Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Into the Wild

Into the Wind is Sean Penn’s vision of the true story of Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch), a man who, right after graduating from college, gives all the money he has to charity, leaves his middle class life, and heads out for Alaska. He spends 20 months traveling through America, and eventually ends up getting to what constitutes his Walden. The story is very much about the relationships he forms along the way, as well as his physical struggle to survive.

It’s both beautifully and starkly filmed. Penn seems to want to paint McCandless as a newly-born hippie who’s discovering himself in the grandeur of nature, and he carries us along into the gorgeous but treacherous Alaskan wilderness.

The question we ask, we will always ask, is: why would anyone do this? Why would a young American give up a bright future for a homeless life? More to the point, the question is, who is this young man? And that’s the goal of the film: to answer this question. Penn almost pulls it off.

We go in and out of the timeline, as we start off in Alaska, the end of his almost two-year journey, and then flash back often to scenes south of there, as McCandless treks across the U.S. Along the way, he meets people for whom he depends upon sustenance – remember, he has no money – or a job, or a kind word. These people are drawn in reality, and the casting is quite remarkable as we see Vince Vaughn as a combine operator, Hal Holbrook as a lonely old man who gives McCandless a hand, and several others who really inhabit their roles. Some inhabit their roles because they’re real people, like Alaskan Jim Gallien, whom we see in an early scene when he gives the boy some boots to protect his feet.

The parents don’t come off as well. This story seems more about what this young man is running from rather than to. When asked about “oppressive” forces in nature, he says, with disdain, “parents.” Marcia Gay Harden seems a little to caricaturish in her portrayal as his mother, but William Hurt is starkly true. His eyebrows tell the entire story in a restaurant after graduation when some young revelers walk in.

So who is this young man? He’s someone who thinks he can survive even though life hasn’t given him any training. He doesn’t really seek risk as much as stumble upon it, and we watch, grimacing, as he makes one stupid mistake after another: abandoning his wool cap on a tree, shooting a moose with a .22 rifle, unable to preserve the meat long enough to eat it, ignoring the local sheriff's advice and taking his kayak onto a raging river.

He’s stupid, ignorant, unprepared, and proud of it. It’s hard to have respect for a man who blunders into situations repeatedly for which he has no way to cope. And yet, director/screenwriter Penn asks us to feel for this man, over and over, as the camera and dialogue set him up almost as a Jesus figure, and certainly as a newfound hippie seeking answers in the unspoiled wilderness.

But I was constantly reminded that this is a man who accepts no responsibility in life. In truth, I didn’t feel any sympathy at all for McCandless and his life of blunders. I feel sorry for those people who aided him, gave him a job even when he was unskilled, government workers who bent the rules a little bit to help him out, those who gave him food and shelter when they had little to spare. And he paid each of them back by leaving them. The most heart-wrenching of these moments takes place when the old man (played wonderfully by best actor nominee Hal Holbrook) gives him his heart only to have it handed back to him abruptly. People keep knocking at his emotional door, but there's nobody home.

They say the most selfish of humans is one who commits suicide. Add to that list a young man who seeks his dream of living in the wild but who sucks the life out of those around him so that he can achieve that dream.

The story is riveting. The fact that it’s true make it even moreso. The cinematography is breaktaking. The narration switches between McCandless and his sister, a brilliant device for bringing us into the story, and underlining the tragedy that is about to happen. While I question the motives of a young man who goes “into the wild,” the movie and the character's choices certainly make for interesting discussion.

Thumb’s up.

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At 12:01 PM, Blogger Melinda said...

This film (and the book I read before seeing the film) was very disturbing and frustrating to me...but interesting. I agree with your opinion of the main character... a blunding stupid fool! And hurting / abandoning people along the way to further is selfish stupid dreams. It was sad that he died alone in a beat up old trailer, but he brought it upon himself and I also had a hard time feeling too sorry for him.


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