Tag Archive: Sean Penn


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In Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog dived as directly into the psychological makeup of the individuals that would isolate themselves at the bottom of the Earth as he did the gorgeous vistas of the Antarctic landscape. If you decide to abandon a life in the civilized world to work in one of the harshest and most unforgiving climates on the planet, clearly you aren’t operating on the same wavelengths as the normal person. And that insight into people throwing themselves onto the mercy of nature is what makes Encounters at the End of the World one of the most fascinating documentaries of the aughts.

2007 saw the release of another film dealing in something of the same subject matter. Based off the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a dramatized peek into the real life story of the doomed Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless. Lost in the sea of Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men as well as perennial contender for Best Film of the Aughts, There Will Be Blood, I’d always thought Into the Wild has never gotten its proper due as one of the premier films of the late 2000s, and this most recent viewing only confirms that suspicion.

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This viewing of Into the Wild made me think a lot about Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel On the Road (and by proxy, because of Kristen Stewart’s small role in this movie, the 2012 film version). I’ve always been confused by people’s interpretation of On the Road as a celebration of Sal and Dean’s hedonistic, nomadic lifestyle. Sal is a desperately lonely man looking for any meaning in his empty existence, and Dean is a mentally unhinged serial misogynist. That book has always been a piercing look into the sadness and lack of definition in the lives of youngsters unfulfilled by the materialistic excess of modern life. The road is simply the outlet for their nihilistic confusion. Into the Wild is cut from the same cloth.

In real life, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a highly intelligent and socially/politically committed young man fresh out of college at Emory University in Georgia. But Christopher suffers from some of the worst (and most realistic) PTSD in any mainstream American film caused from years of living in the shadow of his parents’ (American Gun‘s Marcia Gay Harden and Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt) violence and anger-fueled marriage, and it has made him tragically sensitive to the hypocrisy and injustice of modern existence. And one day, without telling anyone, including his beloved sister (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), Christopher donates his entire life-savings to Oxfam and hits the road in his car never to be seen by his family again.

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Christening himself with the road handle of Alexander Supertramp, Christopher throws his entire old life away (including losing his car early in the journey) and hoofs it on foot, train, and kayak across the entire US for two years before making his way to Alaska where his life would come to a tragically early close. The film frames the events of Christopher’s early life as well as his epic journey across America as Alexander as intermittent flashbacks during his attempts to survive the brutality of the Alaskan wild. And when Christopher’s only shelter in the Alaskan wild was an abandoned VW bus he found by accident, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did.

Into the Wild could be subtitled “Listen to These People Trying to Help You, You Idiot: The Movie,” and it would be surprisingly apt. Although the film does occasionally paint Christopher in a surreal messianic light (one of the flaws keeping it from perfection), it also never romanticizes the inevitable tragedy of Christopher’s mission. Chris meets a large number of people along his way, including Synecdoche, New York‘s Catherine Keener and On the Road‘s Kristen Stewart, and time and again, these strangers offer him the affection and companionship he’s been robbed off his whole life, but he consistently throws that away to continue his crazed goal of conquering the Alaskan wild.

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And that’s the entire point of Into the Wild. For his entire life, Christopher has only known a life defined by arbitrary and hypocritical value systems: wealth, social ambition, markers of capitalistic success. And the people selling these values to him were as broken and full of shit as the values he espoused. His parents lived in an invalid marriage and he discovers he’s actually a bastard child. And this drives Christopher to seek the exact opposite of the world his parents inhabit: a naturalistic life devoid of the modern comforts (and vices) of civilized society. Only to late does Christopher realize that nature is as cruel and unforgiving (although perhaps more sincere) than his parents and the real world.

As a psychological study of what would lead a bright young lad like Christopher to give up on life and more or less willingly commit suicide, Into the Wild is one of the most powerful and overwhelmingly sad films of the aughts. As someone who has on more than one occasion found myself lost in the existential throes of wondering why this life is worth living, Christopher’s struggles rink devastatingly true. And when Christopher meets kind strangers like Catherine Keener’s loving hippie or Hal Holbrook (in an Oscar nominated turn) as a lonely old man seeking companionship, it’s perfectly clear why he throws their love away even though it’s precisely what he needs. He doesn’t know any world where that doesn’t lead to him getting hurt even more.

