Three men stood in the back of the Directors Guild theater beaming proudly at actor-filmmaker Sean Penn: producer Art Linson, Paramount Vantage head John Lesher and River Road financeer Bill Pohlad. Without them, the movie might not have gotten made.
Penn persevered for some 12 years after the book by Jon Krakauer was first published. The parents of Chris McCandless weren’t ready. So finally, Penn coaxed them into letting him make the movie. He was ready, and so were they. At the DGA premiere last week, the parents were seeing the film for the third time. It’s tough to imagine how that must feel; Penn did not go easy on them.
The movie has a crazy power. It’s not just about a college grad who has everything going for him, but chooses to opt out of society, gradually moving beyond the fringe of migrant worker and hippy camper to solo survival in Alaska. He tests his mettle and rides rapids and confronts a bear and shoots and carves up game. He lives entirely on his own–for a while. For more than two years, he does not call his family, who are mad with worry. Emile Hirsch carries the movie with strong support from Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, Hal Hobrook, narrator Jena Malone and songster Eddie Vedder, who supplied nine warm, original songs.
Penn worked hard on this carefully constructed movie. Some find it too long. Not me, I was carried along. The movie has resonance; it captures some human fantasy of escape into nature, away from the fetters of society. Some say that Penn romanticizes this character too much. McCandless could be certifiable, not right in his mind. Others find the movie just plain dull. Penn lets the audience come to its own conclusions. “His heart and soul was in it,” says Linson. “He doesn’t try to manipulate you into loving the kid.”
Into the Wild did not play well for the Academy this weekend. Mild applause. It may not be their kind of movie. Well-written, photographed, acted, scored and edited, it may play too much like a documentary, which is a serious compliment. The actors, if not all the craft folk who have worked with him over the years, revere Penn. My prediction: there will be award season notice paid to Holbrook.
Here are reviews from the NYT’s A.O. Scott and Variety. Here’s Joe Donnelly’s Penn cover story in LA Weekly. Metacritic gives Into the Wild a more-than-fine 76 average. Here’s more on Penn and Hirsch.
Vantage could have opened it wider, judging from its huge per-screens this weekend. The movie build up huge buzz after Telluride and Toronto.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]