Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Into the Wild

Into the Wild, the new film from Sean Penn is based on the book by John Krakauer about Christopher McCandless, an Emory grad, who at the age of 23, gave up his plush, materialistic life and went on a two year long quest to reach Alaska, to be free, and just live. Penn's connection with the material is evident from the start, and he films his Kerouacian road trip odyssey beautifully. McCandless, played by super-sharp Emile Hirsch, is expressed as an A student, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London devotee in search of truth and beauty and living with the inconvience of excess, and to piss his heightened pedigree, played with aplomb by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt. So after being offered a car as a graduation present, he hits the road-- he trashes his beat up car, gives up his money, burns his ID and social and hitches his way out.

On the road, he first encounters a hippie couple travelling by van, Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener,) whom he charms into roving around with for a bit, and taking on the moniker Alexander Supertramp. Jan immediately takes on a sort of maternal empathy for the boy, having lost touch with her own son long ago. Keener gives a beautifully textured performance here, always adding layers to what really is a threadbare part. Such as in films like Capote, Being John Malkovich, and Friends With Money, I always want more of her characters. She is at the same time earthy and witty and generous with her fellow actors. In her brief scenes you get an entire sense of why Jan keeps travelling and has the knowing that getting closer to Christopher will only make that pain deeper.

His other adventures include working for a rancher named Wayne (Vince Vaughn), illegally rafting down the Colorado River ending up in Mexico, working at Burger King, and a brief solace from "leathering," as Jan put it, on a desert hippie commune, where he meets Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), an aging war vetern, compacted by a tradegy that killed his family who takes on a sort of father figure to Christopher. It seems like Ron is really the only one who really stops to make Christopher think about everything, especially since the fact he hadn't called his family at all-- and Christopher is return sort of liberates the old man and reawakens a sort of zest for adventure. Holbrook is outstanding and heartbreaking in his performance, like Keener he gives his limited, basically cameo, appearance a soul, and not to be one of those types that pushes for awards attention, but who isn't-- Holbrook deserves a spot for his understanded, heart-tugging, never manipulating work.

Finally, he reaches Alaska, and the final act of Into the Wild kind of turns into a specialized indie version of Cast Away. Christopher finds refuge from the cold in an abandon bus he dubbs, "Magic Bus," and hunts (not terribly well), I suppose he's just living, and that's what he wanted. As many know, the story doesn't end well; I won't spoil it, but yeah pretty much.

I recognize this is an accomplished movie and appreciated much of it, but there's something that really bothered me about the character or real person. It seems Christopher was a well brought boy, raised in a highly dysfunctional, possibly not most nurturing home, but his motives for abandoning everything seem highly arrogant and very selfish, as if this whole adventure of self-entitlement was really some rebellious act to make mommy and daddy mad. Not to insult Mr. Hirsch, who gives a full, deeply felt performance-- if ever an unlikable character needed an actor to if not redeem some of his more questionable actions and give it a sense of purpose Hirsch may indeed by that guy, it's just that I worry, especially if the movie really catches on, that this Christopher McCandless, may be romanticized as some sort of hero, giving up everything and living and breathing just with nature. That in itself is noble enough, but his reasoning and justification for such action seems false and wrong-headed. B+


marie said...

hey james,
i dont have your email address. i joined this thing, experience project, that is pretty cool and i was thinking you might want to check it out and then on the homepage login thingy it said they are looking for ppl who like to write about celebrities, so i dunno if you would be interested but you should at least check it out. www.experienceproject.com

James said...

I'll have to check that out... sounds interesting

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