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And beyond the heartache of watching one man’s foolish decision to destroy his own comfortable life, Into the Wild is overflowing with moments of such honest tragedy and horror that the film never slags (despite, admittedly, being far too long). During one of the Alaska segments, a starving Christopher (visualized by constantly notching a new hole in his belt) has finally killed a moose. But before he can cook it, flies immediately lay their eggs in it and the writhing maggots make it totally inedible. It’s one of the most terrifying and soulcrushing moments in mainstream American cinema. And it marks the clear beginning of the end of Christopher’s life.

It also doesn’t hurt that Into the Wild is one of the most beautifully shot films of the aughts; in fact, it might honestly be too beautifully shot which leads to its consistent misinterpretation as celebrating Christopher’s lifestyle. There is something utterly Malick-ian about the cinematography of this film with its stunning shots of the American countryside. If you’ve ever doubted the eternal beauty of the Yukon or grain fields in South Dakota or the Colorado River, even a quick viewing of Into the Wild will dispel you of such ignorance. Few films have ever managed to be so soul-boringly sad while also being so triumphantly beautiful.

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Emile Hirsch carries the majority of this film on his shoulders and there are large spans of Into the Wild where there’s no one else on screen with him, and it was a hell of a performance from a young actor. I mostly knew Hirsch from his role in the raunchy comedy The Girl Next Door, but his dramatic chops were more than up to the task of portraying the toweringly complex Christopher. As Christopher realizes that he’s dying (because he’s accidentally ingested poisonous roots), I can name few actors who have more convincingly sold the knowledge that one’s life is at its end than Emile Hirsch in those scenes.

And, the film’s supporting cast borders on ludicrous. The criminally under-appreciated Catherine Keener shines as the hippy Jan who begins to see Christopher as a surrogate son to replace the one that ran away from her. Vince Vaughan plays slightly against type to great effect as the man running the combine that Christopher works for for a short time. She’s so bad in the Twilight films that I forgot what an exciting and memorable performance a young Kristen Stewart gave during her short stint in this film as a young folk singer living on a hippie commune that falls in love with Christopher during his journey.

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But, rightly so, most of the attention in terms of performances for this film went to Hal Holbrook as the old man who offers Chris a random lift but finds his life changed by their encounter. Into the Wild is one of those films that is too sad to cry in during most of its run because it’s just so brutally realistic. But, when Hal shows up, and it’s clear that he’s lived a life of total regret since the death of his wife and son decades prior, a torrent of tears suddenly opened up in me. Holbrook plays the role with such subtlety and precision. It might be the most baldly emotionally manipulative arc of the film but when it’s performed so well, not even the cynic in me can raise a major complaint.

Which is not to say that there aren’t things worth complaining about in the film. The movie might not romanticize Christopher’s doomed quest, but it sure as hell romanticizes Christopher himself as a martyr of the “too pure for this cruel world” stripe. And that’s the wrong tack to take. Although the film doesn’t beat around the bush about the fact that Christopher borders on being mentally ill (as I said, he clearly has severe PTSD), it also has moments of him spouting faux-profound philosophical nonsense, and it’s not clear enough that you’re aren’t supposed to agree with what Christopher is saying. And, of course, the film is about thirty minutes too long.

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And, there are moments where the camera work begins to get a little too “Hey! Notice me!” for its own good. There’s a moment where Christopher is showing shot in slow-motion as he whips his hair and beard in the water that is patently ludicrous and the spinning shot out of the bus after Christopher has finally passed away nearly wrecks the somber nature of the moment. I’m not saying that a static shot of his dead corpse was the right way to go, but motion sick is not the way to sell the death of the main character of your modern American epic.

