EXCLUSIVE: Sean Penn is circling The Last Photograph, and I’m told he plans to join Christian Bale in the Kurt Johnstad-scripted drama that will be directed by Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The film is moving from Warner Bros, and is in negotiations to move to Dark Castle, whose Joel Silver and Andrew Rona would board the project as producers and put up the financing. Zack and Deborah Snyder are producing with Hollywood Gang’s Gianni Nunnari.

The film came from an idea by Snyder, who set it up  at Warner Bros with his wife and Nunnari after they all worked together on 300. Set in Afghanistan, it is a timely drama that has elements of The Searchers and Taken. Bale plays a war correspondent who witnesses and is the only survivor of an attack on a group of Americans. Penn is circling the role of a retired ex-special ops soldier who comes to the scene determined to free a family member who has been kidnapped. The journalist agrees to help identify the kidnappers and travel the rough terrain to find them, in exchange for the story. The road brings them in confrontation with tribal regions of Afghanistan, and none of the diplomats will help.

The plan is to put the picture into production in 2012, after Bale completes The Dark Knight Rises. Penn had been courted by Warner Bros for both the Superman pic Man of Steel and the Ruben Fleischer-directed Gangster Squad. He has turned down both films, I’m told. Despite courting Penn heavily for those, Warner Bros had already been moving toward not funding The Last Photograph, and didn’t alter that when Penn made it clear he was interested in the war film. Dark Castle is working on a deal as we speak, with Warner Bros distributing the picture. The company is coming off the Liam Neeson-starrer Unknown, a $30 million film that grossed $140 million worldwide. Penn most recently starred in the Paolo Sorrentino-directed This Must Be The Place, which is currently being shopped for North American distribution. There, he plays a bored, retired rock star who tries to find his father’s killer, an ex-Nazi war criminal hiding in the U.S. CAA reps Penn.