there will likely be spoilers in this review…
i don’t like emile hirsch or sean penn so i was really hoping that the film succeeded in spite of them. my hope went unfulfilled. this movie was bad in almost every single way and i say that not only because i liked the book so much more. i actually think that if i hadn’t read the book i would have disliked the film even more. the reason being that i was able to enjoy chris (the protagonist) as a character at least somewhat in the film because i had read the book. had i not read the book i think i would have disliked his character. sean penn and emile hirsch’s representation of chris lacked much of the nuance, intelligence, purpose and impact that he had in the book, and apparently in real life. for example, one of the most profoundly affecting interactions in the book is between chris and the old man in salton city. the old man asks chris to be his adopted son and this is depicted in the film and is one of the films few successes. what the film doesn’t address, though, is that the old man prayed for the well-being of chris after he left. when he heard of chris’ death, the man renounced god and took up drinking again after many sober years. this is the same man who was inspired by chris’s words so much that he left his comfortable life of solitude and traveled on chris’s advice.
the storytelling of the film was very herky-jerky. if i were to film the story i probably would have opted for a more linear telling with flashbacks to fill in pertinent background information as the story unfolded. in the book, krakauer tells the story out of chronological order and it works well, but he also chooses to give away chris’s death on the cover. conversely, penn tells the story out of chronological order and doesn’t reveal chris’s fate until the end – an anti-climax if you ask me. penn also plays up the broken home angle to a startlingly degree. how much of his dramatization of chris’s home life is true to life is unknown, but i think it goes beyond what is suggested in the book. perhaps he knows something krakauer didn’t, or perhaps krakauer kept this element a little less developed than penn.
there were also minor errors in penn’s telling of the story, but most of these are fairly forgivable. he depicts instant hunting success by chris when he goes to alaska, which wasn’t at all the case. this is minor, but it depicts him as a natural, rather than showing the learning that chris had to do in a new situation. another minor error which actually bothered me was in the epilogue where penn states that moose hunters came across chris’s body two weeks after his death. in fact, it was closer to three weeks (19 days to be exact) later that the moose hunters found chris’s body. one the one hand this is a minor thing, but that point slices both ways. if it was so minor why couldn’t he just get it right? my theory is that he wanted the death to see all the more tragic by showing that chris was only 2 weeks away from being rescued. it’s just an unnecessary manipulation of our emotions. conversely, penn gets some of the minor elements right, minor points which can be especially appreciated by someone who has read the book. i finished reading the book just 15-20 minutes before the film started so it was especially fresh when penn shows the jeans patched by a blanket that chris wears in alaska.
hirsch’s performance is another hindrance of the film. his performance just doesn’t capture chris as the book depicted him. much of this was penn’s awful writing and directing, but some of it can definitely be blamed on hirsh’s “try hard” style of acting. he tries hard to depict his characters with sincerity, but he falls flat in every instance. he was so-so in the girl next door, awful as the titular character in alpha dog, and awful here. to be fair, it’s a tough role to pull off. we need to see chris’s intelligence without having him come off as pedantic or cocky. we need to see his intensity and passion without making him appear like some crazy treehugger. we need to see the principled young man who is striking out on his own, but he can’t come off as pious or a rebel.
as someone who has been on several road trips and lived on the road for varying periods of time and gone hitchhiking and train jumping and lived on a glacier i feel somewhat qualified to comment on “life on the road.” penn’s depiction of this life did almost nothing for me and probably even less for someone who doesn’t have actual experience to draw upon. the film was artistically shot and had a lot of pensive space to it, which is true to the experience, but it somehow didn’t translate to a realistic depiction of life on the road. times when we see chris on his own are often too cutesy (him talking to himself or his food, etc.) or too falsely profound (him floating downstream naked in a jesus christ pose, etc.).
eddie vedder’s soundtrack was mostly pretty good, but i think an ambient or postrock soundtrack would have been even better. the cinematography had some nice moments.
with all that sean penn did wrong, he did one thing that worked amazingly well for me: he gave me a quality photograph of chris. it’s the same one that’s in the front of the book, but that one is too small and grainy and is in black and white. seeing it more clearly and in color and on a 30 foot tall screen was like seeing chris for the first time and it brought me near tears. i see a lot of him in me and feel as though, with my principled take on life and hatred for many elements of humanity, i could have become him had a couple things gone differently. hopefully the movie will inspire people to read the book, because the movie really doesn’t do justice to chris the way the book does. of course that could be a byproduct of books in general. they give an idea of a person, but you don’t actually see that person move and talk the way you do in a film. it may be that the people who knew chris could watch the film and find it to be extremely accurate, in which case my reading of the book would have been completely off base. you can make up your mind, but i encourage you to read the book first.Watched in theater