Emile Hirsch in Into the WildINTO THE WILD

As a director, Sean Penn has proven more than proficient, but he hasn't exactly demonstrated a lightness of spirit; within his The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, and The Pledge, you can pretty much count the number of smiles generated on one hand. I love the gravity that Penn brings to his directing/writing projects, his readiness to explore anguished and vengeful depths, but his seriousness as a filmmaker has its downside, too. Penn's works have been so dour and laden with portent that, as their narratives progress, they begin to feel oppressive and one-dimensional. Like a joke now and again would kill him?

His latest behind-the-camera endeavor, Into the Wild, isn't a barrel of laughs, either, but there's a crucial difference between this offering and Penn's others: There isn't a scene here wherein you can't sense the director smiling. It's a smile of satisfaction, of Penn achieving precisely the effects he's aiming for, and catching glorious found moments that achieve effects he perhaps didn't know he was aiming for. Yet it's also a smile of empathy; you can feel the director opening his mind and heart to the thrilling, limitless possibilities of man and the world, and in finding room for numerous philosophies, and all points of view. The film is remarkably nonjudgmental and deeply moving, and, I think, as close to art as movies have come this year.

Based on a true story told in Jon Krakauer's bestseller, Into the Wild concerns the well-to-do recent college graduate Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who, in 1990, abandoned his life of privilege and embarked on a journey to the Alaskan wilderness, where he died of starvation in 1992. Yet while it would be easy (and predictable) for a moviemaker to portray McCandless as a youthful martyr - an innocent whose only escape from the hypocrisies of society is death - Penn abjectly refuses to sentimentalize the experience.

The director demonstrates an unquestionable kinship with his protagonist, displayed through Hirsch's hugely engaging, open-hearted portrayal, and through Penn's passionate exultation in the landscape; working with cinematographer Eric Gautier, the American vistas seen here have an almost otherworldly grace. (One of the film's opening shots, showing McCandless' last moment of human interaction on an Alaskan road, seems to stretch the widescreen format as wide as is conceivably possible.) The images, though, are never merely pretty - Penn and Gautier are always aware of nature's bitter realities - and the director never tries to fool us into thinking that McCandless' journey isn't also foolish, egocentric, and self-destructive. Penn applauds the quest while also detailing its inherent (and eventually fatal) folly.

Time and again, McCandless encounters strangers who take an immediate liking to him: Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker (both splendid) as a pair of aging flower children; Vince Vaughn as a South Dakota grain retailer; Hal Holbrook as a kindly widower. And while the young man sees them as helpful friends, as experiences, they recognize his frailty masked by confidence, and subtly try to steer him off his chosen path. (Whenever the 23-year-old McCandless, with beaming assuredness, tells his newfound acquaintances that they haven't yet learned the truths he's learned, they smile at him sadly, and drop the issue. They instinctively understand that the youth's search for personal freedom is inseparable from a death wish.)

With dazzling even-handedness, Penn finds both the joy and heartbreak in McCandless' trek - Holbrook's farewell to his new surrogate grandson is a sequence of almost unbearable purity - and the staggeringly sharp editing helps create moments, particularly during McCandless' final, emaciated scenes, that might stay with you forever. Into the Wild is a miracle of a movie.


Denzel Washington and Josh Brolin in American GangsterAMERICAN GANGSTER

Ridley Scott, at his best, produces works that are forceful and emotionally direct, and even his lesser films are crafted with the utmost professionalism. But he's not an artist, and if ever there was ever a movie that required the imagination of an artist it's American Gangster. In two concurrent Vietnam-era plotlines that only dovetail in the final reels, Denzel Washington plays a Harlem drug lord, and Russell Crowe plays the New Jersey detective on his tail, and the film is set up as an indictment - an entertaining indictment - of cops, military men, and the thugs who controlled them. It's an efficient, controlled piece, never outright dull, and a few supporting actors (Josh Brolin and Ruby Dee especially) perform with extraordinary power. Yet at 160 minutes, the relentless ping-ponging between the storylines grows tiresome, and you never feel any sort of need, on Scott's part, to tell this story; despite the on-screen drug abuse and horrific bloodletting, the movie is a bit stodgy. Even Washington's and Crowe's performances feel little more than blandly competent. (You're witness to their actorly invention only intermittently, as when they share a brief power play over a paper coffee cup.) American Gangster is a good, solid, middlebrow epic, but it doesn't resonate, and the film is criminally short on memorable scenes; it's Ridley Scott doing his best with material that demanded a Martin Scorsese or a Spike Lee. Or, perhaps, a Sean Penn.

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