Dir. Sean Penn
Viewed: From the Balcony
I don't think Sean Penn's directorial (or acting) skills have ever been in question. Even since The Indian Runner his skills have only improved and that trend continues with his adaptation of Into the Wild. Say what you will about actors aspiring to be directors, performances are routinely great in films under these circumstances and occasionally by actors that you didn't know had it in them (see Gone Baby Gone). Sean Penn has made several films that spotlight actors telling a story that basically weaves around their performances. Here Penn gives relatively unknown Emile Hirsch center stage as Christopher McCandless, and the young man is game to run with everything Penn throws his way. I'm going to guess that most people know the story but here's the short of it -- son of privilege throws his family backing away to start from scratch and make his way to live off the land in the wilderness of Alaska only to have his own life claimed by the harsh realities of this existence.
I almost always like William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden in whatever movie they are in. Here they play the parents, and they're given the first scene of the film, a powerful scene with the mother waking up to the cries of her child, which haunts the rest of the film since they're mostly derided by the main character for the rest of of the running time. One of the most prominent themes in the film is the Chris' coming to terms with his feelings toward his parents. One of the ironies of the film is that once Chris is ready to forgive his parents for their lies and essence of fake, it's too late -- he's reached the point of no return. But his does happens after he's met the surrogate father he's always wanted in Hal Holbrook who's simply brilliant and beautifully touching in this movie which definitely needed a good dose of his character's humanity and perspective.
As interesting as Christopher's journey is, you don't get into him very deeply or necessarily relate to him very often in the movie. The closest you get is when you're looking at him through another character's eyes -- this happens with Holbrook, when he's with the vagabond couple he runs into a couple times on his journey played by Kathrine Keener and Brian Dierker (who's a bit of a revelation, this supposedly being his first film according to IMDb) and when he's working on Vince Vaughn's contracting crew. It's in these moments that you're most comfortable to just hang out with the film, in other scene's, especially the odd detour to Skid Row, you feel the film losing it's momentum. This is helped by a nice devise Penn uses wisely -- we find Christopher's iconic "magic Bus" early on in the film, and whenever we make some leaps in time it's usually prefaced by, for example, "one month before magic bus". It's a good tool to keep you into a movie that runs a bit long by 15 or 20 minutes.
The ending and what leads up to it is fitfully touching though. Even though I knew what was coming it still packed a wallop. And the last shot of the film is one for the ages. I think Into the Wild will end up on the best of list since I saw this one about two months ago and it still feels fresh in my mind.