opposite the great David Morse was a revelation. Everything about THE INDIAN RUNNER worked for me... I thought it was beautifully photographed, perfectly performed in every role, and Penn’s use of score and songs in the film was precise and powerful. I’ve been waiting for a while now for him to come up with another film as good as that debut.
And now, finally, the wait is over.
INTO THE WILD, based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer, is an emotional powerhouse, a film of great wisdom and real experience. It’s also the arrival of Emile Hirsch as a movie star, and I think it may well change the way the industry thinks of Penn as a filmmaker. It should, anyway, and I hope this one finds as broad an audience as possible. He’s pulled off something very difficult here, taking a frustrating, potentially depressing story and turning into a film that feels celebratory, uplifting, exhilarating at every turn.
I’ll warn you now... it’s hard to talk about this film without including spoilers. The book’s been out for years, but even so... consider yourself warned.
Hirsch stars as Chris McCandless, a young man whose rejection of the lifestyle of his parents (played here with precision by Wiliam Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) led him to give away his life savings, burn all his money and his ID, and then hobo his way around the country for a few years before finally hitching his way into the unforgiving wilds of Alaska. His eventual fate reminds me of Werner Herzog’s amazing GRIZZLY MAN, but the difference between Chris and Herzog’s Tim Treadwell is vast. Treadwell struck me as a loser, a guy who retreated from reality into an anthropomorphized Disneyland of friendly animals, practically wishing to be one himself. By contrast, Chris is a guy who takes the messages of Jack London and David Thoreau to heart, and he pushes himself to a sort of monk-like ascetic lifestyle, trying to cleanse himself of the world’s corruption for genuine reasons. In the end, both of them made epic miscalculations that cost them their lives, but McCandless’s death doesn’t feel like a failure so much as an inevitable conclusion to a journey that Chris had to take, and Hirsch makes you sympathize with this kid. Hirsch makes you believe in the purity and the decency of Chris’s soul, and his journey never seems like a Hollywood movie. There’s a grounded reality that comes from Hirsch and his reactions to the situations and the characters around him, and by the time the film reaches its wrenching conclusion, I found myself in total empathy with the kid. I felt like I understood him completely, and I wanted desperately to change the ending, no matter how much I knew the reality of what happened.
In adapting the book, I think Penn did some remarkable work. This is not an easy piece to get your head around as a writer. Much of Krakauer’s book details his own attempts to follow Chris’s trail and make sense of the time he spent on the road, and it also details the stories of other adventurers and their hardships. Penn has excised Krakauer and the others completely from the film, and it’s the right choice. On the page, it was riveting to see how Krakauer pieced together the mystery of Chris’s life, but onscreen, it’s Chris that we want to see. I’d rather watch that mystery unfold than see someone follow the threads. That decision allows Penn to take his time and allow us to watch behavior instead of hearing about it after the fact.
Chris may be our guide through the movie, but part of what really works about the film is the way he touches all these lives along the way, the way he interacts with various other characters, and Penn’s been very particular about the casting of these roles so that each of the characters makes a huge impression, even in a very brief amount of time in some cases. If you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, you’ve got some idea what I’m talking about. You get a glimpse of Vince Vaughn as Wayne, a guy who runs a grain silo and farming operation. He hires Chris for a season, and Chris really bonds with Wayne. Wayne’s whole crew does good work, including the surprising Zach Galifianakis, who is an exceptional comedian, but who is almost unrecognizable here as Kevin, a strange, vaguely anti-social guy who passes along to Chris all of his techniques for hunting and cleaning his game. You get the feeling that Chris is simply picking up knowledge from people, filing it away so that he can leave for Alaska as soon as possible. He’s got his mind made up, and he’s determined to go, so it’s just a matter of how prepared he is.
I really love the relationship he has with Jan (Catherine Keener) and her old man, Rainey (Brian Dierker), a pair of “rubber tramps” who teach him a lot about life on the road. They explain to him that they’re “rubber tramps” because they travel on wheels in their camper, while Chris is a “leather tramp,” using his feet and his thumb as his primary mode of transport. Keener’s at her natural best here, a woman whose complex feelings about her own failure at family strongly underline the way she reacts to Chris. Penn really struck gold with the casting of Dierker, though. He’s a non-actor, a guy whose family works on river units and underwater units for films like THE RIVER WILD. Looking at him, I can’t imagine them making an actor look like this... he’s a guy who has lived his life outside, permanently tanned, long hair tied back. He’s grizzled, and you can tell he’s the real deal by how he carries himself. He has several scenes with Hirsch playing Chris where he is effortlessly charming, like a real-life version of Jeff Bridges in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, but with more soul and more self-awareness. They figure in the film early, then return later, and both times, they bring this great warmth to their sequences.
