As the movie began, three or four images in, the person behind me whispered to his friend, “I hate it already”. I threw the most annoyed glance behind me that I’ve thrown to anyone I can remember. Certainly Sean Penn comes off a bit self-important at times, but he ‘s smart enough to know when to step back and stay behind the camera. And that self-important seriousness is perfectly fitting in this film, a film about a young wanderer who when fed up with society treks to Alaska to live off the wild.
You can tell that writer/director Sean Penn felt a strong personal affinity for the main character known as Christopher McCandless to his family and friends, but soon to the rest of the world as Alexander Supertramp. Because he handles this character with more care and detail than I’ve seen any character handled in recent cinematic history. The young actor Emile Hirsch, who is bound for glory playing Speed Racer, handles the same character with the same care and understanding, but it doesn’t stop there. Penn knows how to capture performances, he knows that a character is in the eyes and the reactions. He knows that the slightest look from the likes of William Hurt or Marcia Gay Harden will speak a multitude more than expository dialogue ever could. And so he handles each character with the same tenderness that he does Christopher. A quick note about William Hurt. His eyes are story books unto themselves. Not that nominations make or break a film for me, but if this silent performance doesn’t get him recognition, I don’t think the Academy knows what they are doing and the same goes for Marcia.
Everyone has a story and through the eyes of McCandless everyone is treated with equal respect. The tragic condition that follows Christopher though is that as he separates himself from society he separates himself from feeling anything genuine with the people who inhabit it, almost as if he sees himself as a martyr for the benefit of mankind’s spiritual health. For the longest time I didn’t understand this. Penn smartly spends a lot of time allowing for the film to explain why Christopher makes the decisions and why he does it with such conviction. He tells this story through the eyes of his sister (or the voice I should say) which adds a second incredibly emotional and tragic layer to the film as we see his parents change from cold unloving drones to people who’s hearts and souls are crushed. With the good understanding of why he was doing what he was doing, I felt he was kind of empty as a character in the present tense. I wisely began to understand what was going on, because it’s done slowly and patiently, and the end result is terrifying, uplifting and heart breaking.
If you can’t tell that I loved this film, you should stop reading reviews all together. If this doesn’t sound like the kind of movie for you, then you should stop going to see movies all together. There’s so much tenderness and love for humanity in this film and love for the boundless expanse of nature. Christopher’s eyes water up at the awesome sight of a wild pack of caribou at one point. Waves crashing into shore while seagulls grab fish from the white crests is another inspiring image. There is passion, love and joy in this film. And it’s something everyone should see.
Just after the last image of the film unspooled and we were left with McCandless’ final poetic thought, and Penn’s final poetic image. I noticed a couple in front of me lean in and share one of the most genuine kisses I’ve ever seen. There was a tension in the audience. An emotional gathering was taking place. I don’t know what the person behind me thought, but I hoped he hated it, it would only have confirmed my suspicion that he didn’t deserve to like it.
Tags: Alaska, Alexander Supertramp, Christopher McCandless, Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild, Jenna Malone, Jon Krakauer, leathertramp, Marcia Gay Harden, Movie based on book, Movie Reviews, Sean Penn, Vince Vaughn, William Hurt