Monday, May 3, 2010


Directed by Sean Penn

Starring Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Vince Vaughn

2007 is widely regarded by critics as a banner year for filmmaking. The Coen brothers released their masterpiece No Country For Old Men, only one of three critically lauded films to come at the Western genre from an angle not quite seen before. The other two, There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, are carefully paced character studies that are lyrical and challenging, if overwhelmingly bleak. If cinema in 2007 had been made up of just those 3 films it would have been a decade to remember. But we also had David Fincher's epic police drama Zodiac, Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Ben Affleck's directorial debut Gone Baby Gone (proving he's a much better director than actor), Frank Darabont's glorious tribute to B movie horror in The Mist, and a host of other great films.

Overshadowed at the Academy Awards by No Country, Blood, Atonement, and the more mainstream Juno and Michael Clayton (two very good films), director Sean Penn's Into the Wild is a magnificent film released during a year full of magnificent films. Thematically in-line with some of the other movies mentioned previously (nature and unforgiving landscapes will drive men mad when not destroying them physically) it is emotionally more powerful than those films, and ultimately hopeful and reassuring in its message that sharing human experiences is the path to true happiness.

The film (based on the 1996 non-fiction book by John Krakauer which I have not read, so no book to film comparison here) tells the story of Chris McCandless, a recent graduate of Emory University who is so disillusioned with his materialistic parents (and, by extension, American society) that he decides to travel west and then up to Alaska, essentially living off of the grid. Burning his money and taking with him only the bare necessities McCandless walks, hitchhikes, rides the rails, and kayak's across the country, taking odd jobs along the way to earn the little bit of cash he needs to make it to the wilds of the largest state in the U.S., where he plans to live an entirely self-sustaining existence. As it is a true story and almost twenty years old, I don't feel it's a spoiler to say he doesn't make it, succumbing to the harsh realities that come with living alone in the wild.

The first hurdle Penn had to get over when writing the screenplay is the nature of McCandless's narcissism. Chris is essentially embarking on a selfish journey, taken only to fulfill his longing to test his limits and remove himself from what he considers a shallow, greedy culture. Had he been forthcoming about his endeavor with at least his sister Catherine (Jenna Malone), someone he genuinely cares about as opposed to his distant and robotic parents, McCandless would have been infinitely easier to understand. As it is, he leaves without notifying anyone significant to him, and listening to his sister (who narrates) describe how hurt she is could have been devastating to the film.

Luckily Penn scored a casting coup with Emile Hirsch. With his earnest eyes supporting his matter-of-fact advice and wide smile filling up the screen with each wondrous adventure, Hirsch makes it easy to identify with Chris. It's a full-bodied and magnetic performance. There's a few times where Penn has Hirsch break the fourth-wall and although the film by no means mimics a documentary, these moments make us feel like we are partaking in Chris's journey. To watch Hirsch's emotional and physical (he lost 41 pounds to portray Chris near the end of his life at his most skeletal) is watching one of the truly great onscreen performances of the last 20 years. His mischievous side is infectious, and Hirsch sells McCandless's boundless love for nature with something as simple as a half-grin and a tear.

Supporting Hirsch is a mix of veteran actors, newcomers, and those in between, each one memorable. Vince Vaughn plays Wayne, owner of a harvesting company that employs Chris (who rechristens himself Alexander Supertramp) and straight-shoots the young lad, telling Chris that he's crazy to take on this adventure. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker are rubber-tramp hippies who Chris stumbles upon early in the film and then comes back to later. Kristen Stewart (pre-Twilight fame) is Tracy, an arty and vulnerable sixteen year old who develops a crush on Chris, only to be crushed when he ups and leaves. Finally, Hal Holbrook, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film, has the most heart-breaking and affecting role in the film, playing Ron Franz, the last person to help Chris on his journey north, and an elderly man so taken with Chris's personality he offers to adopt him.

The supporting players aren't onscreen for very long in Into the Wild, but each is important and well defined. Stewart gets the least amount of screentime and her relationship with Chris is sudden and bare bones, but the acting between the two sells any shortcomings of the writing. Rarely does a film with this many cast members sharing such short scenes feel as rich and rewarding as Into the Wild does.

The only casualties of the large cast are William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as Walt and Billie McCandless. Unsympathetic and dysfunctional to the extreme, it's difficult to like Chris's parents, although I suppose that's Penn's way of justifying Chris's actions. Walt and Billie are as stoic as any prole (but more well off) in 1984, and their reaction to Chris's disappearance is glossed over. Hurt and Gay Harden are fine in their respective roles, but the characters are grating and unlikeable.

I would be amiss if I concluded this revisit to Into the Wild if I did not mention two other stars of the film. The first is Eddie Vedder, who wrote eleven songs for the film - ten original and one cover. His folksy, minimalist soundtrack is the perfect companion piece to the wide-open, majestic landscapes the film captures. If ever there was an album to listen to while driving cross-country, this Grammy winning one is it. Sometimes primal, sometimes liberating, Vedder's 11 cuts are as good as anything he's ever been associated with, and the movie soundtrack is well worth picking up.

The second star of the film I haven't mentioned is America herself. Although McCandless (and Penn) are adverse to large urban areas saturated with human activity, it's quite obvious they're in love with the expansive American west and extreme northwest. If you had no desire to travel from southern California up to Alaska someday, you will after you watch Into the Wild. Eric Gautier's luxurious cinematography captures McCandless scaling mountains, hiking up hills, walking across gigantic fallen trees, and traversing white water rapids on a kayak. Chris McCandless was the ultimate camper, and with the images Penn has captured it's easy to see why he was so in love with nature.

The ultimate irony is that McCandless died after coming to the realization that without anyone to share these experiences with his journey essentially held no meaning. He claims in his journal and with notes left behind that had a joyous and revelatory existence during the few years he was on the road, but what good were those years if he pushed himself away from everyone he came into contact with? "Happyness only real when shared" isn't just one of the last things McCandless wrote in his journal before passing away from starvation, it's the central theme that runs through Into the Wild. The most memorable images and scenes come from those in which Chris is affecting others and vice-versa. Our relationships with those around us are central to our human experience. Into the Wild distills that notion down into an amazing and powerful two hour film.

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Eddie Vedder, "Society"

1 comment:

  1. This was such a beautiful film! Wonderful review. It makes me want to watch the movie tonight.