You hear the words ‘directed by Sean Penn’ and you don’t necessarily think hippie spiritualism, the poetry of Lord Byron, and the palliating power of nature.
You hear the words "directed by Sean Penn' and you don’t necessarily think hippie spiritualism, the poetry of Lord Byron, and the palliating power of nature. Which is why the soft and strangely beguiling Into the Wild, Penn’s latest directorial effort, is such a sweet surprise.
It opens with a line from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: 'By the deep sea and the music in its roar; I love not man less, but Nature more.' And then it’s off, unbridled, like a sensory blast from a flower-power blunderbuss. Here Penn tracks the real-life progress of WASP-y rich kid Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) who, in 1990, ditched a life of white collar ambition in Harvard Law for a penniless two-year trans-American odyssey of spiritual fulfilment.
The trip (documented in Jon Krakauer’s best-seller of the same title) is an amalgam of encounters with zany locals (step forward Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener), with natural dangers, with river rapids, with wild animals and, occasionally, with even wilder men. It culminates in a brutal, unforgiving and yet weirdly transcendent climax, with McCandless alone and emaciated in the Alaskan wilderness.
Along the way Penn goes widescreen crazy, pushing the envelope of nature cinematography. One throwaway shot is a snappy whip-pan from McCandless’ passing kayak down under water to two dolphins swimming obliviously beneath – a real-time shot, according to Penn, procured with patience rather than CGI.
Polemically, the film is a love letter to America from one of its prodigal sons (Penn, a nominal friend to Hugo Chavez, is the closest thing to a pinko traitor that Hollywood has ever produced). It speaks of a place of unerring natural beauty, of mostly altruistic denizens, and of a rugged and often hostile landscape that, given half a chance, can bring out the elemental truth in Man.
And if it all seems a bit New Age on paper, a bit touchy-feely, it’s surely a testament to Penn’s conviction as a filmmaker that on screen it feels utterly essential, and even moving. Penn has said that Into the Wild is a mission statement of sorts. More than anything he’s done in the past, it is a declaration, he says, of his art, and a sign of where he wants to go in future. If so, we await the subsequent emergence of his oeuvre with nothing less than baited breath.
Sean Penn tackles the great outdoors? It can wait.
Deserts, mountains, railroads, bears and a sad and lonely epiphany about the nature of human existence!
Oddly disturbing. You want to ring a friend, tell them that you love them, but that you know we’ll all die all.