Sean Penn, director of the based-on-a-true-story “Into The Wild,” is like a wild little boy. He’s all scattered passion, fire and gusto – with no focus or direction. These qualities are what make him one of the outstanding American actors working today. They are also what should disqualify him from being allowed to helm a film.
I’ve never liked Sean Penn as a director, but I’ve always been willing to give him the benefit of his inexperience in the hope that he’d improve with each picture. No more. Nearly two hours into Penn’s doomed tale of upstanding college graduate Christopher McCandless, turned wandering gypsy “Alexander Supertramp,” venturing forth Kerouac-style into the Alaskan wilderness with only the barest necessities (Tolstoy and London included), I had my “Munich” moment. (Not quite “jumping the shark,” it’s the point in time when I gave up on Spielberg – precisely when the hero of his overlong, Olympic terrorism flick started having flashbacks to the horrific murders he’d never actually witnessed, all while screwing his wife. Huh? You lost me there for good, Steve!)
Penn broke the cardinal rule of never taking advantage of your audience’s patience by starting yet another movie when you should be wrapping things up. Audacious is the only word I can think of to describe introducing an extraneous love story into a film two hours in. And it only gets worse from there. Catherine Keener is always mesmerizing, whether she’s playing Harper Lee or the harrowed hippie of “Into The Wild,” and Vince Vaughn is forever a whimsical delight – but this film should not have been a showcase for Sean Penn’s favorite thespian colleagues. “Hal Holbrook in the desert! Eureka!” I could almost envision the light bulb going off above Mr. Penn’s head. Unfortunately, this is not reason enough to shoot a scene but merely an excuse to see a theater giant emote. Doesn’t Mr. Penn know the term “kill your babies”? Where was his editor?
Yes, the overpowering, National Geographic panoramic shots may be sumptuous, but they’re also hard to screw up even with the worst DP. The score is raw but overwhelming. Which brings me to my most important point. The greatest cinematographers in the world can’t help if you’re telling the wrong story. Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless does an admirable job, but there’s no tension or drama in his journey. He’s already shed his old self – with seemingly no struggle or remorse – and just meanders from set piece to set piece. The real story lays with his parents, played by master actors William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, and his sister, an underappreciated Jena Malone. “Into The Wild” would have been Oscar-worthy if directed by Sean Penn’s exact talent opposite Todd Field, a mediocre actor in his early forties with amazingly seasoned skill as a director. Field could have provided a crucial “In The Bedroom” type treatment, juxtaposing the hero’s journey with the main “journey” of a family learning to live in limbo, spending years not knowing whether their son is dead or alive. What is it like to be denied the benefit of mourning? A question as simple as this applied to Penn’s best images – of Emile Hirsch’s face as his character realizes he’s dying – could have elevated the uneven script to the level of the Alaskan solitude’s beauty.
Sean Penn’s penchant for overfilling the pot, his exuberance for filming oddball characters like the freewheeling couple from Copenhagen, ultimately work against “Into The Wild,” distilling the power of the story. He shows us everything, which is too much. (Ironically, Chris McCandless lived by the motto that less is more.) Perhaps Mr. Penn purposely wanted to make the audience feel the sense of entrapment and tedium that his protagonist felt in the wilderness. Being “locked” in a black box, watching a seemingly endless film going nowhere is a pretty good simulation, I guess. In that, Mr. Penn succeeded.