Monday, August 9, 2010

SEAN PENN - Bad Boy Made Good

Sean Penn: bringing back weighty

Sean Penn is one high energy dude. Not only does he pick up Oscars like some people catch colds, but he also finds the time to write and direct classic movies in between jetting around the globe to various disaster zones - natural and man made - to keep us mere mortals updated on the conditions there. The guy is so talented (not to mention disgustingly good-looking) that he makes the rest of us look like one-cell organisms who've barely crossed the starting line of the evolutionary curve. But we'll try not to hold that against him and take comfort in the fact that he wasn't always this wonderful. He did marry Madonna, after all, among other rash and anti-social acts in his youth (although punching out papparazzi should have earned him a medal rather than a suspended sentence). But after winning a ludicrous number of awards for his acting and directing four very fine movies, not to mention the afore-mentioned charity aid work, it's safe to say that he's more than made up for it. For the purpose of this post, we're going to focus on his directing work, which in my opinion is growing in stature with each film. It's just a matter of time before he makes something that blows everyone else out of the water. In fact, with Into The Wild he's pretty much already there, although I feel his best work is yet to come. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, if we want to tell Mr Penn's story it's best to begin at the beginning...

The Indian Runner (1991) 

Penn's first film as a director was inspired by a Bruce Springsteen song - Highway Patrolman - one of many great tracks on the Boss' first solo album, Nebraska. Its about two brothers, one is a highway patrolman and the other is someone with considerably less self-control and a penchant for hard likker and violence. What the bad brother has done exactly is never made clear but Bruce lets us know that things are going from bad to worse and its going to be up to the cop brother to put a stop to things. This could involve violence, and it's a dead cert its going to take place on a long, lonely highway in a fast-moving vehicle, because most great Bruce songs involve these things. Here's a sample of the lyrics....

Well the night was like any other, I got a call 'bout quarter to nine
There was trouble in a roadhouse out on the Michigan line
There was a kid lyin' on the floor lookin' bad bleedin' hard from his head there was a girl cryin' at a table and it was Frank, they said
Well I went out and I jumped in my car and I hit the lights
Well I must of done one hundred and ten through Michigan county that night

And then the chorus:

Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin'
Nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's strayin' like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain't no good

Clearly these words resonated strongly with Penn and no doubt the whole Cain and Abel thing must be close to his heart because he decided to take this story and make a film out of it. Now making a film based on a song can't be an easy thing to do but Penn is more than capable of writing a script himself and so he waded right into it. There's not much more to the story than what the Boss sketched out in his song. Except Penn does add an interesting dimension by making Viggo's character a Vietnam veteran, although this is not really explored in any great depth. He's also has more tattoos than a carnie sideshow freak, which is never a good sign. He's not necessarily a bad guy, but he's having a lot of trouble fitting in, settling down, starting a family, all that good shit. And his brother being such a pillar of society doesn't help much. Basically, he's conflicted. Hence the tattoos.

It quickly becomes apparent as Indian Runner unfolds in its leisurely way that Penn is a student of the 70s school of film-making. The pace is unhurried, characters are given time to develop, the canvas is large and the acting is natural and note perfect. Scenes are good and long. Of course, Penn recognises great acting talent and in David Morse and Viggo Mortensen (long before fame found him with Lord of the Rings)  he finds two towering talents who manage to perfectly encapsulate the two sides of the brotherly coin. Penn also managed to get another major talent - Charles Bronson - to deliver his last great performance as the father of the two boys, so devastated by the loss of his wife that he can no longer manage the members of his family who are still among the living.

The Crossing Guard (1995)

For his next outing Penn would embrace themes that he would return to again later in his career, both as an actor and director - the untimely death of a child and the devastation it wreaks on everyone involved.

In The Crossing Guard, Jack Nicholson plays Freddy Gale, the owner of a jewellery store who's toddler daughter was been killed by a drunk driver. The film opens as he learns that the driver (played by David Morse) is about to be released on probation after serving 5 years for culpable homicide. In the interim, Freddy's life has fallen apart. He's divorced from the child's mother, is drinking himself to an early grave and can barely go through the motions of dealing with customers in his store. (In one hilarious scene he demonstrates to a woman just how to get a tight-fitting ring on her finger.) Still consumed by grief he plans to kill the man  and by doing so he hopes to gain some release from his unrelenting torment. Freddy feels that by trying to get on with their lives everyone else has betrayed him and the dead child. He cannot let his pain go and carries it around like a blazing torch, even though it is destroying him in the process. Nicholson takes the role and squeezes every last ounce of juice out of it, and his amazing abilities are equal to the task. It is an incredibly detailed portrayal of a man consumed by grief and crippled by an event that consumes his every waking moment, until at last he achieves some kind of closure.

