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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Into the Wild (review)

Wildness Tamed

If a man walks into the woods as a, you know, protest against the rampant materialism and general sickness of society at large, and no one is there to hear him scream his rage, does he make a sound?

Christopher McCandless was a real person, a well-off new graduate of Emory University who skipped out of his privileged life to wander America like a homeless hobo in the early 1990s, and he accidentally made a sound via adventure writer Jon Krakauer’s 1998 book Into the Wild, which retraced McCandless’s travels and excerpted from his diaries to paint a sad, vivid picture of a troubled young man unprepared for the “real” world of career and mortgages and credit card debt but equally unprepared for any kind of alternative life, too. And now screenwriter-director Sean Penn (The Pledge, September 11), after a ten-year effort to get a film version mounted, gives us his take on McCandless. But while Into the Wild, the movie, is intermittently fascinating and occasionally brilliant, Penn ultimately fails to fully capture the pathos and fury of Krakauer’s book, or of McCandless’s misbegotten journey across America and into himself.
If there is a shard of triumph in Penn’s adaptation, it is in its depiction of an America we don’t see in movies, the antithesis of what movies sell us. McCandless (played by the extraordinary Emile Hirsch [Lords of Dogtown, The Emperor’s Club], who’s like Leonardo DiCaprio 10 years ago, all coiled intensity and wrapped-up irony) sought not just a life off the grid but a life almost impossible in today’s world, one removed not just from the tyranny of pop culture but from the tyranny of humanity’s codifying and fencing off of the authenticity of nature. In one scene that’s like a knife in the gut to anyone who laments the total human subjugation of the environment — or at least our belief that we can subjugate it — McCandless seeks permission to canoe down an Arizona river. The “official” response, from a park ranger: there’s a 12-year waiting list for a permit, or, if you don’t want to wait, you can pay a commercial outfit $2,000 to lead you down the whitewaters. Even as a confirmed urbanite with little desire to get tossed around by a raging river, that enrages me. Who are we, as a society, to deny anyone access to the natural world in such a way?

McCandless did something with his similar anger when he embarked on his untethered odyssey across America, working in a grain elevator in South Dakota, hopping trains, even burning what little cash he did earn doing odd jobs in order to remain freer in his quest for “absolute freedom.” At a camp for tramps and road people in the California desert, he encounters folks who’ve found a happy medium between the demands of society and the desire to do one’s own thing — the interlude he spends there with sweet hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener: Capote, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) is the most satisfying part of the film. But this isn’t enough to McCandless, and he refuses to let go his dream of heading into the Alaskan wilderness and living off the land.

Book-smart and real world-naive, “Alexander Supertramp,” as McCandless dubs himself for his travels, is both a king and a fool in his tiny realm of one, a child who’s more a product of the fenced-off human society than he would like to admit. Krakauer’s book acknowledges that there are as many people who see McCandless as a plain and simple idiot with no idea how to survive in the wild, with no desire to learn how to survive in the wild, as there are those who see him as a romantic modern Thoreau, a rebel striking an unconventional blow for a brand of freedom and independence we don’t really even consider today. But Penn sees only the romance of McCandless, and is more in love with the boy’s daring than he seems to recognize his sheer, stubborn ignorance. (And honestly, McCandless’s willful naivete, which embraces the truths of the heart he learns from Tolstoy and Jack London but rejects the truths of the cycles of careless, cruel nature, removes any justification for calling him a man, regardless of his age.) There are moments that suggest Penn will acknowledge the strange and terrible conundrum of McCandless’s adventure — the shots of airplane contrails overhead, even in remote Alaska, that say that the touch of humanity is inescapable; Hirsch’s goofy leer into the camera, a self-conscious reminder that this is a story gleaned from his diaries and letters, one that we can never know how honest it is.

But those hints never come to fruition, never blossom into anything more than brief moments of doubt on McCandless’s part. Krakauer lent a philosophical weight to his book with his observations of his own life as the uncertain and reckless young man he once was. That’s missing here, and without it, Penn’s film is a series of endlessly reflecting mirrors, showing us a single face as it sees itself, and shedding little outside light on how else that face might be seen.

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MPAA: rated R for language and some nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • If I had to guess, I’d say that the 12-year wait for a permit probably comes from a desire to preserve the environment around the river, to prevent drunken yahoos from clogging the place and throwing beer cans around every weekend. It’s a shame, but when you consider what man usually ends up doing to the environment once he gets there….