Those are small complaints against what is otherwise one of the most refreshingly sincere and powerful American films of the aughts. Throw in a perfect score by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and there are very few film lovers that I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this movie to. I said this yesterday, but it bears repeating here, Into the Wild is a messy, flawed, overlong almost masterpiece. Like Gangs of New York and Das Boot before it, it is a film that comes as close to perfection as one can while still falling just short.

Final Score: A

 

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The literary world has had its share of recluses over the years (J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, etc), but Hollywood is less well known for attention shy stars (for obvious reasons). Yet, one of the most talented and under-appreciated American directors of the last four decades fits that “recluse” definition to a bill. Since making his first feature, Badlands, in 1973, Terrence Malick has only gone on to release four other features in the intervening forty years. That’s a “one film per every eight years” average for everyone keeping score at home. They’ve all basically been masterpieces so we movie lovers generally forgive Mallick for his sparse production rate because if his perfectionism means we have to wait a decade for another film as good as The Thin Red Line, we’ll be willing to wait. Mallick’s latest film (which is up for Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards), The Tree of Life, is the culmination of every thing Mallick has attempted to achieve in his decades long career and not only the finest film of his library, but potentially the best movie since 2009’s The Road and this decade’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (except infinitely better). It’s intentionally bare-bones plot may scare away some viewers but for everyone with the patience to sit this film out, The Tree of Life will reward you with one of the most beautiful movie experiences of the last thirty years.

In my first step of unintentionally warding my readers away from this film, the plot of The Tree of Life is undoubtedly the least important part of the film (though still powerful and meditative in its own way). Taking place from the beginning of time to the death of our solar system (though mostly focusing on the 1950’s), The Tree of Life is a non-linear (understatement) story of fathers and sons, “nature versus grace,” growing up, loss, hope, and family. It is Mallick’s intent to paint a portrait of nothing short of the entirety of human existence and the beauty of our small human lives even when they are so microscopic and ultimately meaningless in the cosmic scheme of things. A middle aged man in the 2000’s, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), grows weary of the materialistic and greed-driven society he lives in and recalls his childhood growing up in Waco, TX with his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), and the struggle between the stern authority and discipline of his father and the free-spirited love and nurturing from his mother as well as the usual angst of childhood and becoming a man. Along the way, we see the big bang and the beginning of life on Earth (it makes sense in context) as the characters pose existentialist quandaries about our place on this planet.

There is almost no precedent in American cinema for a film like this. It is simply without peers. The only film I can compare it to historically is 2001: A Space Odyssey, but The Tree of Life captures the depth of emotion and human experience that 2001 intentionally chose to ignore and avoid. The Tree of Life remains one of the most polarizing films in years, but for me, it was a transcendent experience and an escape into one of the most beautiful works of art I have ever encountered. Terrence Malick’s name has always been synonymous with cinematic beauty. Whenever a director captures a hauntingly beautiful shot of nature, he is invariably compared to Malick, but The Tree of Life will remind viewers that no one does it better than Malick himself. Most films (and I’m even talking about artsy films with good cinematography) can only hope to get a handful of shots with the same raw power that Malick manages to put out in almost every frame of the film. You would believe that the type of sensory overload that Malick provides you with during this film would result in you eventually becoming numb to any more gorgeous shots of nature or the beginning of the universe; instead, the opposite occurs and the film simply finds new ways to wow you over its nearly two and a half hour running time. If there was one thing even the film’s detractors could agree on, it is that The Tree of Life is a visually stunning experience unlike anything out there.

