I’m ambivalent because Penn’s ambivalent; sometimes he wants us to see the young idealist as a clueless snot (shouting about how much he hates “society” in a Midwestern bar, disconcerting all the poor working stiffs who are just trying to tie on a decent buzz) and sometimes as a kind of god (shooting the Colorado River rapids with no experience and no helmet and coming out the other end looking like he just got a $200 haircut in Beverly Hills).
OK, actually, I’m not ambivalent, I disliked it pretty bad. But not for the reasons I thought I would. I thought I’d hate it because of its Thoreau-and-Kerouac-fueled fetishization of youthful idealism. That’s here, yes, but the thing is that this is a true story, so I can’t really blame the picture for that. What wound up making me crazy, ironically, is the totally anti-Thoreau-and-Kerouac fetishization of up-to-the-minute production slickness. There can’t be a shot here that lasts more that four seconds, and a minute can’t go by without Penn zapping us with some kind of fancy trick: words floating up off a page of type, slow motion in the rain, epileptic jumpcuts, and on and on. For a movie which ostensibly intends to hymn a young man’s embrace of simplicity, it’s awfully visually complicated. A lot of the movie looks (and sounds, thanks to the constant barrage of 15-second snippets of Eddie Vedder croaking out his faux-Boss lyrics) like a music video.
All Penn’s relentless artifice can’t compensate for the fact that we never get much of a sense of the kid’s character, despite his being on the screen for almost 2.5 hours straight. We certainly get the message that he’s intense, focussed, determined, idealistic, but we get little idea of what’s behind his drive. His parents are materialistic. “Society” is materialistic. Well, yeah, duh. If everyone who thought those things set the money in their wallet on fire, you wouldn’t be able to see for the smoke.
-Count the wardrobe changes. If he really had all that in his pack, it would be twice as tall as him.
-Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness” as a textbook for the young outsider? That book’s all about making compromises for the sake of stability. Weird choice. Oh no, wait, maybe that’s the book he reads right before he decides to try to go back. That would make more sense. Hopefully he’s going back to resume where he left off with Kristen Stewart. Family happiness indeed.
-And speaking of which, maybe this just occurs to me because my girlfriend’s out of town, but why must our hero be so utterly free of libido? Usually that’s an important part of idealistic-youth narratives.
-I am not at all confident that if you shoot a moose with a .22 she’ll politely fall down dead on the spot. That’s a pretty tiny bullet and an extremely large animal. I think she’d stomp on your head, and then run for about forty miles before she died, if she even died at all. At least that’s been my experience.