Saturday, September 13, 2008

Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a long movie from the modern-film backlog in our DVD collection: Into the Wild, a quite remarkable if flawed film from writer-director Sean Penn (odd that an actor with directorial ambition decided to make his first directorial effort a film in which he does not appear on screen!) based on Jon Krakauer’s book of the same title, dealing with Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta in 1990 decided to chuck it all, ditch his car, give away his life savings (and even burn what little money he has left!) and live a life tramping away across the continent under the name “Alexander Supertramp,” eventually ending up in Alaska two years later, camping out in an abandoned bus for 10 weeks but finally dying — and, as with so much else about this story, it’s not at all clear whether he died of exposure, starvation, the effects of a toxic plant (he misread his guidebook on what was and wasn’t edible and ate a plant he shouldn’t have because it looked very similar to a close relative that was O.K. to eat) or all three.

It’s a very long (148 minutes) and intense movie, beautifully directed by Penn — who insisted on shooting as much as possible on the actual locations where the story took place and even cast some of the real people in Chris’s life as themselves (his sister Carine is played on screen by Jena Malone but the real Carine McCandless delivers at least some of the character’s narration). Into the Wild is one of those stories in which the central premise had been so widely publicized that virtually nobody went to this movie not knowing how it was going to turn out — which frankly can be a good thing: as much fun as a suspense film can be, there’s also an appeal in going into a work of fiction (or, in this case, dramatized nonfiction) knowing the outcome in advance but still curious as to how it’s going to get there. The sprawling screenplay Penn got from Krakauer’s book cuts back and forth between Chris’s last survival test in Alaska and all the stuff he did between his graduation — and his sudden turning his back on the relatively normal suburban lifestyle he’d led previously — and his death.

Through much of the film I found myself wishing that Penn had adopted the Citizen Kane narratage structure and used Jon Krakauer as an on-screen character, tracing Chris McCandless’s brief life and talking to the people who had known him, thereby introducing the flashback scenes that are the heart of the film — that would have given us someone in the story to identify with and would have also made the search for the truth about Chris part of the story instead of leaving us to wonder, “How the hell do they know that about him?” Still, I can also appreciate Penn’s decision to do the movie the way he did even though that makes Chris an even bigger enigma than he’d be otherwise — and it seems a bit “fake” to have the people who’d known him do soundtrack voiceovers that sound far more like Jon Krakauer’s (or Sean Penn’s) authorial voice than real utterances from the people we see on screen.

Among the people Chris met on his journey and worked and/or lived with for a while were Wayne Westerberg (a surprisingly sexy Vince Vaughn), who taught him to drive a harvester combine and gave him a chance to make some money in the Dakota wheat fields until Wayne was arrested by the FBI (according to some of the commentators on, Wayne was busted for bootlegging cable TV equipment, but if there was a hint to that effect in the film itself it was so fleeting I missed it); Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener), two retro-hippies (in the early 1990’s they’re still living and driving around in a psychedelically painted bus) who make their living selling books and encounter Chris twice; Tracy (Kristen Stewart), aspiring (but not too aspiring) folksinger with whom Rainey and Jan try to match Chris, only when they’re alone he tells her, “We can’t do this,” and though her age (she’s just 16) is an issue so is Chris’s utter disinterest in any emotional connection with another human, much less a sexual one; and Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), a man who’s lived on the edge of the desert near the Salton Sea (I told you this was a wide-ranging movie geographically!) since the death of his wife and tried to cope as best he could (and there’s a scene reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in which Chris dares him to climb a mountain as a source of spiritual fulfillment!) and who agrees to drive him to a good jumping-off point for him to hitch to Alaska.

