Movie Review: Into The Wild
By Colin MacLean Oct 1, 2007, 16:07 GMT
Tale of Christopher McCandless, who died four months after leaving life behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness. ...more
At first glance, Into the Wild seems wildly out of keeping with Sean Penn’s body of work. The actor has largely been associated with liberal causes, gritty cop stories and urban dramas.
Upon closer examination, Penn, as an actor, has specialized in loners who take on the system in one way or another.
With Into the Wild, Penn has made a film about the ultimate outsider.
Christopher McCandless died of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. He lived for 113 days in an abandoned old bus after a Kerouac-like odyssey around the American west. The film is told through the written scraps he left behind and from Jon Krakaur’s book.
The film is supposedly narrated by McCandless’ sister (Jena Malone), a serviceable dramatic device, which allows Penn to present a broader picture than McCandless’ narrow view.
Into the Wild is the oft told American story of the outsider who disappears into the wilderness to search for himself. You don’t have to look very far to find lyrical echoes of Kerouac’s restless wanderer or Holden Caufield or Thoreau, Tolstoy, Jack London or Boris Pasternak.
McCandless was a product of an unhappy childhood. He hung in until he did what his distant scientist father (William Hurt) wanted – he graduated from college. Then he sent his life savings to Oxfam, cut up his credit cards, burnt his ID and set out, Westward, as Alexander Supertramp.
Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, he meets some indelible characters along the way but unlike that character he remains unchanged. As Penn sees it, his character’s journey is outward – not inward.
But the writerdirector makes sure that each meeting is memorable. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker are a hippie couple who, for a while, become his surrogate parents. Vince Vaughn, showing no sign of his ironic comic persona, is effective as a hard-drinking prairie farmer who employs McCandless for a while. A teen-age girl (Kristen Stewart), living in a commune, falls for the rootless young man offering companionship and sex.
The best of all is the elderly, deeply conservative, ex-military type, played with surpassing skill by Hal Holbrook, who befriends the young man and who tries to understand the boy’s obsession.
There are many who will consider McCandless a spoiled rich kid rebelling against his parents and completely unsuited to the rigors of frontier life. Although there is no doubt where the director’s heart lies, he gives sufficient latitude in his film for a number of interpretations.
McCandless is played with riveting skill by Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike Emil Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown). Tough job for the actor because he has to take a self-oriented, often unlikable young rebel and make him palatable. He succeeds, giving a strong motivation for the succession of people who seem to genuinely like him as he single-mindedly pursues his quest. Hirsch also goes through a series of highly discomforting and sometimes dangerous re-creations of McCandless’ frontier adventures, climbing mountains, fording rushing streams, ending with a startlingly gaunt look as his character starves to death.
For a man of urban sensibilities, Penn shows a great affinity for the wilderness. There is no scene, whether fancy big-city restaurant or wilderness river, where his restless camera doesn’t provide the kind of visual detail usually found only in books, thus providing a remarkable sense of place. America is photographed in all its wide-screen grandeur by lenser Eric Gautier – so much so that geography becomes a character.
Into the Wild is a long (150 minutes), somewhat self-indulgent film. Conversely if we are to follow McCandless’ search for his soul, perhaps the story couldn’t be told any other way.
Movie goers will probably be reminded of Timothy Tredwell in Werner Hertzog’s Grizzly Man, the story of another untried young man who went into the wilderness only to be mauled and eaten by the very bears he thought were his friends. Hertzog was fascinated by the complex inner fervor that drove his protagonist. You can feel Penn’s passion for his visionary but naïve adventurer in every frame of his film but, in his drive to celebrate McCandless’ search for the ultimate freedom, he fails to grapple with the complexities and ambiguities of why?