Friday, May 15, 2020

Into the Wild Review


For me as a critic, 2007 was an unusual twelve months. It was the first time in memory that I disagreed with so many other reviewers on the merits of some of the year's most critically acclaimed films. It isn't that I disliked "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men," "Sweeney Todd," and the film under discussion, "Into the Wild," but I simply found them ordinary for a variety of reasons. Let's take a look at "Into the Wild."

Sean Penn directed but did not act in the film, one of the few he's helmed in the past decade or so. He may have been perfect for the seriousness of the subject matter, because he's become quite the serious filmmaker lately; yet it's the very earnestness of the production that tended to undo it for me. I was never caught up in the spirit of the thing and thought both the true story that inspired it (a popular book by John Krakauer) and the main character himself were less than worthy of such adoration.

The story chronicles the exploits of a young man, Christopher McCandless, who in the early 1990s showed promise as a top college graduate until he abandoned his affluent family, his friends, and his admittance to Harvard Law for a trek to Alaska to find himself, where he eventually died in the wilderness. In his way, McCandless became a symbolic figure for the thousands of young people before him and since who gave up the comfort of their middle and upper-class lifestyles to find themselves, go back to Nature, live off the land, fend for themselves, and experience life head-on. Recall here the hippie, commune, free-will, free-spirit, and free-love movements if you will. In Krakauer's book, as in the film, McCandless becomes an idealized hero who embodies every reader's deepest desire to shuck the responsibilities of the civilized world and take up in a more natural state. That for most people it was only a dream and for most of those who actually tried it, it turned into a broken promise were apparently beside the point.

Both Krakauer's book and Penn's movie also make much of young McCandless having read and been inspired by Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and Jack London's outdoor tales. What the book and movie fail to mention is that Thoreau stayed for only parts of two years at Walden Pond, he never espoused becoming a hermit or a bum, and he enjoyed a comfortable stay while friends came and visited him. As for London, while he enjoyed the outdoor life, sailed, hoboed across America, traveled extensively, and got arrested for vagrancy, it wasn't for the sole purpose of braving the elements or finding his inner soul. London was basically a boozing outdoorsman who returned home to Northern California, finished his high school education, and then had the good fortune and writing talent to turn his experiences into rousing (and often wildly exaggerated and factually inaccurate) wildlife adventures that afforded him a prosperous living.

My problem with "Into the Wild" is that even though I could understand a young person wanting to leave home and rebel against society, I could never sympathize, empathize, or even admire young Mr. McCandless's behavior. Maybe having seen too many young people throw their lives away in the manner McCandless did in some vain search for identity put me off his character. And despite actor Emile Hirsch doing a genuinely sincere turn as the main character, since McCandless is in virtually every scene, I could never warm up to him.

No, it's not the character of McCandless or the performance of Hirsch that impressed me about "Into the Wild" but the supporting cast and characters who bring the story to life. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden play Chris's parents; loving and caring, they are also the primary motivations for Chris's rebellion. Chris wants no part of their uptight, materialistic lifestyle and turns against their constant bickering and fighting. Hurt and Harden bring a solemn dignity to the roles of the distraught mother and father who would never admit nor ever recognize their measure of responsibility for their son's inner turmoil. And there's Jena Malone as Carine McCandless, Chris's sister and the film's voice-over narrator, who brings a note of tender compassion to the portrayal.

On his journey to Alaska, Chris meets a number of other affecting characters who offer him the counsel and affection he always needed but still refuses to recognize or accept. There are Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Katherine Keener), for instance, a pair of older-hippie wanderers who view Chris as a son they never had; there's Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), who gives Chris a job in South Dakota and becomes the best buddy Chris probably never had; there's Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart), the sweet young girl who is so attracted to him; and best of all, there's Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), the retired old-timer who wants so much to help Chris that he's willing to adopt him.

Yet, apparently, none of these loving, caring people meant enough to Chris to dissuade him from pursuing the impossible dream of escaping society and communing with Nature that so obsessed him. "Into the Wild" is moving and touching by turns, the kind of film I'm glad I saw, especially for Eric Gautier's often breathtaking cinematograpy and Eddie Vedder's original songs and music. Nevertheless, it's not a movie I'd want to see again anytime soon.

The story of Christopher McCandless is sad and controversial. McCandless was a young man from Virginia who became discontent with society and his parents and fled the binds of monetary dependence and the structure of society to become a vagabond who traveled to Alaska to spend time in solitude and search his soul for answers to his inner torment. McCandless used the alias Alexander Supertramp as he crossed the country, and he avoided having his true identity discovered and eventually reached his destination. He never returned from the Alaskan wilderness near the Denali National Park. Some view the tragic death of McCandless as a heroic and brave endeavor that brought about his end because of unforeseen circumstances. Others view the young man's fate as a result of stupidity and consider his time in the Alaskan wilderness as more suicide than adventure.

Director Sean Penn takes the viewpoint that McCandless is a figure of tragedy and weaves the words of Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild" into a poetic film that romanticizes the misadventures and journeys of Alex Supertramp into a spiritual journey. McCandless modeled his philosophies from the literary words of Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. His desire to embark on the Alaskan journey was perhaps directly due to Thoreau's discussions about purchasing a farm to support himself during a period of time to write novels and his book Walden, which discusses a life of simple existence in the wilderness. Thoreau and literature's impact on McCandless is echoed in the narration of MacCandless's sister Carine (Jena Malone), which drips in poetry and fanciful words. Penn paints a vision of McCandless that is of a highly intelligent man with a well thought out plan and a desire to live his dream, though ultimately fails due to circumstances beyond his control.

What Penn failed to portray in his film is that McCandless was not fully prepared for his Alaskan adventure and a little better information and a map would have saved the young man's life. Just a few miles upstream was a bridge crossing over the flooded river and civilization was less than twenty miles away. McCandless was not experienced as a hunter and ill prepared to prepare his kill for preservation. Penn does take a moment to show McCandless getting information on how to prepare fresh game to avoid maggots, but the direction taken in the film suggests that warmer weather was perhaps the blame of his meat going bad and McCandless being left without the nourishment of meat for a length of time. He is portrayed as a capable hunter who runs out of game, and not as an amateur hunter who is not properly versed in finding his prey. Time is spent showing McCandless preparing for the physical rigors of his adventure and reading up on edible berries and other such skills needed to survive.

The director also suggests one popular hypothesis towards the death of Christopher McCandless was that he ate poisonous berries or seeds. The contrasting belief is that McCandless simply died of starvation when he was unable to collect enough food to maintain the needs of his body. The film does not explore the possibility that McCandless raided emergency aid stations and took food supplies from them. Sean Penn is certainly among those who view McCandless as a romantic character who met an unlucky end.

The other side of the argument is that McCandless was a young man who could not cope with the ills of society and was angered at the lies his parents' marriage was built upon. McCandless is believed to have gone into the Alaskan wilderness as a naive and ill-prepared person who cared more for his isolation from a world he desperately wanted to escape from and less for his own well being and safety. McCandless appeared to have been a wanderer who traveled from one existence to another and took employment as he needed to provide money to continue toward his goal. He thumbed his way across the nation looking for new challenges and new life situations and made a few friends along the way on his path to suicide.