15 November 2007

INTO THE WILD - Directed by Sean Penn; An Existential Odyssey Through America - The Road Movie Genre

For me the great road movies are those that underline despair and destruction through the death of the central protagonist. The best road movies have always been the ones that end tragically and the leave the audience in a state of emotional reflection. Easy Rider and Vanishing Point are two definitive illustrations of the road movie as a microcosm of social and political disillusionment and ideological vehicle for existential discovery of identity. In the road movie unlike many other traditionally conservative genres, the image of the open road, a contradictory symbol of both uncertainity and independence carries with it the potential for exploring an endless array of themes, issues and situations. Into the Wild is an unusual film because it manifests none of the hallmarks of a typical Hollywood film nor does it really feel like a Sean Penn movie. This is a real progression in the directorial style of Sean Penn and represents a break from his earlier self indulgent and overly melodramatic character study's. A nostalgic yearning for the cinema of the 1970s seems very much in fashion today especially with the recent release of Michael Clayton and the up coming PTA western, and Into The Wild seems very close to Jeremiah Johnson in terms of its muted and somber mood. It is a film that is primarily concerned with nature and the environment, and at times the film veers close to the documentary medium particularly in its impressive use of landscapes and backdrops that appear purely as a celebration of the metaphysical wonder of a world from which we have become detached. Though much of the brilliance of the film rests with what is probably the best cinematography of the year, the film never feels it needs to push itself to become a didactic lesson on the need to drop out of society and become human again. The scope of the film is extraordinary and once the film has come to an exhausting end you do get the sense that you have an undertaken a journey of some real importance. The episodic nature of the non linear narrative structure and the conflict with the landscape reminded me of the simplicity of new wave Iranian cinema in utilising the ordinary and everyday in order to generate an emotional response of such warmth and respect for the characters. The character of Chris meets a number of different people as he makes his way to Alaska, each representing a distinct facet of American society, and each being represented as equally sympathetic as one another. Here, the villain is not Chris, nor is it American society, it is parents. Special mention should be given to the exemplary and haunting soundtrack composed by Eddie Vedder and the wonderful cameo performance by the veteran Hollywood actor, Hal Holbrook, who nearly steals the film from Emile Hirsch. Into the Wild is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2007 and is by far the best film Sean Penn has directed.


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