Saturday, August 02, 2008

Into the Wild: Grade A

Into the Wild (2007)
Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughan, Jena Malone, Hal Holbrook. Co-writer (screenplay) and director Sean Penn.

A young man (Hirsch) leaves his wealthy suburban life in contemporary Atlanta, escaping his battling parents (Harden and Hurt), to pursue his fantasy of a hobo’s life “on the road.” He rides “third boxcar, midnight train.” He works in fast food joints and on a Kansas wheat farm. He kayaks down the Colorado river, hitches with truckers and stays with old hippies in a painted van (Keener and Dierker), until he finally makes it to Anchorage, where he vows to “live off the land,” free of society’s hypocrisy. Along the way he quotes Thoreau, Tolstoy, and great poets (being a recent university graduate). All this makes for a charming, if lightweight, adventure story.

The cinematography is stunning and original music by Pearl Jam’s Eddy Vedder (among others) is gripping. Penn’s directing is intense, thoughtful and nearly perfect. There are some groan-eliciting visual clich├ęs, such as the camera spinning around Hirsch’s uplifted face to indicate giddy happiness, and several scenes drag on, but these faults are overcome by the fine performances Penn gets out of his actors. Hirsch is a standout as the enthusiastic young man. More surprising are tremendous performances from Vince Vaughan (best I’ve ever seen him), and 83 year old Hal Holbrook, who is unexpectedly nuanced. Catherine Keener is as wonderful as she always is and it would have been nice to see more of her. Harden, likewise, gives 100% of her best stuff. Dierker, who I did not know, reminded me of a younger Donald Sutherland.

The young man embodies the idealism of youth, but aside from quoting poetry, he does not make a case that society is corrupt and best left behind. There is a vague suggestion that he is running away from an awful childhood, but that theme is not well-established. Stultifying voice-overs by his sister (Malone), distance us from him. At least it should have been his voice so he could explain to us what was on his mind. Without much insight into him, we can only say, here is a kid on an exuberant, youthful adventure (which ends badly for him, but that hardly matters for the bulk of the movie). Some of his remarks suggest an anti-intellectual tone, as when he says “just being” in nature is the highest good, yet he always has his nose in a book and he declares to Keener that he seeks “truth, not love.” Also, for such an attractive young man, he has no romantic interest, male or female, which seems odd. The point is that it is a superficial, well-worn story, watchable, but of little intrinsic interest. This is, above all, a movie about Sean Penn’s directing and for that it is well-worth seeing.

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