|Cast:||Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Hal Holbrook|
|Screenplay:||Sean Penn from Jon Krakauer's book|
|Composer:||Eddie Vedder, Michael Brook, & Kaki King|
Sean Penn has been criticized for not outwardly condemning his self-destructive main character Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), but to me that’s a big reason Into the Wild is even better than Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Herzog either can’t resist the temptation to skewer his corny and kooky subject Timothy Treadwell or doesn’t trust the audience to come to their own conclusions, which among many conflicting ideas would likely include that he’s naive and crazy but also honorable and passionate. Herzog’s condescending narration is valueless at least as often as it is valuable due to devoting too much time to stating things any reasonable human being could come to on their own.
Sean Penn may be less certain about his material than in The Pledge, which could be expected when you consider the increased difficulty of dealing with a real life character, much less one who spent much of the time the narrative details alone and not corresponding with anyone. In any case, Penn refuses the easy conclusions of Herzog, instead leaving the story of the moralist youthful romantic who finds civilization alienating and raucous and searches for a better life that gives back rather than stifles open for interpretation.
Into the Wild does contain voice over narration, but Penn assumes his audience is bright enough to realize Chris could starve or freeze to death, might run into a bear, or even The Porcupine Giant. Chris’ sister Carine McCandless (Jena Malone) provides a heartfelt narration that not only adds a layer to the film, but provides a counterpoint to the picture we get of Chris from seeing the way he treats others. Penn directs the film with sensitivity, but that doesn’t mean Carine’s narration doesn’t show Chris to be a bastard figuratively as well as literally. Chris is the most heartbreaking type of person to have for a friend or relative. He’s an affable energetic smiling character others naturally gravitate toward who makes everyone believe he likes them, and in fact this isn’t any deception. However, Chris not only refuses any type of attachment because he believes the joy of life comes from new experiences rather than human interaction, he’s practically oblivious to these feelings in others. Carine’s narration shows how painful it is to be made to feel the other person never thinks of you when you aren’t together.
Chris is a seeker, but his awful parents are much of his reason for dropping out of society and living a completely self-sufficient life without any long-term companionship and practically without any of civilization’s comforts. Chris’ relationship with his family harks back to Penn’s directorial debut The Indian Runner. In that film, family members world view also put them constantly at odds. While Chris shares Frank Roberts’ (Viggo Mortensen) repugnance toward contentment, he is very positive about the possibilities life has to offer while Frank has a distaste for just about everything.
The battles between Chris’ uptight mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and his never wrong dictator of a father (William Hurt), who makes himself out to be the only good guy, place a constant weight on the entire family. Chris rejects their clutches, not only getting rid of everything they’ve given him, but dismissing consumerism and all the other foundations our society is built upon. He destroys all forms of identification, renaming himself Alexander Supertramp, burns his money, and enters the woods with a few items, certainly less than are necessary for survival.
Carine may rarely be seen, but she’s the crucial character in many senses. We could debate whether Chris’ cancerous parents deserve to have all ties cut and never have an inkling of where he is, or even if he’s still alive. However, Chris had a good relationship with Carine, and you’d have to be clueless or uncaring not to realize she cares for him very deeply and his well being is important to her. Chris is as self-indulgent as his parents, just in different ways.
Sean Penn certainly respects Chris’ quest to unearth his own truth and is sympathetic to the idea you shouldn’t sit back and complacently accept the world as defined by others. Regardless of your take on his politics, Penn was one of the only people who actually went to Iraq for reasons other than work, journeying to the war zone to gain first hand knowledge of the good and/or bad our presence in the region was resulting in. I might not agree with some of Chris’ methods, but in and of itself his quest to find a meaningful and fulfilling existence is certainly worthy of respect.
Penn’s last three films are about a man’s mission becoming a dangerous obsession. In The Crossing Guard, Freddy Gale (Jack Nicholson) ceased living during the six years he waited for the man who killed his daughter in a hit and run, John Booth (David Morse), to be released from prison so he can exact his own justice by killing him. By the time this occurs, Freddy is so consumed with anger and self-hatred he’s verging on insanity, but in the week he gives Booth to tie up his loose ends, Freddy also confronts the demons of his past. Part of the weakness of Chris is he simply runs from it.
