In the opening segments of Sean Penn’s version of Into the Wild, a mother’s nightmare of her missing son segues to a freight train curving through crisp Alaskan scenery, its long, metal body weaving around snow-capped mountainsides. It’s an impressive beginning. Neither in the dream nor in the boxcars do we get a full-on glimpse of the son, Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch). He may be there, in the margins or the shadows, or we may only imagine that we see him in our peripheral vision. Penn, however, stretches this distancing effect out of shape. The director chooses an aerial shot of a pick-up truck dropping McCandless at the edge of a field as the 24-year-old former college Republican (from Emory University) sets off on what, we all know, was a fatal excursion. We hear the voices of McCandless and the driver; the tires leave straight parallel snow tracks on the frame’s outermost left. Still, Penn keeps Hirsch’s face from us, filming him from the back, then alighting on a wide vista of the Denali range as the northern peaks might loom in an adventurer’s eye.
Finally, Penn shows us Hirsch. As Eddie Vedder’s gravelly baritone cascades over the soundtrack, we’re shown Hirsch/McCandless’s bearded visage in close-up. Penn lights the young actor in a snowy aureole that felt like mythologizing to me—the wrong kind of mythologizing. Hirsch looks the part of a determined dreamer, yet moments into McCandless’s discovery of the abandoned Fairbanks Transit bus that was to be his home base in the wilderness, as well as his eventual deathbed, Penn has the boy in the driver’s seat conducting imaginary conversations. And unfortunately, all two hours and twenty minutes of this Into the Wild is just as false. Penn keeps McCandless at a distance because the filmmaker has no idea how to approach his subject. The director, lacking empathy with McCandless’s motivations, shovels phoniness on top of phoniness in one poorly staged scene after another.
To read the review, click here. House contributor N.P. Thompson writes about movies, books and art for a variety of print and online outlets, and is the publisher of moviesintofilm.com.