25 January 2005 | desperateliving
There are a few of us who feel that Sean Penn is one of the major driving forces in American cinema, an actor of pure artistic intentions, utter sincerity and empathy, and thoughtful (if often misconstrued) politics. He's kind of an heir to a few different giants -- Brando, in terms of rough sexuality and pugnacity; Nicholson, in terms of intelligence as an actor (he shares with both a volatile, sometimes over-the-top acting style and tendency to play human beings with emotions rather than playing acting techniques); and Cassavetes, emphasized with this film (which he dedicates to him). He's more meticulous and crafty than Cassavetes, but just as emotionally direct. (And like him, there may be times where you don't know what to think of what you're seeing; I think that's true of anything original, or anything that eschews typical film conventions.) But despite that similarity, the film isn't quite real -- the Indian mythos, the narration of David Morse, Viggo Mortenson hopping on a moving train. It's the stuff of hazy dreams. The whole picture is imbued with a quiet feeling -- you wish you could show it to those on the right who hate Penn for his outspoken politics, just to prove that he cares deeply about exactly the type of people they think he and his Hollywood friends are against.
At first the Indian stuff is a little cheesy, but it leads up to a climax where it really works and feels organic. More than being an actor who can direct, Penn is at times a real master -- he's got a rare gift of ending films with a real punch, without it being cheap. Here, the film gets more technically flamboyant as it goes along -- the camera moves a little more, the inter cutting between a few different scenes gets quicker -- and it ends wonderfully. You have to have a certain willingness to go along with the story that Penn's telling (many times characters do things that don't make any logical sense, but emotionally it fits), and the semi-metaphysical closing really worked for me.
Part of the value is in the chance to see good actors work; it's strange that actors known for their histrionics so often direct films that are completely devoid of showiness in terms of acting. That is to say, when Mortensen freaks out on his wife (Patricia Arquette, whose constant squeals are incredibly -- and aptly -- uncomfortable), it's tense because of the exchange of emotions and not because of any actorly shaking or screaming. Penn is a very generous director, and I think that's shown by his allowing Charles Bronson to do some of the finest work of his career. The movie feels very indebted to the '70s, what with a few of the zooms, the folk/rock music, and the kind of small, rural movie this is that rarely gets made anymore. (It owes something to Dennis Hopper's own films, I think; specifically in Mortensen's speech about the "math kids.") 8/10