I didn’t love “Into the Wild”, Sean Penn’s new film based on the bestseller by Jon Krakauer.
Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) graduates from Emory College, barely able to tolerate his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) attendance at lunch after the graduation. Eating with his parents and his sister (Jena Malone), he rebuffs their offer of a new car. What does he need a new car for? What does he need material possessions for? Chris embarks on a road trip, using the car to get as far West as possible. When it finally breaks down, he cuts up all of his ID, his credit card, and his driver’s license and burns his cash and sets out on foot. His goal is to make it to Alaska and camp and commune with nature. He doesn’t tell his parents where he is going, because they would surely send out people to track him down, so he gets a good months head start before they even realize he is gone. Along the way, he meets a couple of hippies (Catherine Keener an d newcomer Brian Dierker), a boss who becomes a friend (Vince Vaughn) and an elderly man who is extremely lonely (Hal Holbrook). Each of these people will help him with wisdom and insight along the way to his ultimate destination. Alaska. There, he finds an abandoned bus and sets up camp within the shelter.
“Into the Wild” is an interesting story, and will hold your interest, but the directing style is extremely obtrusive and the lead character is a little too selfish to be likable.
Based on a true story, there is apparently some debate about whether Chris’ journey is an act of selfishness or self-discovery. I can see both sides of this argument. But I have to lean towards selfish. It is understandable, and identifiable, that he wants to get away from his parents. I think all people have had these feelings at least once in their life. And from our brief moments with his parents and some things we learn later, these feelings are understandable. But when Chris leaves, and doesn’t communicate with his family, he also doesn’t communicate with his sister. Throughout the film, we hear the sister provide voice over explaining what a close bond she and Chris share, how they coped with their parents, etc. Why wouldn’t he call his sister at some point? The film is about his journey to Alaska, but he doesn’t spend the entire film in Alaska. He is often near or has access to a phone. If he has such a close bond with his sister, it doesn’t make sense that he would never call her, never send her a letter, never try to contact her and let her know he is all right.
Penn has apparently wanted to make this film for a number of years. He only held off because he was waiting for the approval of the McCandless family. He finally got their approval and then made the film. The story is ripe with dramatic potential. A young man makes a journey of self-discovery, trying to fulfill his dream of living in the wilderness. But this dramatic potential is robbed, in many cases, because Penn uses a number of editing techniques and storytelling devices, which do nothing more than reinforce the feeling we are watching a film. Every time the actors start to approach anything near what the film should be, Penn splits the screen into a number of pictures, all showing Emile Hirsch as McCandless, and we immediately snap back to reality and realize “Hey, we’re watching a film.” Split screens (think TV’s “24”), slow motion photography and other camera tricks all serve to draw the viewer out of what should be a small, intimate portrait of a young man‘s journey.
I read an article about Eddie Vedder’s contributions to the film. Penn asked him to write some music and liked it so much, he asked him to write more, and they put a number of songs in the film. These moments are meant to be more background music, to give a little texture to this film portrait of McCandless’ life but they also detract from the young man’s journey. Most of the songs are simply Vedder humming, or making a tune with his deep voice. Very few actually have words. So it just seems a little odd to hear these strange sounds, as we watch the journey of a young man traveling through the wilderness.
Emile Hirsch does a very good job. “Wild” is about his character’s journey, and he is on screen for the majority of the film, so it is essential that we feel what he feels. If we don’t feel the joy, the peace, the danger and the fright he feels, we have nothing to identify with. In a film of this nature, there are no other characters in a majority of the film, so if we don’t identify with Chris, we have nothing to help us enter the story, no one to take us on the journey.
I liked Hirsch’s performance. Hirsch is turning into a very strong actor. He and Justin Timberlake were the standouts in the underrated “Alpha Dog” and has appeared in a number of other little seen films and had roles in television shows. In “Into the Wild” Hirsch brings a maturity to the role hinting at some of the performances he will deliver, some of the roles in his future.
There are three pit stops in his journey. He first meets Jan (Catherine Keener) and her partner Rainey (Brian Dierker), two hippies who live in a camper and like to set up stakes with a community of like minded individuals in the desert. They earn a few dollars here and there, mosey along the road, and meet new people. In their discussions, they talk about Jan’s son, whom she hasn’t seen for a long time. This is a nice compliment to Chris’ journey. Jan’s comments have to make Chris think about the effect he is having on his own parents. Keener, as always, does a great job with her relatively small role. Brian Dierker is also very good. He realizes the emotional troubles his partner has, and seems to love her all the more for them.
Then Chris meets Wayne (Vince Vaughn). Wayne is a bit of a wild guy, and he has a business of his own, so he hires Chris. They get along and work well together and form a friendship. Throughout the film, we see a letter or two Chris writes to Wayne, the letters writing out on the screen in bright big letters (remember the comment about Penn’s directing style earlier? Yet another example.) When we eventually meet Wayne and see the bond they form, these letters make sense.
At the bar one night, as Chris is relating his reasons for making this journey, Wayne realizes Chris has a fire in his spirit, much like he does. But he also realizes Chris has to tame this fire, or it could lead to bad things. He provides some useful advice.
Finally, Chris meets Ron (Hal Holbrook). Ron is an elderly man, who lives alone and offers to let Chris stay with him for a while. Ron and Chris form a friendship as well and when Chris is finally ready to move on, there is a touching moment when Chris and Ron have to say goodbye to one another.
These three pit stops are meant to illustrate a different aspect of Chris’ life or behavior. Yet, he doesn’t seem to learn from them. Because he doesn’t learn anything from them, what is the point of sitting through them?
As Chris begins his journey, he decides to change his name to Alex Supertramp. Not sure why. When I initially saw this information in the trailer and put this together with the car he owns, I suspected the film was set in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. Why would a kid in the ‘80s and ‘90s come up with an idea like this? Not sure, because we never really see or hear any reasoning behind this. He must just be one of those people who would probably be more comfortable in a different era.
“Into the Wild” is interesting, and contains some interesting, moving performances, but it doesn’t do a good job of portraying the journey of the main character. As Chris is the singular force in the film, the story should be intimate. When letters are written across the screen and the image becomes a split screen, this takes us out of the story and makes the story seem more superficial.