I enjoyed the film's leisurely pace. It was evocative of the escape from the workaday world. Emile Hirsch gave a convincingly open and earnest performance and I very much enjoyed the work of Hal Holbrook and, as always, I loved Catherine Keener. When the dialogue actually seemed to be written, I thought it was fine and certainly the voiceovers taken from Christopher's favorite writers were lovely. The director, Sean Penn, and his actors seemed to have created several of the scenes, especially those with Vince Vaughan, through improvisatory acting exercises. Rather than adding to their sense of freedom and reality, it at times gave them a clumsy and indulgent feel. I suddenly was a Meisnerian acting class in Hollywood or New York rather than breaking free as seemed more appropriate to the film's theme. This is just some informed guessing from using improvisation as a director and teacher for a long time myself, but I could be wrong. Perhaps all the scenes were created the same way, but those scenes stuck out as largely unbelievable. But all in all I thought is was dramatically well structured and paced and nicely photographed. I liked the interleaving of Christopher/Alex's time camping out in an abandoned bus in Alaska with the rest of his travels through the United States. I understand from what I have read that Penn placed more emphasis on the dysfunction of Christopher's family life and breaking away from the betrayal of his parents than did the book. Without being able to compare it to the book, this seemed to serve the drama of the film well. SPOILER ALERT! The most difficult aspect of the story for me (appropriately so) was the dichotomy between the central character's attraction to escape from violence and materialism and his extreme enactment of it, which was notable for an insistence that he could do it all alone. Largely this came from his innocence and from his experience of his parents and their world which left him with the feeling, perhaps, that love between people wasn't important, or wasn't possible. In any event, it left him adamantly cut off from others, even as they tried to connect with him on his travels. He could be incredibly resourceful and certainly had a fine mind and a desire to interact with others kindly, but in his insistence to go it alone he seemed to me merely a stupid, innocent boy. Ultimately he learns that he needs others, while reading Tolstoy, alone, as he dies in the abandoned bus in Alaska. In some ways this is the story of a stupid, headstrong boy who thinks he knows everything and is sadly mistaken. In others it is the romantic tale of someone who proves tremendous self-reliance and strength and a realization of his dream, even if he dies doing it. But is that heroic? Either way the story is a tragedy. Was it Christopher's "right" to go off and die a strong but independent 24-year-old man? Had his community, family, school given him everything he needed and now he is on his own to live the consequences of his actions? (We don't seem to think that corporations should have to live with the consequences of their actions). Or should someone have seen this smart, insistent, almost slippery charmer for the wounded boy he was, and examined his long-insistence on isolation from others as a possible sign of mental illness? Should he have been given a shake and a brisk slap? A kind hand or lots of therapy to introduce him to the value of human relationships along side his admirable self-reliance. The excerpt that he tore from the Robinson Jeffers poems Wise Men in their Bad Hours lets us know what he felt:
- Death's a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
- Something more equal to centuries
- Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
- The mountains are dead stone, the people
- Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
- The mountains are not softened or troubled
- And a few dead men's thoughts have the same temper.