Werner Herzog already filmed a tale about a young man who abandons the travails of modern life for the wilderness, only to be destroyed by the elements, and maybe he's the only director who could have tamed that force of bellow and blooze known as Eddie Vedder. A lot of people I know who've otherwise never cared for Thoreau are crazy about Into the Wild, and I can see why: it's got passages of beauty that don't devolve into static camera art, as so much nature photography is (and which gets Academy Award nominations); sturdy performances from the whole cast, including Vince Vaughan and the much-ballyhooed Hal Holbrook (who does tear up in his last scene without making the audience hurl rocks at the screen); and enough common sense from director-writer Sean Penn to deflate the windy romanticism which his frenetic editing and Vedder's tunes insist on pressing. But it's not enough. He doesn't trust the ambiguity in his tale; the soft gray Alaskan light confers grace on Christopher McCandless' last exhalations. I share Dana Stevens' discomfort regarding a scene in which McCandless urges the Holbrook character to climb a steep rocky cliff -- his needling the old man feels cruel; he doesn't expect Holbrook to crumple from a heart attack on his ascent? Emile Hirsch's performance suggests the alert, precocious intelligence of a young guy who's one more Tolstoy novel or great fuck away from foregoing his precious asceticism. Penn's approach is all wrong here; you can hear his boots crunching gingerly on snow as he sneaks up on the Krakauer book. As a director and actor he's got two modes: a determinism that he confuses with realism, and a toughness five minutes from curdling into sentimentality. He's so resourceful that he quite often gets away with it (as an actor; The Pledge is the only other film he's directed worth a second look). I almost wish that McCandless had fucked the sixteen-year-old hippiechick who offers himself to him; it would have saved us the indignity of watching a performance of "Angel in Montgomery."
Still, this is the most enjoyable Penn-directed film yet. Suggested next project: a Harry Potter novel.