As the plot would indicate the movie is no barrel of laughs, and no doubt could have used a bit of tightening up in places but working with actors of the caliber of Nicholson, Morse and Anjelica Huston as Nicholson's ex-wife Penn creates a movie so filled with moments of human truth that you are prepared to forgive it its minor faults. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for the film that is so incredibly affecting you'd have to be made of stone not to be moved to tears when it kicks in. Not an easy film to watch but no less compelling for it.

The Pledge (2001)

After The Crossing Guard Penn took a long break from directing but it was clear on his return that he's lost none of his passion for difficult subject matters that strike at the core of things. This time round he had a novel (by Swiss writer Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt) to use as his starting point and The Pledge does benefit as a result, having a better structure and a more involving plot.  Penn chose to work with Jack Nicholson again, and this time Nicholson plays Detective Jerry Black who is about to retire when he catches one last case. Unfortunately for Black, the case is a homicide of a young child and the distraught mother makes him promise that he will never give up until he finds the killer. Other detectives shrug it off as the rantings of a woman driven mad with grief but Black has given his word, which is his bond. This honourable act in the end proves his undoing as he slowly succumbs to the obsession of catching a killer at the risk of losing everything else in his life, including his sanity. The Pledge marked a shift in Penn's direction. While the subject matter and choice of actors was a return to familiar territory, the use of the camera and music showed that he had moved beyond the obvious influence of John Cassavetes to include another giant maverick of the 70s - Terrence Malick. The sheer beauty of Penn's vision and his obvious affinity for the remarkable diversity and vast spaces of North America lift The Pledge out of the realm of just another detective potboiler and into something else entirely. Particularly in the use of music, clearly a great influence on Penn, The Pledge becomes a lyrical journey. A road movie almost, and a peaen to a world that remains beautiful, even when monsters can move through it with seeming impunity.  Nicholson once again delivers an impeccable performance as Jerry Black, possibly the finest of his entire career. He's assisted very capably with sterling support performances by the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Clarkson, Robin Wright Penn and Aaron Eckhart.

Into The Wild (2007)

Penn's most recent feature is also his most accomplished. This time out Penn chooses the story of Christopher McCandless as his subject matter. McCandless was a free spirit (to put it mildly) who became the subject of a book by Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer after he donated his college fund to Oxfam, abandoned his car and became a professional tramp in the style of Woody Guthrie. His final act after some pretty spectacular cross-country rambling was to head into the Alaskan wilderness with a bag of rice and a .22 rifle and a book on edible plants in order to live off the land for as long as possible. Unfortunately he didn't realise that living on squirrel meat alone is a slow road to starvation and that the Alaskan wildnerness is no place to learn from your mistakes. What Penn manages to do with what seems like a rather prosaic story of a footloose dude with a death wish is nothing short of remarkable. Not only does he make McCandless come across as a person of deep spirituality and remarkable wisdom for one so young but he makes us care deeply for him and mourn his passing as if we knew him. And by the end of the film you do feel as if you knew the guy, so thoroughly does Penn explore his thoughts and the vagaries of his short but remarkable life. This is thanks in no small part to the extensive research undertaken by Jon Krakauer. Perhaps due to Krakauer's powerful work, or the fact that McCandless was a big reader and inveterate journal keeper, Penn's movie has a strong literary quality to it (he even has extracts from McCandless' journal appearing on the screen and chapters that mark the major milestones of McCandless' journey). It's a terribly sad story of course and the ending is heartwrenching, even when you know its coming but Penn nevertheless makes the story soar and the cinematography by Eric Gautier is never anything less than riveting. Eddie Vedder's beautiful songs add another layer to the total and make this a feast for eyes and ears and a truly thoughtful study of what it is that compels people to abandon the safety of their families and careers and embark on wild adventures.

(Since the book was published and again with the release of the film McCandless has become a controversial figure and much debate has raged around whether he was a self-centered nut or a modern day visionary with Christ-like qualities. Many have commented that Krakauer's work has ignored some of the facts that cast McCandless in a not so favourable light and basically put the boy on a pedestal. Many find his actions foolhardy and irresponsible, and believe that he had a death wish, and indeed anyone with even basic knowledge of living in the wild would know that McCandless was setting himelf up to fail. He simply did not have enough knowledge or equipment to prevail in such a harsh environment. Whichever way you slice it, McCandless made his choices and paid the ultimate price for his actions. No doubt he had his reasons. If anything else, his actions serve as a valuable cautionary tale for anyone else who may be foolhardy enough to take on the Alaskan wilderness - or any wilderness for that matter - without the proper experience or preparation.)