'Into the Wild' ***** Movie Review 031808

The Book, DVDs, HD-DVD, Unbox

The Work = *****
There is a part of me that thinks: “why is Sean Penn a good director?” He’s a good looking guy, arguably one of the best actors of his generation, why does he have to be so good at this too? Why can’t he be a crummy director and leave that to those of us who are dumpy looking and not graced with the ability to convincingly regurgitate dialogue? It seems unfair somehow. I am, of course, joking but there is that notion that somehow Penn’s stardom will overshadow his directing prowess. That is something that Clint Eastwood had to deal with and like Eastwood, Penn shows he is a skilled filmmaker. With ‘Into the Wild’ Penn has crafted a dramatic and at times heartbreaking tragedy. I highly recommend this film but to talk about it I will reveal some major spoilers. Since this is based on a true story, you probably will know everything I will discuss but all the same this paragraph and the last of the review are the only ones that I will classify as spoiler free. Consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

‘Into the Wild’ tells the story of young Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch). Christopher gets good grades, comes from an upper middleclass family, and looks to be going to Harvard Law School. Instead of going, Christopher gives away his savings and runs off across the USA with the ultimate goal of going into the Alaskan wilderness.  Why Alaska? It is not known. Christopher is bright, pretentious, and has a comfortable quality of living. So why does he simply take off with no word to his family? What happens when the young man enters the harsh Alaskan wildlife? Penn (who wrote the film from a book by John Krakauer) follows Christopher from the start of his journey to his eventual death in the wilderness.

There is a sly bit of plotting in the way Penn opens the film. ‘Into the Wild’ begins not with Christopher but with his mother Billie (Marcia Gay Harden). She hears her son’s voice begging for help in her sleep and snaps awake. Tearfully telling her husband Walt (William Hurt) that it wasn’t a dream; she heard his voice. This is one of the tragedies of Christopher’s departure. He leaves without a word to his parents or his sister Carine (Jena Malone.) They would never hear from him once he leaves and their anguish is some of the most dramatic material in the film. Penn zigzags the plot back and forth telling dual stories. One is Christopher’s struggle for survival in the Alaskan wilderness. The other is of his journey to Alaska and his families struggle to come to grips with what has happened to him.

This is Penn’s fourth full length feature as a director. Each film has been successful to some extent and, I think, if there is a common theme running through all the films it is loss. ‘Into the Wild’ may very well be Penn’s most successful film to date. Gary Tooze of the best DVD website, DVDBeaver, compares the Penn’s filmmaking to that of Michelangelo Antonioni and it is certainly warranted but for me, I was reminded of more of the films of John Cassavetes (who Penn has affection for.) Particularly ‘A Women Under the Influence’ where eccentricity drifts slowly to insanity. Therein is a connection to Christopher who may very well have been drifting in and out of madness himself.

Watching ‘Into the Wild’ the words of author James Ellroy came to mind. Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was just a boy and speaking about the loss Ellroy mentioned the term: “closure”. To paraphrase Ellroy said: “if I could erase one bull***t term from the English language it would be closure.” I thought of his statement because there is a gaping wound left on the friends and family of Christopher McCandless. His journey and rebirth as Alexander Supertramp (he changes his name) left those around him scarred. I was given the impression that there would not be any closure for those that loved Christopher anytime soon.

The word suicide is never used in the film but I believe it lurks somewhere beneath the surface of ‘Into the Wild’. When Christopher left his family he yanked himself from their world. His ignorance at what he does to his family is part of what makes him something of an unsympathetic character. Christopher’s ignorance is matched by his families. They have no idea just how unhappy and isolated he is. This relationship is perhaps part of what makes the film so relevant today. The disconnect that happens with Christopher, the inability to find a human attachment, is part of what leads to his destruction. It is not that far removed from the desperate people I read about who pick up a gun and kill a bunch of others before shooting themselves. I suspect it is in part a detachment from others that leads to such horrible acts.

The cast is uniformly strong. Katherine Kiener is memorable as a hippie that befriends Christopher while he is on his journey. Kiener is a great actress and is great here as a replacement mother figure for Christopher when he becomes Alexander. Hirsch is good as Christopher but at times he seemed maybe a bit less convincing than others (although at the end of the film he is downright haunting.) Hal Holbrook was nominated for his performance an elderly man Ron, who takes Christopher under his wing. Holbrook is good and deserves recognition but if there is truly an unsung actor in the picture it is William Hurt. He has the thankless task of playing an unsympathetic father figure with little screen time. Not only does Hurt make his small role a whole character but when he does break down over the loss he feels and cannot express it is one of the most heart wrenching moments in the film.

The film’s score and soundtrack by Michael Brook with Kaki King and Eddie Vedder is excellent and perfectly compliments McCandless onscreen journey. A sort of modern, light rock, sound, best describes the bulk of the score and it is something that could have been downright embarrassing. However, the trio pull it off and I found the music moving and perhaps a bit of a throwback to some of the scores of the 70s. I don’t know how the work was spread out between the three (other than the obvious vocals by Vedder) but all certainly deserve notice.

Penn and company have crafted a moving film, one of last years best, that has a central character, who is at times not so sympathetic. That does not make the events any less tragic and Penn wisely shows many sides to the story of Chrisopher McCandless. His failure to connect to humanity is his tragedy and it is something I suspect is a problem for many people today. ‘Into the Wild’ is a beautiful film and if there was ever any doubt that Penn was a skilled filmmaker, this film surely erases it. Highly, highly recommended.   


‘Into the Wild ’ Links:


Gary Tooze's review and his HD-DVD review

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