Into the Wild

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Miscalculation rather than delusion (as in "The Grizzly Man") in Alaskan wilderness

Sep 23, 2009 (Updated Sep 24, 2009)
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Pros:Hirsch, Holbrook, Keener, Dierker; Eric Gauthier's photography; locations

Cons:songs

The Bottom Line: A powerful perhaps sentimentalized performance by Emile Hirsch, great photography of striking locations would have done it, Sean. There was no need to gild the lily with those songs!


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones to Sean Penn's Harvey Milk in "Milk"; Jay in "Lords of Dogtown", "The Mudge Boy") is onscreen for more than two hours (not quite in every shot, but close) playing the ascetic adventurer Chris McCandless both alone in the Alaskan wilderness and in flashbacks of his graduation from Emory University and bumming around the country preparing to go to Alaska  in producer/director Sean Penn's (2007) "Into the Wild." It's difficult to act someone starving while looking well-fed. Like Christian Bale and others in "Rescue Dawn" (and Bale in "The Machinist") Hirsch looks dangerously thin—close to skeletal — for/in the part. This may be commitment rather than acting, but it is impressive whatever it is.

Former Oscar winners Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt are more often seen than heard (which is just fine with me!). Their violent arguments (and revelation that they were not married to each other when Chris and his sister Carine were born) are set up as explaining the radical rejection of materialism (and common sense) of their son. This explanation, which seems facile to me, is offered by Carine (Jena Malone), witness to the same spectacles but not as traumatized by them as she says her brother was not as intent on punishing them (OK, in her view, he is doing that for both of them...)

It's not that Chris was unable to make connections with others. Indeed, he was cherished by the young (Kristen Stewart and the Danish couple in the Grand Canyon) and the old (Hal Holbrook) and by those in between(Vince Vaughan, Catherine Keener, and Brian Dierker). A lot of people wanted to take care of Chris and Ron Franz (Holbrook) proposed adopting him.

Too late, Chris comes to the realization that the best happiness is shared happiness. Although he had taken a lot of risks, he was not suicidal and wanted to go back. (The pragmatist in me wonders why the heretofore resourceful youth did not build a raft: he would be swept downstream, but could have walked back up the other side.) The movie's Chris is not suicidal, but does not take desperate measures when his situation becomes desperate (and he realizes exactly what that situation is).

Timothy Treadwell, the "Grizzly Man" of Werner Herzog's unnerving documentary, was IMO crazy (delusional about his union with grizzly bears and Nature). Christopher McCandless was (IMO) overly influenced by the romance of being alone in the wilderness (as Thoreau definitely was not at Walden, a mile from Concord where he took his clothes for his mother to wash and from where a stream of visitors came not empty-handed), but was generally rational though fatally overconfident. At least he knew he was gambling and lost, whereas Timothy Treadwell's narcissism was so great that he does not even seem to have realized how risky cavorting with grizzly bears is. Treadwell was much more megalomaniacal. At least in the film, Chris is a polite, unassuming young man on a dangerous quest. He may not fully understand the dangers (alone in the Alaskan wilderness and bumming across the US and Canada) and underestimates them, but pursues his quest with generally rational means (burning money that could outfit his expedition is irrational to my reckoning, but Chris has an oedipal distaste about money.)

Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book (expanded from a piece in the New Yorker) and direction are very impressive, aided by great cinematography from Eric Gauthier (who was also responsible for the great look of "The Motorcycle Diaries", another beatifying film) and the editing of Jay Cassidy (which received an Oscar nomination, as Gauthier and Hirsch should have). I think that Eddie Vedder's songs are insufficiently subtle, though they won or were nominated for some awards ("Guaranteed" won a best original motion picture song Golden Globe, etc.) Well, they are not subtle at all: telegraphing what we can see for ourselves and/or hear from Hirsch writing his journal!

With "The Pledge," I think that Sean Penn broke through to being a major director (an ascent that it took many more movies for Clint Eastwood to reach; Penn's interesting but uneven previous feature films were The Indian Runner and  The Crossing Guard). As with most Eastwood movies, I'm not convinced that "Into the Wild" needs to be as long as it is (140 minutes), though there is nothing in particular (other than the songs!) that I would cut. (I generally think that Eastwood needs a more rutheless editor.) Perhaps some of the parents being recalled by Carina... (William Hurt overacts anguish: I don't believe the rejection of his son's disappearance would so much affect the heretofore self-centered character.) And perhaps a few fewer shots of a beatific Hirsch? And all the jet trails in the sky...

I like ironic voiceovers (a mainstay of cinema noir), but wish that Penn had trusted more in the power of the images and Hirsch's performance and had not felt so much need for Carina and the songs to tell us what Chris was thinking and what we should think about what he was thinking. Overreliance on explanations from Carina are a failing of Penn the writer/adaptor, the songs are a failing of Penn the director.

There is no commentary track with the movie on the first DVD disc. The disc of bonus features is unimpressive: a theatrical trailer, a 20-minute discussion of "The Story, The Characters," and a 37-minute making-of featurette showing more technical challenges. I think that a "collector's edition" second disc should provide more, more about the real McCandlesses, for instance. (Their co-operation is acknowledged in the closing credits, stimulating my curiousity about their explanations of their son's flight from them.)

©2009, Stephen O. Murray


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD

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