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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

INTO THE WILD (2007) - Sean Penn

Before I start, let me just put a disclaimer- there will be spoilers in this one!

We all yearn to get away from the big city and go back to nature. There’s something inside everyone that feels the call of the wild. Most of us ignore it and get on with our lives. But for some, the call is too strong, and must be acted upon. One such man who could ignore the call no longer was Christopher McCandless. McCandless, an intelligent, young man from a wealthy family and with a bright future ahead of him, gave away all his savings, got rid of his worldly possessions and began an odyssey into the Alaskan wilderness. And he is the subject of Sean Penn’s new directorial film, Into The Wild.

As mentioned, McCandless comes from a wealthy family. He has just graduated college with straight-A grades. He does not get on with his parents, who have lofty hopes for their son, and are willing to help him through graduate college. But McCandless rejects their help, gives his money away to charity and sets off on a trip through America, with the ultimate goal of disappearing into Alaska. Along the way, McCandless meets an almost estranged hippie couple, a folk-singing young hippie girl, a good-natured, but law-breaking labourer, and an old man who lost his wife and child almost forty years previous. Each is profoundly affected by McCandless, who has also rejected his birth name, and renamed himself Alexander Supertramp. McCandless eventually arrives in Alaska, finds an abandoned bus and begins his life of solitude. But his inexperience and ineptitude, added to the trials of Alaska prove more than McCandless can handle.

I first heard about McCandless’ story a few years ago. Intrigued by this romantic story, I looked into it to see what exactly happened. However, I ultimately found McCandless to be a man with an ideal, but little to no experience. His ignorance and arrogance led to his death. While his plan was noble, it was badly thought-out, with McCandless tackling an incredibly hostile environment with nothing but a book on edible flora, a rifle, few provisions and a scant knowledge of survival in the wilds. It is because of this that it is somewhat difficult to be very sympathetic towards the guy. He came to a very sad and unfortunate end, and end that also woke him up to the reality of life, but it remains an end he brought about himself.

While I admit no personal knowledge of McCandless as a person, you do get the feeling from Penn’s film that the man’s story is heavily romanticised. There is no doubt that Penn believes in McCandless’ rejection of society, and his devotion to returning to a more simple way of existence (simple in it’s lack of material goods, not simple in it’s struggle for survival). In fact, Penn seems so enamoured with McCandless, that at moments, he elevates him to an almost Christ-like figure. Which really, seems ridiculous. McCandless is merely a man who is pissed at his parents and makes a foolish decision to do something incredibly dangerous. What seems strange is that at points in the film, the people who McCandless encounters and effects, tell him that what he proposes to do is foolhardy and dangerous. Yet McCandless is arrogant enough to ignore the sound advice and preach to them that solitude is the key to happiness.

There are some seriously misguided directorial decisions also prevalent in the film. Penn inexplicably breaks the fourth wall by having McCandless look directly into the camera. A decision that is baffling and unnecessary. While the cinematography is itself certainly is beautiful, there is something quite discomforting with how the McCandless character is handled. It just seems that he is presented in too lovingly a light. It feels as though we’re supposed to think McCandless’ fate was a beautiful tragedy when really it was a foolhardy waste of a life.

Despite all this, the performances in the film are quite good. Emile Hirsch plays McCandless. While his character is written in a manner that is over the top, he does well with what he’s given, and the deterioration of McCandless’ health while in the wild is performed well. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden are given the unenviable job of playing McCandless’ cold hearted parents. Jena Malone, who plays McCandless’ sister Carine is given little to do but narrate. Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughan, Kristen Stewart all play people who encounter and are moved by the Christ-like McCandless. But it’s a cameo by Hal Holbrook which presents the stand-out performance in the film.

While Into The Wild isn’t a terrible film, it just seems a little too contrived. McCandless is a rich kid who committed an elaborate suicide, yet he’s treated like one of the great tragedies of the world. And Penn, a strong director from his previous efforts, seems to be trying to be Terence Malick in the way he presents the film. I didn’t hate the film. It has it’s moments. But again, it just feels like Penn is elevating McCandless to a level that seems unjustified.



Josh said...

Would you call it a suicide?

I finally saw it today. I disagree with you on quite a bit here, but I find your post interesting.

I did notice that 4th wall break when Emile was sitting on the road. I found it odd, but appreciate it in the long run; as the character becomes more developed, it seems like something he would do if there was a person standing there looking at him.

To give 30 Days of Night a better rating than this almost takes away your credibility, but I would love to talk to you about it.

Looking back on your blog, I disagree with you on many accounts, but i like how you write.


Peter Slattery said...

While it's not a conventional, or even intentional suicide, McCandless did basically walk to his own death. He could have prevented it, yet his ineptitude and arrogance prevented that. Thus, he killed himself!
Thanks for the comment by the way. Debate is always welcome, and I'd be wrong to ignore people who don't agree with me!