  • Vector Prime

    Yup. I work for one of those commercial outfits, and I can tell you from experience that unregulated whitewater turns into more of a theme park than a natural wonder sooner or later. It sucks sometimes, but the bureaucratic mess is the best way we’ve figured out to let people enjoy these places without them ending up being subjugated, as you put it.

  • MaryAnn

    I understand all those things, but don’t they still say something profound and important about how disconnected we are from the natural world? Even those who supposedly want to experience it don’t, it seems, have any respect for it.

  • James

    I thought this movie was a wonderful portrayal of a young man struggling to work through his familial problems. The cinematography was breathtaking and the relationships that were formed along his journey were quite meaningful. In regards to the comment about how Penn is “more in love with the boy’s daring” I feel Penn brilliantly portrayed the psychological and emotional manifestations of McCandless’ familial/personal conflicts. Penn humanized this person, as apposed to those who see him as an “idiot” or stubborn ignoramous. Yes, McCandless was illprepared, sort of a metaphor emotionally that led to get as far away from his parents as he could. It’s remarkable how writers think they know what internally motivates people (i.e. directors) to make the choices they do.

  • MaryAnn

    Penn humanized this person, as apposed to those who see him as an “idiot” or stubborn ignoramous.

    Are you suggesting that those who don’t think McCandless was a hero don’t think he was human?

    The book presented a rounded version of McCandless. The movie does not.

    It’s remarkable how writers think they know what internally motivates people (i.e. directors) to make the choices they do.

    If we are only allowed to interpret what people do if we can read their minds, then how do we interact with anyone? No one can read anyone’s mind — we can only work from what they do and say. In the case of a film, the film itself is evidence of a filmmaker’s intent. I would have thought that was obvious.

  • Pam

    I agree with the original post.

    I not only thought that McCandless was a bit of an idiot, but perhaps mentally ill. I thought that Penn completely avoided that topic. Why would an educated person put himself in peril in so many deliberate ways? He must have either had a death wish or was a bit off. For example, parking in a dry river bed, not considering that a stream in the winter in Alaska would be a river in the spring, not cooking some of the moose rather than letting it become maggot infested. If his plan was to stay the winter, rather than burning money why not use it to buy staples?

    The film was visually very beautiful and interesting, but I found myself at the 90th minute asking “when will he die?”

  • MaryAnn

    For example, parking in a dry river bed, not considering that a stream in the winter in Alaska would be a river in the spring, not cooking some of the moose rather than letting it become maggot infested.

    I think those are examples of his utter ignorance of the natural world. He had this Thoreau fantasy of living in the woods that was utterly at odds with the reality of nature, which, of course, he’d been entirely sheltered from in his well-off suburban upbringing. It’s not that he ignored the reality that a stream would become a raging river — it’s that *had no clue* that that would happen. But even Penn doesn’t seem to think there’s anything other than some sort of romantic tragedy in this — I see a missed opportunity to follow up on one of themes that movie touches on: how disconnected we are from the natural world.

  • james

    Yes, but your interpretation of what you think the director is trying to convey is based on your point of view or biases, not his.

  • MaryAnn

    And it’s based on what’s on the screen. How else do you think *anyone* interprets art?

  • Steve Mullen

    “If there is a shard of triumph in Penn’s adaptation….”

    A shard of triumph? This is a gorgeous, engaging, thoughtful, complex, tragic and inspirational story, a cross between Arthur Miller and J.D. Salinger. The cinematography is exquisite, the movement in and out of the present and the past, the heroic, flawed journey of a young man seeking to resolve, on his own, a problem and a view and a daunting set of thoughts about himself and society….a journey taken in earnest by the filmmaker and the talented cast who went with him to craft a masterful, insightful, touching story…. I don’t get your restraint in praise for this movie, which I believe will take the Oscar for Best Movie, Best Direction, Best Adaptation, and perhaps even Best Lead Actor.

  • “…the heroic, flawed journey of a young man…”

    “heroic” … people keep using that word about this guy. i do not think it means what they think it means.

    as defined by Webster’s:
    1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
    2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
    3. the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.

    maybe McCandless was a “hero” in the sense of the third definition … but by any other objective standard, he was at best a romantic fool, and at worst a dangerous lunatic.

  • MaryAnn

    What Bonnie said. It might be a stretch to call him a “dangerous lunatic,” but at least if he was, he was a danger only to himself.