Yet, all of these gorgeous images would be without value if they weren’t layered with more meaning, and Terrence Malick has crafted a film with so many layers of subtext and allegory that The Tree of Life will likely require multiple viewings (and some refresher courses on Christian theology) to reveal all of its secrets. There is an inherent complexity and artistry not just in the way that Malick bounces his story back and forth through the modern decades and even millennia but the way he grounds all of the visual pretension in a life-affirming message on the paths we take in our lives. So much of the great cinema of the last 40 years has focused on exploring the deepest and darkest recesses of the human experience and shedding light on truths that we never wanted to acknowledge. There are darker elements of The Tree of Life, but at its core, it is a deeply optimistic and almost spiritual film (though there are explicit Christian metaphors, it’s message is universal enough to be appreciated by all faiths or non-believers). With minimal dialogue, Malick lets his images create one of the truest tales of childhood, family, and coming of age that film has ever produced, and thematically, it bears more in common with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel than any cinematic peers.

The performances in the film can’t be analyzed in a conventional way any more than its loosely defined story. The actors spend very little time on screen actually saying anything, and when they do speak, it’s often in a hushed, barely audible whisper over jaw-dropping images that may very well distract you from what’s being said. Yet, despite the otherworldly beauty of the film, it’s performances contain the same element of every other aspect of the film which makes it stand out, truth. I would never consider Brad Pitt an actor worthy of the term “naturalism.” His style has always been over-the-top and charismatic theatrics. Watching The Tree of Life is like seeing the man for the first time. The hard set line of his jaw, the way he disciplines his son and never stops pushing them but ultimately loves them just a little too much, the unspoken disappointment and regrets in his own life, Brad Pitt televises all of this to the viewer without ever seeming like he’s acting and having very little in the way of dialogue to “tell” more than show, and even more than Moneyball, this is potentially the finest performance of Pitt’s career.

2011 was Jessica Chastain’s break-out year and The Tree of Life may not have had the same sort of scene-stealing energy as her work in The Help (one of the film’s only strengths, along with Viola Davis), it could be argued that her role as the mother was the emotional heart of the film. Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) was the most obvious main character, but Jessica Chastain embodied the love and “nature” that the film declared to be the reason for existence. She had a pixie-ish charm and the film would often linger on her dancing in the sprinklers or playing with her children and Chastain really captured that maternal and natural aspect which was central to the movie. Hunter McCracken was an incredible find to play young Jack and while his performance may not match some of the all-time great child performances, there was once again an almost feral naturalism to his portrayal of youth and rebellion and the dawning of sexuality. Special kudos must be given to the very obvious Oedipal undertones that he layered in with his relationship with his mother, and outside of Stand by Me’s River Phoenix, I can’t remember a young actor who captured the essential nature of childhood better.

American cinema doesn’t often ask the sort of big questions that Terrence Malick poses in The Tree of Life. Even our most bizarre and creative directors (I’m especially thinking of David Lynch), don’t focus on grand treatises on the human condition but instead attempt to deconstruct the very building blocks of film. I love those types of movies, but Terrence Malick manages to make everyone else making movies right now look like amateurs because while he simultaneously ignores the established rules of film-making at every turn, The Tree of Life‘s scope is grander. I’m an avowed empiricist, academic, and agnostic, and while the film’s religious symbolism exists, Malick is often making the point that it is the way that we cope with ideas that are too big for us to understand (hence the “dawn of time” sequence). More time in the film is spent meditating and quietly wrestling with the nature of our potentially meaningless lives than in giving actual, direct answers, but that works because Malick’s simple quiet tale of childhood and family permits an impressionistic slate for the audience to create their own philosophical framework around Malick’s haunting images.

This film’s audience is pretty split between those who think it’s one of the greatest films of the decade and those who think it’s overly pretentious garbage. You know where my feelings lie, but be warned if you watch this film based on my recommendation, that you are signing up for a challenging but oh so rewarding trip through philosophy, intentionally oblique symbolism, and the simple reality of life. When so much of the great cinema is being made by foreign hands, there is almost nothing as rewarding as finding an American director saying “We’ve still got it.” The Tree of Life may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for a truly unparalleled visual and emotional experience, you need look no further and when you’re done, you can join me in praying to the movie gods that Terrence Malick doesn’t wait another 8 years to make his next film. But if he does and it’s as good as The Tree of Life, the wait will be worth it.

Final Score: A+