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Friday, Sept. 5, 2008
'Into the Wild'
Freedom to the extreme
We've all felt the urge to get away from it all, but few of us would take it to the extremes that Chris McCandless did.
In the summer of 1990, shortly after graduating from college, he gave his savings to Oxfam, cut up his credit cards and hit the road, all without telling any family or friends where he was going. His destination was Alaska's untamed wilderness, away from all human contact, alone. "Into The Wild" is his story.
Based on the nonfiction book by John Krakauer that documented McCandless' journey, director Sean Penn fashions a quixotic, poetic road movie that plays like beatnik Jack Kerouac meets landscape-lover Terrence Malick. There's the notion of bumming across the continent as a form of self-exploration from "The Dharma Bums" and "On the Road," and the beauty and stillness of nature in the face of man's wayward passions from "Badlands" and "The New World."
Penn, as an actor and director, has never been one to take the easy route, choosing conflicted, emotionally raw characters whenever possible. ("21 Grams," "Mystic River," "Hurlyburly," "The Crossing Guard.") Those who work with him attest that his acting method for getting into a character's skin is equally draining. So it makes sense that he'd be attracted to McCandless, a guy who'd burn his own money to make his journey more demanding, or describe his sabbatical away from mankind as "the climactic battle to kill the false being within."
I'm not sure I admire Chris as much as Penn seems to, but he's sure a fascinating character to put up on the screen. (And not far removed from Timothy Treadwell, the bear lover who managed to get himself eaten by one in "Grizzly Man" — Alaska seems to attract obsessives.)
"Into The Wild" is a mystery of sorts, where the mystery is the character: What drives Chris to retreat from the world? What's his goal? Will he make it out alive or sane?
The film becomes both an ode to romantic idealism and to the quest for self-knowledge and self-reliance that Chris embarks on, but it's also a cautionary tale, showing clearly the dangers of living too much in the abstract and becoming muddled by concepts. Here's a suburban boy who's read too much Henry David Thoreau and Jack London without ever having actually lived in nature, which can be as harsh and unforgiving as civilization.
Penn takes a loose, multistrand approach to the story, cutting between Chris — played by Emile Hirsch — out alone in the tundra, and his two-year journey across America to get there. Voiceovers from Chris' diary entries and his sister Carine (Jena Malone, "Donnie Darko") reminiscing about her brother's disappearance, give an added perspective to the scenes. Chris is so self-absorbed, so convinced of the self-myth he is creating, that Carine's view is welcome, letting us know the pain Chris' disappearance causes his parents, and how this may be payback for the pain they caused him. Family dysfunction is nothing new in a U.S. indie movie, but the hurt here is real and given form, not just assumed as a given.
Hirsch, so awful in the dire "Speed Racer," redeems himself here. (And there's a wonderfully ironic moment when Chris' dad (William Hurt) offers him a graduation present, and Hirsch bristles, saying "Why would I want a new car? I don't need a car.")
Hirsch captures the easygoing charisma and unpretentiousness of Chris that charmed so many people he met on the road — hippie travelers Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), crop-harvester Wayne (Vince Vaughn), trailer-park songstress Tracy (Kristen Stewart) and lonely leatherworker Ron (Hal Holbrook). (Every single one of these actors turns in a concise, perfectly pitched performance.)
But Hirsch is not concerned with being liked here, and he shows Chris' stubborn, almost fanatical side too. There's a wonderful scene where he's drinking at a bar, blowing his payday wages with the rowdy, red-faced Wayne, and Wayne asks him why he wants to go into the wild. Chris speaks of "just living in the moment; I want to get out of this sick society." At which point Wayne erupts in a flurry of diseaselike, exaggerated coughs, before settling down and looking him in the eye and saying: "This is a mistake. It's a mistake to get too deep into this."
He's right, but Chris can't see it. Like Holden Caulfield, he's so hung up with the phoniness of modern life — or maybe just his family life — that he fails to see the very real, nonphoney, relationships he's formed on the road. Even when Tracy, a lovely budding flower of a girl, pretty much throws herself at him, he declines, thinking only of his Alaskan quest.
Months later, in the midst of a brutal winter as he struggles to survive, hunting dwindling game and scraping together small fires while wrapped in blankets, he hits upon a small revelation of sorts. See the movie to learn what that might be. Wisdom always comes with a cost.