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INTO THE WILD (2007) review

January 13, 2008

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written by: Sean Penn (from the novel by Jon Krakauer)
produced by: Art Linson, Sean Penn & William Pohlad
directed by: Sean Penn
R (for language and some nudity)
runtime: 148 min.
U.S. release date: September 27, 2007

 

I made my way out to the movie theater on a numbingly cold December night. The wind was whipping through me on this last Saturday of 2007. I wondered what it would be like to wander off on your own with your only focus being just you and the surrounding natural elements. Familiar people and places left behind, the open road ahead with all its possibilities of sights and sounds. I was alone (something I rarely do), on my way to see “Into the Wild” a movie based on the true story of a young man who did something similar with the last two years of life on earth.

Back in 1996, the cover to writer Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild caught my attention in a bookstore. It had a cover image of an abandoned snow-swept bus on the top half and on the bottom half it read….

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25, 000 in savings to charity and abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter

….After I read that, I knew I would someday have to read this book.

 

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What happened to McCandless in-between his departure and his death is just as extraordinary and shocking as his decision to discard his family and friends. This is the rugged territory covered by screenwriter/director Sean Penn in his film which adapts and takes its title from Krakauer’s book. The film depicts McCandless (Emile Hirsch) as a restless searcher roaming from one fresh experience to another, be it working the land for a rascally farmer named Wayne (Vince Vaughn) in South Dakota, hitching a ride with a hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) in Oregon, getting to know a girl (Kristen Stewart) in Slab City who shows interest in him or befriending a lonely old man named Ronald Franz (played superbly by Hal Holbrook) in the Southern California desert.

Along the way, McCandless (who renames himself Alexander Supertramp on his journey) made reckless and foolhardy decisions on his westward journey. He almost got himself arrested, injured and killed with no experience and it seems he’s become for today’s disaffected youth either a folk hero or a cautionary tale, depending on your point of view. Penn’s take on McCandless sojourn is one of a tragic figure, and his film mixes the beautiful with the devastating. Nature witnessed in the film is powerful, communing with it can be rejuvenating; yet, to view it alone is indeed a terrible thing. When reading all this about McCandless, one obvious question continues to surface….Why? What compelled him to come to such a decision? How did all this come about?

The film gives us a look at what elements may have contributed to his decision to drop off the grid. We meet 22 year-old McCandless near Atlanta, Georgia, as he graduates from Emory University in 1990. His parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) are wealthy east coast socialites who want to purchase him a new car as a present and an incentive to go to grad school. The real reason could be that they’re embarrassed by the Datsun clunker he drives. McCandless is insulted and refuses their gift, he could care less about a new car. Throughout the film there are scenes that portray his parents as superficial as they cluelessly raise McCandless and his sister Carine (Jenna Malone).

 

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In flashbacks, they’re seen constantly bickering and abusive to one another yet always prepared with a facade in public. Whether or not his family was depicted accurately is unknown but it does show how this upbringing had a tremendous impact on McCandless’ life. He wanted to be nothing like his parents and wanted nothing to do with them.

Having rejected his parents and their lifestyles, McCandless focused his love and attention on the words of Thoreau, Jack London, and other naturalists. This too possibly tainted McCandless. After all, these writers wrote romantic works of natural adventures and reflections but that doesn’t mean they necessarily lived them out. Still Chris believed a life living off the earth without material possessions and personal ties could be possible and should be pursued. He wanted to leave society entirely….not just the material trappings of it, but all of it….and commune with the rivers and the forests.

Penn’s film cuts between two time-lines which is a smart approach since we see where he is and also how he arrived there. One follows him on his westward journey, kayaking down the Colorado River, meeting hippies and foreigners, working for a time flippin’ burgers at a McDonald’s as well as a wheat harvester in for Wayne, all with the goal of his “Great Alaskan Adventure”. The other time-line is two years later and shows McCandless living in an old bus he’s found in the Alaskan woods. He has a rifle to hunt his food, some rice, his beloved books and of course the big surrounding country he cherishes. He’s reached his destination and faces the peaceful beauty along with the unpredictable wild.

 

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But McCandless learns the hard way that there’s more to inner peace than that. Crushingly and heartbreakingly at times we see him scrounge for food and shelter, often meeting disappointment but sometimes making friends. Hirsch’s surrender to the role is impressive, both physically and emotionally. We see the anger McCandless feels toward his parents in his performance, which has led to a disillusionment with society in general….and yet he remains an optimistic, good and decent person himself, more disappointed than cynical. His charisma enthusiasm and drive are witnessed by all who meet him but I wondered if this was the side McCandless wanted them to see. He has a solid moral code about him and it could be his parents’ failure to live up to it that has turned him off. With all of these characteristics in mind, you can’t help but to like him but you also wonder and worry about him.

Penn’s treatment of all this is passionate, ambitious and respectable. It’s probably my favorite film he’s directed thus far. He takes a lyrical, poetic approach that serves the film well from a visual standpoint. Throughout parts of the film we actually see words and phrases written across the screen, running along with Eddie Vedder’s songs and Michael Brook’s soundtrack. His weighty baritone provides earthy, folky tracks that temper the romance of absolute freedom with an eerie foreboding. At times, we also hear Carine’s voice-over narration, presumably from her diary but Penn also injects some well-needed silence to the film. After all, when you’re off on your own in the wild all that can be heard is what’s around you.

Cinematographer Eric Gautier films outstanding shots of nature here but it’s the performances though that really make this film fantastic. Starting with Hirsch’s mature portrayal of the immature McCandless. Vaughn has a decent part as the shifty grain harvester who gives Chris a job. The always reliable Keener is great, playing a woman who is estranged from her own son about Chris’ age. He runs into her and Rainey, these freewheelin’ hippies, a couple of times on his trek. They become replacement parents to him, in a way, and Jan has a conversation with Christopher late in the film that reminds him of the pain his real parents must be feeling after all these months of not knowing where he is. She almost gets him to confront his feelings, to maybe put himself in their shoes but he keeps his guard up and pretty soon he hits the road.

 

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The most impacting character that McCandless encounters is an 84 year-old gentleman named Ron Franz (Holbrook), an old man Christopher meets in the California desert. Holbrook gives a buzz-worthy performance that supplies the film’s needed emotional weight as it comes together as it heads into its final act. Ron was living on his own just fine until he came across McCandless with his backpack. Something in him must have immediately connected to this young man and when he tells Chris a little of his history we see why. He gives plenty of sage advice, but he’s more than just a typical Wise Old Man. Ron can see that someone this idealistic, naive, and unprepared as McCandless isn’t going to make it in the harsh world without help, and he’s visibly saddened by this knowledge, practically pleading with Christopher to forgive his parents and return to real life. Holbrook’s work is a true definition of a great subtle supporting performance.

Sure, I can appreciate what we’re asked to believe of McCandless’ motivations and hurts, but his actions were ultimately selfish and irresponsible. The sad part of the film is really the lives that he touched. While he was a charming character and often a delight to be around he could also be a stubborn fool. He resisted the attempts of all those around him on his journey to love him, having determined that such concerns were irrelevant to him. He wasn’t rude about it but right about the time that an opportunity would present itself for someone to really get to know him, he’d dodge them and check out.

It’s not until it’s too late that he realizes what they were subtly teaching him all along: that communing with nature can bring tranquility and joy, but it’s ultimately nothing if you don’t have someone to share it with.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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