Kristen Stewart, the little boy from PANIC ROOM, has actually grown into a fairly striking young woman, and she’s got some lovely scenes with Hirsch. He makes his way to a place called Slab City, located in the middle of the Colorado Desert in California, an abandoned air force base that has turned into a sort of squatter’s paradise for rubber tramps from all over North America. It’s near Salvation Mountain, a recognizable landmark, a manmade monument to one man’s love of Jesus that also featured in Donal Logue’s charming TENNIS, ANYONE? a few years ago, and Penn includes a side trip to Salvation Mountain that verges on the documentary. In fact, since almost all of his film is shot on the exact spots that Chris visited, this is as close as we could hope to see to a real document of the trip Chris made across the country. Part of what I love about the film is the way Penn and his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, manage to bask in the amazing landscapes and make you feel like you’re out there alone in nature just like Chris, but without making the movie feel like a tourism advertisement. I can only imagine that THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES is the film of Gautier’s that got Penn to hire him for this one. I think Gautier’s work is even better here, breathtaking at times, and there are times where I just got lost in what I was watching, the same way Chris seems to get joyously lost on his journey.
By the time he meets Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), Chris is making his final plans for the trip to Alaska, and if there’s anything that almost stops him, it’s the kinship he feels to Franz. Holbrook is one of our elder statesmen as an actor, and he doesn’t really work a lot these days. His work in this film is probably going to win him a new wave of accolades, and people will be falling over themselves to praise him once again, but really, this is just a reminder of how incredibly good he’s always been. Chris finds himself drawn to this retired man with a small hobby workshop behind his house, and for me, the entire film came down to one silent moment, where Chris sits looking at Franz, and you can see a lifetime’s worth of longing for a real father summed up in his eyes. It tore me up, even more than all the material featuring William Hurt as Chris’s real father. It’s obvious that his miserable family life is a big part of what has motivated Chris to hit the road, and his rejection of their values and their lifestyle is more a desire to find something decent in the world... something that he finds in the form of Ron Franz.
But by that point, he’s already set on his trip, and his trip into Alaska is stirring, soulful stuff. One of the most important elements of the film, aside from Gautier’s photography, is the remarkable score by Michael Brook with Kaki King and Eddie Vedder. It adds a richness to the movie that I really can’t underestimate, and it reminds me of the score for DEAD MAN WALKING, and not just because of Vedder’s involvement. It gives voice to the turmoil that drives Chris, and when the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, it’s practically heartbreaking, but thanks in no small part to the score, it becomes transcendent.
We ran some reviews here a few weeks back from a test screening, and one guy complained that the film has about three or four different beginnings, and I wouldn’t say he’s wrong, but at the same time, I don’t care. Penn seems to be throwing everything he’s learned as a filmmaker so far at this film, and it’s that accumulated technique that makes it all so effective. Penn has finally matured as a filmmaker, and I think he’s given Emile Hirsch a real gift here. It’s got to be good for the kid’s soul to have done this, a film that’s all about location and genuine experience, just before he headed to Berlin to sit on a greenscreen stage for six months for SPEED RACER. No matter what happens with this film at the box-office or in the awards derby that some people think is so important, I think Penn’s made a film that will last, an experience that audiences will continue to discover over time. After the screening at Paramount, there was a small reception, and I had the chance to talk to Penn for a little while. It was great to be able to express to him directly how deeply the film affected me, and it was obvious that Penn is personally invested in it, that he poured himself into it heart and soul. The more we talked, the more I got the sense that there’s a bit of Chris in Penn, and he understands what it’s like to be driven to do something that others might not understand. In this case, I’m glad he was inspired to follow this particular muse, and I suspect the film’s going to impact anyone who feels their own call to adventure when it hits theaters at the end of September.
I’ve got more stuff for you this week, including a couple of pieces about FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, the film that took me to Hawaii at the end of May. It’s good to be back in LA for now, though, and I’m going to try to get through as much of this backlog of material as I can before I have to dig into my next creative project in a few weeks.
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles