There is so much working for this movie, and one big thing working against it. First the positives. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Emile Hirsch delivering a haunting performance that should have been recognized by the Academy — he is alternately charming, obnoxious and desperate, and pulls off one of those DeNiro-esque body transformations that makes the film’s last scenes particularly distubing. Hal Holbrook, Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener (among others) flesh out their supporting roles superbly, painting a portrait of American life outside the spotlight and making McCandless’ fate even more poignant. The photography is lovely, especially in long shots of the Alaskan wilderness that drive home just how far this young man went to escape civilization. Eddie Vedder’s original songs are lovely, and were wrongly overlooked by the Academy.
So what’s the negative? Sean Penn, simultaneously the film’s biggest asset and it’s fatal flaw. Penn does a wonderful job shaping the story, putting us in McCandless’ shoes (or bare feet), telling a sad story without losing sight of the spirit behind the young man’s journey. But he wields his camera like a blunt object. I really appreciate cinematic masterminds like Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers when I see a showy director fall flat. Penn throws in every trick in the book — freeze frames, slow- and fast-motion, jump cuts, you name it. But why? The story is most effective when he just settles in and shows us two people talking, or delivers a breathtaking overhead shot of a small bus lost in a sea of mountains. The show-offy stuff distracts and detracts from an otherwise special movie.