This is the first time I’ve ever gone to a movie being excited about seeing naked people. You see, I did a story for the Reader about a nudist colony 45 minutes east of El Cajon. When I started talking movies with the nude folks that surrounded me, they told me they were in a Sean Penn movie. That was more than a year ago, and I figured this was the film. It was a brief scene, and in all honesty, my favorite part about the scene was that as Hal Holbrook drove by disgusted by what he saw – I was hearing a rare Creedence Clearwater Revival song I love (Porterville). The guys at the colony told me at a screening, they all cheered when the scene came on.
All the movies Sean Penn has directed have had some great moments, but ultimately left me a bit disappointed. This is another that he’s written/directed that does that.
Two and a half hours is just a long time for me to spend with this kid that I think is a bit of a loser. I get the feeling Penn wants us to have this hero worship of him, and I don’t.
That doesn’t mean all that time was wasted. Cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries) gets some splendid shots of trees, water, sunsets…the outdoors were filmed wonderfully.
This is based on the writings of Christopher McCandless, who may have idolized Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, but was a poor writer compared to them. He looks great on the screen, though. He’s played by Emile Hirsch, who is terrific in the role. And you can give him a pass on his delusional thoughts about materialism and all that. He’s a young man. Let him hitchhike to Alaska and live off the land. I’m guessing it would’ve been impossible for Penn to tell the story any other way. And he really had to push the family hard to get the rights to do this. The last thing he wanted to do was make McCandless look like the fool he often still looked like to me (I just wonder what the family thought about some of the abuse his mom takes from the father).
Speaking of the parents (Marcia Gay Harden/William Hurt), we find out they not only paid for his college, but bought him a car. Yet we’re supposed to hate the fact that they’re wondering about what he’ll do now that he’s graduated; or the fact that they’re concerned a sports team came into the restaurant and will get rowdy. Hey – we’re watching this in a movie theatre. We think the same thing when we see a loud group or family come in, wondering if they’ll be able to take it down a notch once the movie starts. This hardly makes them bad people. And McCandless had a great relationship with his sister, yet she mentions he never wrote or called while he was away at college. Why? Oh, here’s why. Penn shows us a flashback of the parents fighting after Hurt does a bit of drinking. Even if that’s true and he didn’t have the best childhood, it doesn’t justify him not talking to his sister, or letting his parents know he was trekking from Arizona to Alaska (the parents, in fact, never heard from him again). I have no other choice but to dislike him a bit, not his parents (and it’s not because I’m closer in age to his parents than him).
Here’s another example of how bizarre his thought process is. He is very liberal in a lot of ways, yet he’s a fan of Ronald Reagan. He burned all his money and possessions for the journey to Alaska, yet has to get a part-time job along the way.
At least that brings in Vince Vaughn as his boss at the plant, for a bit of comic relief. After a few beers, he even ribs him about these same points I just brought up.
Catherine Keener has a nice supporting role as a hippie that gives McCandless a place to stay, and that’s where he meets a younger hippie – Kristen Stewart plays her. It was a great moment hearing them duet on the John Prine classic Angel From Montgomery.
Another interesting character we meet along the way is Hal Holbrook. He just broke my heart as a widower who enjoyed meeting this young traveler so much he wanted to adopt him. And again, it had me getting angry at McCandless. Not only does he get Holbrook climbing up a steep rocky hill I thought was going to give him a heart attack – but knowing this old guy is yearning for companionship so bad – why leave the way he did? If we were watching a film where a nice guy liked a girl, and she was leading him on unfairly, we’d hate her for breaking his heart. Why aren’t people disliking McCandless in his relationship with him?
All of that being said, this movie didn’t feel like it was two and a half hours long. I was enjoying much of the adventure – whether that was him canoeing down a river or having a run in with a bear. Sure, Penn could’ve made a few edits and tightened things up (did we really need to see McCandless taking a shower in slow motion?).
Penn had few cliché songs like King of the Road and Going up the Country (that song and On the Road again from Canned Heat, need to be retired from film use). I do give him credit for not being cheesy and slipping in any Supertramp; even when McCandless uses the alias Alexander Supertramp.
Instead, Penn relied heavily on his friend Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), who adds some haunting vocals, and one of the best songs of the year – Hard Sun.
Since Vedder’s a former Encinitas resident, I thought I’d print the lyrics to that great song, since it’s more beautiful than the goofball journey McCandless takes us on.
Hard Sun by Eddie Vedder
When I walk beside her/I am the better man
When I look to leave her/I always stagger back again.
Once I built an ivory tower/So I could worship from above
When I climb down to be set free/She took me in again
There’s a big/a big hard sun
Beating on the big people/in a big hard world
When she comes to greet me/She is mercy at my feet
And I, I see her inner charm/She just throws it back at me
Once I dug an early grave/To find a better land
She just smiled and laughed at me
And took her rules back again
When I go to cross that river/She is comfort by my side
When I try to understand/She just opens up her hands
Once I stood to lose her/When I saw what I had done….
It’s a shame McCandles couldn’t see what he had done. He ate poisonous berries, got sick, and he was only a mile away from safety. I’m guessing the money he burned, a map, and a few other possessions might have come in handy.
The song gets an A. The movie gets a B.