By Ray Pride
Speed Racer’s hair was still as black as night.
It’s only a few hours after Emile Hirsch has finished shooting the Wachowski brothers’ 2008 “Speed Racer” movie in Berlin, and he’s promoting Sean Penn’s bravura epic, “Into the Wild,” in Chicago. The 22-year-old actor showed his brooding side in Nick Cassavetes’ teen-kidnapping-gone-wrong “Alpha Dog,” and hardly cracked a smile in Catherine Hardwicke’s Cali skater tone poem “Lords of Dogtown.” In person, the slight actor is affable, and at a post-screening audience Q&A after our interview, it was hard to stop his storytelling. (I wish I’d recorded the anecdote about the son of legendary Bart the Bear, who shares a scary scene with Hirsch.)
“Into the Wild” is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1995 nonfiction bestseller about Christopher McCandless, who, after graduating from Georgia’s Emory University in 1992, hit the road without telling his parents or sister, abandoning his plans for graduate school, forsaking possessions, giving his $24,000 education fund to Oxfam and burning cash on the side of the road. He wants to hitchhike to Alaska. Does he want to find himself? Some deeper meaning to life? Was he naïve? Did he make choices that could mean he was a little unsettled mentally?
Penn doesn’t provide these answers. Instead, he shows us his illustration of what Christopher encountered, with each location seeming like a small film of its own, with its own textures and colors and moods. Penn’s cameraman is Frenchman Eric Gautier, one of the great living cinematographers, who usually functions as his own operator. (In this case, Penn also worked the camera.) Gautier’s marvelous resume runs the range of French filmmakers, including work for Olivier Assayas (“Clean,” “Demonlover,” “Les Destinees”), Arnaud Desplechin (“My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument,” “Kings and Queen”), Catherine Breillat (“Brief Crossing”), Patrice Chereau (“Intimacy”) and Leos Carax (“Pola X”). Hirsch suggests that Penn’s interest in working with Gautier’s perhaps came from the way he shot the journey of Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
“Tactile” is one key work that suits the ambition and achievement of this long but rewarding movie. It was more than ten years after Penn first wanted to make the movie before the McCandless family allowed production to proceed, and it seems to be for the best: this is mature work, from a middle-aged man’s remove, about the hopefulness of youth. Penn’s raised children, his beloved father, of whom he has often spoken movingly, has gone on, and he recently lost his brother, Chris. All of those things, and much more are deep beneath the earthy, febrile surfaces.
Yet it’s Hirsch’s presence, living up to Penn’s belief in him, that keeps the movie buoyant. He’s been a compelling screen presence in all the movies he’s worked in, but this performance captures a lightheaded male adolescent optimism and anticipation like no movie I can think of. (Christopher reads books along the way, passes them on to others, loves his Tolstoy but also runs up against Dostoevsky more than once.) Hirsch talks more like a cinephile than a movie geek, but on the subject of other actors, is endlessly impressed, such as his manic “Alpha Dog” costar Ben Foster, and of course, Penn’s phone call for him to come up to the Bay Area and flip through the script he’d just finished. Hirsch says Penn was intrigued by his work in “Lords Of Dogtown,” which shows another layer of Penn’s instinct as a director of other actors: Hirsch could play gloomy, but he could also capture the bittersweet quality of youth that has not yet been tamped or trampled.
The production hewed to the dream Francis Coppola had pre-“Godfather,” when he made a small road movie called “The Rain People.” A few vans were packed and decamped from place to place, following the route that Christopher had taken to Alaska. Along the way, Christopher encounters many diverse people, and the gorgeous glory of Penn’s approach is that in many ways, the story becomes not about what these characters (and character is the right word for most of them) show Christopher, but what he leaves behind, the joy and hope that remains in a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, also the marine coordinator) he befriends; the amusing yet intense outpourings from a man who employs him briefly during a harvest, played by Vince Vaughn; Kristen Stewart’s youthful longing for his companionship and his reaction; Jena Malone playing his sister with her usual brimming empathy; his uncomprehending parents, acted by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, are granted their moments, especially a heartwrenching moment of grace from his father near the end of the movie.) There’s a brief role by Hal Holbrook, who is 83, that is as focused and splendid as any performance this year.)
“Into the Wild” feels like a summation of the many things Penn’s known for, its shooting and editing style suffused with a youthful jauntiness, but storytelling fully aware of the many seasons of life. It’s a gorgeous tragedy describing a brief time lived with reckless, headlong force.
“Into the Wild” opens Friday.