Penn keeps it profoundly ambiguous whether we’re supposed to see Chris McCandless as a profound spiritual quester or a naïve jerk who went “into the wild” without either the equipment or the training to have a fair shot at survival. In the end we get the impression that he’s a little bit of both, not entirely unaware of the physical hazards of what he’s about to do (before he goes to Alaska he prepares, exercising to get himself into good physical shape and raising money working at a fast-food job to buy a gun and outfit himself with provisions — though he’s so free with his ammunition that through much of the movie I thought his demise was going to come when he ran out of bullets and therefore could no longer shoot game for his food; as it turns out, he shoots a moose but is unable to dry and smoke the meat before flies lay eggs on it and render it useless, thereby precipitating the search for edible plants that goes so horribly wrong for him) but also severely underestimating them: as one person on an message board about this film noted, had he not found the bus he probably would have died in two weeks “in the wild” in Alaska instead of holding out for 10.

What makes Chris an especially moving and annoying character is his attitude towards other people; Into the Wild has the same sort of emotional coldness I’ve complained about in other recent films as diverse as Brokeback Mountain and Capote, but in this instance it’s more tolerable because the film is about someone who, whatever his good qualities, is incredibly cold and aloof, shunning every opportunity for contact with other people — sexual, familial (he not only deliberately keeps out of touch with his natural family but he rebuffs Ron’s offer to adopt him) or any other. He’s always walking out of situations where other people befriended him and got too close to him, and his journey “into the wild” appears as far more running away from emotional connection as the sort of spiritual quest he seems to see it as being himself. At the same time it’s not at all clear What Made Chris Run, and I suspect that’s as much Sean Penn’s doing as inherent in the challenge Jon Krakauer faced in reconstructing the life of a young man who took great pains to be as untraceable as possible; Penn clearly wants us to admire Chris but not to have illusions about him.

What drove him is the least-explained aspect of this movie: midway through we hear from his sister that their parents were never married because his dad, a rocket scientist (ironic that not long after reading M. G. Lord’s Astro Turf, about her own childhood as the daughter of a rocket scientist, I encountered another real-life based work about a rocket scientist whose own obsessions screwed up his family!), already had a wife — indeed, he was having sex with both women at the same time, with the result that Chris had a half-brother his own age — and ultimately left her for Chris’s mom but never bothered to divorce her. This is supposed to be the big motivation for Chris’s actions — as if the flaws in his own family (including the virtually constant arguments he recalled his parents having when he was growing up, which ironically stopped only when the fact of his disappearance brought his mom and dad closer together in their shared grief and fear: one irony is that this film shows his parents going through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief even while their son, though out of touch with them, is still alive) were what turned him off to human contact in general; and, ironically, the catharsis at the end is that he learns — too late — that human contact is essential for survival, dying of a fate he could have avoided if he had had other people looking out for him (even “in the wild”) and ultimately writing between the lines of print in a book he’d been reading, “Happiness only real when shared.”

Into the Wild was a movie I’d simultaneously anticipated and dreaded, wondering whether I’d love it or hate it but not expecting a response anywhere in between. My response was actually more love than hate; though it’s not a perfect film, and Chris’s character does get annoying quite often (I think Charles was even more bothered by his sexlessness than I was, just as when we watched the 1949 film The Heiress together he was more bothered than I was that by finally turning away the Montgomery Clift character, Olivia de Havilland’s character was consigning herself to a life without sex), the movie managed to humanize him (as much as the facts of his life allowed Penn to!). Certainly Emile Hirsch’s performance in the lead — an especially intense acting challenge because he spends so much of the movie with no other humans in the scene — is utterly marvelous, understated and absolutely convincing (and after watching the trailer for There Will Be Blood at the start of the DVD and then watching Into the Wild it seemed utterly ridiculous that the Academy Award for Best Actor that year could have gone to Daniel Day-Lewis’s scenery-chewing in Blood instead of Hirsch’s subtle and involving work here … apparently the forces in Academy Award politics that gave the awards in the 1930’s to Luise Rainer instead of Greta Garbo are still alive and well today!). I suspect Into the Wild is the sort of movie that will grow on me and I’ll ultimately like better when I think back on it than I did when I was actually watching it; and it renewed my hope that someone will film his book Under the Banner of Heaven, about real-life murders in the netherworld of polygamous Mormon splinter groups.