Monday, December 10, 2007

Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)

****½
USA



The story of straight-A law school graduate Christopher McCandless, who donated his $20,000+ scholarship to charity and disappeared without warning into the harsh American landscape to pursue the fantasy of every undergrad who ever read Walden, treads the spiritual-pathological territory that Werner Herzog has long laid claim to. Sean Penn is no Herzog. He puts in too many helicopter shots, too many redundant transcripts from McCandless' diary, too much slow motion - key scenes that are meant to resonate spiritually come off instead looking like credit card ads. More annoyingly, Penn glorifies the mystic-romantic appeal of McCandless' adventure where it would have been much more honest and productive to focus on the dangerous naïveté, the misguided arrogance and emotional instability.

It's a morbidly flawed film - more so than most other near-great ones. But it has a hypnotic power. It's built on a constant stream of thought-provoking, transcendentally beautiful passages and performances that obliterate all the minor and major shortcomings of Penn's writing and direction. The images, lensed by the great Eric Gautier, avoid the always-tempting postcard aesthetic and carry a forceful, primal beauty. Several deeply intelligent actors invest their crudely stitched-up cameos with a disarming, burnt but tortuously subsisting humanity. They render the mystic posturing insignificant and shape the canvas for the searing tragedy of the real McCandless to come through with tremendous force. You carry it with you.

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