While Alaskans may begrudge the real Chris McCandliss for his foolishness, actor turned writer/director Sean Penn is able to turn the story of one disillusioned young man’s failed attempt to get back to nature into a life re-affirming and almost spiritual road trip quite unlike any other film this year.
Decidedly manipulative at times in his portrayal of Chris as an almost romantic hero, he’s nevertheless unafraid to briefly explore the man’s stubbornness or more self-destructive traits including his inexperience and arrogance. By the end you don’t so much like him, but you do understand his viewpoint and why he did what he did.
Penn’s direction is extraordinary. There’s nature photography that would make David Attenborough jealous, cast performances that truly push all the actors to the edges of their range, and a sheer confidence that allows him to get away with many poetically beautiful non-dialogue scenes of quiet reflection and, at times, a touch of experimental editing and camera trickery.
Scenes of warmth and pathos featuring a variety of wacky characters on Chris’ long journey north are skillfully intermixed with his darker and more primal fight for survival against nature in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. He even manages to make a voice over, generally one of the laziest elements of filmmaking craft, into a vital piece of the puzzle that greatly expands the scope and impact that Chris’ journey is having on others.
Kudos also to the entire cast but specifically Emile Hirsch. The young actor goes to such extraordinary physical and psychological lengths here, showing off such a committed and courageous performance that his omission from this year’s Best Actor Oscar nominations list is criminal. Hal Holbrook did get nominated and deserves to be for his short but superb role as an old man who takes Chris under his wing – their final scene together in the truck is truly heartbreaking.
Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart and the like deliver the goods in their small supporting roles. At 150 minutes it’s a long movie and certainly feels it. This is a full on journey, complete with rough patches, some very grisly moments, passages of stark beauty and emotions that run the entire gamut.
Whilst Penn addresses Chris’ shortcomings, he rarely challenges his idealized portrayal of the man or gives consideration to some real world issues that could quickly deflate the modern day legend he’s so carefully constructed here. Despite these obvious omissions and manipulations though, it doesn’t stop the film from delivering many enriching rewards to us as an audience.