The Pledge is also about a man so unyielding in his quest for satisfaction he brings about his own self destruction. It’s closer to Into the Wild because where Jack Nicholson’s character in The Crossing Guard has fallen into a self created hell, his character in The Pledge, a freshly retired detective who has vowed to the mother of a child who was brutally raped and murdered that he’ll find the real killer, accidentally stumbles upon a new should be satisfying life with Lori (Robin Wright Penn) and her young petite blonde daughter who fits the killer’s twisted taste. Both Nicholson’s Jerry Black and Chris are selfish, but not in a way that ever puts them at ease. They surrender the good parts of their life in order to spend it restlessly pursuing a goal of questionable attainability (Black is the only one who doesn’t believe the arrested man played by Benicio Del Toro is the culprit).
Chris’ journey reminds me of the tale of the man who waits for God to save him from the flood, dying because he expects God himself to show up, thus failing to recognize any of the saviors he sent in his place. Chris starts out by rejecting all that’s good in his life along with his parents. Given he’s highly intelligent and has just completed college, he could easily land a good job and live on his own, continuing his relationship with his younger sister while largely closing the door on his angry and violent parents. During his journey he encounters several people who bestow a different way of life upon him, one that’s loving and caring and places emphasis on looking out for others, in other words offering all his parents didn’t provide. The farmer (Vince Vaughn) who gives him a job, the hippies (Brian Dierker & Catherine Keener) who not only live in the wild (though are smart enough to sleep in a trailer) but know a hell of a lot more about it than Chris does, and the lonely old leather worker (Hal Holbrook) who offers to adopt Chris. None of these people are perfect, but Chris seeks the genuine and authentic and all these people who give him advice and help without trying to change him could be said to fit the bill. Later on, the hippies even have an artistically inclined teenager (Kristen Stewart) with them (granted she’s a bit young) who, of course, likes Chris and Chris finds interesting, but it doesn’t deter Chris from his mission.
We may appreciate Chris’ principles and commitment, his desire to live in the moment free of everything and everyone, but we also realize he’s often incredibly arrogant and short-sighted. Chris is as fanatical as he is clever. For such a bright individual, some of the things he does are impossible to justify, for instance trying to live in undeveloped Alaska without a map and compass.
As in The Pledge, Penn builds the film around one individual utilizing a number of small roles if not cameos to bring out different aspects of the main character. Largely due to the acting being of such high quality, these underdeveloped characters never come off as functionaries of the plot. Emile Hirsch delivers a major performance embodying all the characteristics of the intelligent but pigheaded, giving yet self-centered man who has everyone in the palm of his hands but prefers roaming the wilderness as a joyful exuberant hobo. He even looks eerily similar to the real picture we see of an emaciated Chris at the end. Jena Malone, who should have been starring in good films ages ago, is wonderful as always, finds the proper mix of wisdom, emotion, and strength for her narration. Hal Holbrook delivers one of his periodic reminders he’s capable of a lot more than “The Hal Holbrook role”. Catherine Keener treads familiar territory, but she gets these kind of roles because she does them so well. Vince Vaughn even manages to muster moments when he borders on convincing me he’s actually an actor. In other words, this is the kind of film ensemble acting awards were concocted for.
Into the Wild isn’t one of those films that narrowly defines the surroundings, allowing a small strip of trees to stand in for all of nature from the east coast to Alaska. A big reason Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur is more beautiful than any John Ford film is he opened the west up - showing the mountains, forests, canyons, and rivers - rather than confining it to the sand and dust of Monument Valley. Before we turned it into the endless mall Jem Cohen so excellently depicted in his criminally underseen Chain, America was arguably the most beautiful country due to its disparate topography. Eric Gauthier’s cinematography not only shows as many aspects of the nations remaining beauty as he can, he does so with an elation that rightfully matches Chris’ discovery and the feeling of freedom this ability instills in him. Chris’ epic personal journey is brought to life through this lyrical rendering of real settings, filmed in a manner that brings out both the beauty and unsparingness of nature.
The biggest problem with Into the Wild is the obnoxious soundtrack. Eddie Vedder’s music never gets any better, but he continues to do what he does best, take the place of musicians with actual talent and skill. Granted Jack Nitzsche, who scored Penn’s first two features passed away, but at least talented studio whore Hans Zimmer composed an actual film score for The Pledge. Vedder should look at the difference between Bob Dylan the singer and Bob Dylan the composer for Sam Peckinpah’s finally resurrected masterpiece Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Though Pat & Billy does contain the classic Knockin' On Heaven's Door, which works through proper placement and incorporation, the score is primarily comprised of moody instrumentals that actually suit and enhance the images. Dylan’s isn’t just throwing out some lame thematic ballads; his soundtrack is perfectly in tune with Peckinpah, alternating between mythic romance and funerial lament. As much as I enjoy pouring dirt on the grungy, Penn is as much to blame for the failure of the OST, as regardless of the quality of music, it’ll never work when the director fails to amalgamate it.
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