    But the point of my review really is, again, that Penn tries to make concrete the mystery of this young man, when the mystery was the most interesting — and infuriating — thing about him.

  • Allen

    What a great review. Your ability to peel away the layers and expose the true heart of a film has been astonishing and a bit of a revelation since I found you yesterday morning.

  • Pedro

    at the beginning i was hating this movie. i was scoffing at all the slow motion, plucked acoustic guitar-picking and verbose voice-overs. but i slowly started to like the fact that every time the movie threatened to drown in its own self-importance, up came a mundane moment to undercut all the Important Messages. something like Vince Vaughn being literally caught with his pants down.
    in the end i really liked the movie, even though it could have done with a little less speeches.

    now, about chris. i don’t think he is by any means a hero. in fact, i think he’s a spoiled little brat. not only is he very inexperienced, he is also selfish – he never even considers the possibility that the old man can have a heart-attack or something going up that mountain. he wants him to do it, so he has to do it – that’s a very childlike trait.

    i also noticed that, for all his talk about wanting to leave society behind, he never forgoes his wristwatch, which also tells us something about his mentality. basically, he’s just talking out his rear. it’s bullshit, except he doesn’t really know it. he thinks he’s Kerouac, but he’s just another college prep.

    as for the mistake that eventually kills him, well, any of us city-dwellers. could have made it, really. at 23, merely a year older than i am now, he lives long past what i would have in his situation.

    that said, my MSN handle is now Alexander Supertramp. great movie.

  • MaryAnn

    So, you *want* to be identified with a spoiled brat?

  • pedro

    nah. it’s just a pretty cool name.

    but do you agree with me, MA? I’m curious…

  • MaryAnn

    I do agree that he’s not a hero, but the movie makes him out to be a hero. As I believe my review points out.

    Why would you think the name is “cool” when you don’t believe the connotations associated with it are not?

  • tim

    Very good movie. It forces you to address the story and character and not even think much about the construction of the film (at least I didn’t).

    Towards the end of his journey McCandless exhisits somewhere between naive and suicidal. These are not virtues. However, I can’t help but admire him for taking some responsibility for his own life while most twenty-something males these days continue being man-children well into their 30’s. I guess it isn’t that I admire McCandless so much as I’m disgusted by characters (real and fiction) like the boy-men in movies like KNOCKED UP. Had McCandless survived and re-assimilated in society you at least get the sense he’d be…you know…a man. For that I would definitely call him a “hero” of sorts.

    I write all of this, of course, not knowing the real person. This is really more of an assessment of the character and not the real person.

  • MaryAnn

    McCandless was a man-child, too, just in a different way. He ran away from his life and didn’t create a new one. In what way does he “take responsibility” for anything?

  • tim

    I guess because I think when you’re 18-24 (ish) running away from your life (to some degree) is a good thing. Movies (and life) are populated by guys 25-35 who probably couldn’t survive a month away from the nest of their comfort zone. As long as mommy/daddy are near and the XBOX is powered up they get by. As a character McCandless is infinitely more interesting to me than another dopey man-child that everyone seems to adore right now (especially in comedies). I think the masculine part of our society needs more Jack London/Call of the Wild attitude right now (I say masculine because this applies to both male and female).

    I guess I’m not sure how to answer your question because I’m not articulate enough. The best I can do is contrast it with the portrait of man-child characters I’ve described – who to me seem completely opposite of McCandless and have no responsibility for themselves.

  • tim

    By the way, I love your writing/reviews.

  • marko

    Into the Wild is about a spiritual search for meaning – expressed in the manner that was right for McCandless – and it is inspiring. As a result, critcism about him being an “idiot” and naive, have no place.

  • Joe Schmoe

    The park police found his car later after the flood and easily restarted it after they put a new distributor cap, rotor and wires in it. They used it for years as an undercover vehicle. I had a Nissan like that and they were great cars, so simple and efficient

  • Interesting, but irrelevant.

  • Joe Schmoe

    Just pointing out how ignorant he was about cars that he couldn’t get it restarted. Hew wasn’t very savvy about simple things

  • Well, okay. But how could you tell? I mean, even if he wasn’t ignorant, where was he going to get a new distributor cap, rotor and wires in the middle of nowhere?

  • Joe Schmoe

    All you have to do in a pinch is pull the cap and wires off and let all them dry in the sun for a while

  • And in what way does that sort of knowledge generally go along with a sheltered and privileged suburban upbringing?

  • So many people romanticize Thoreau (npi) when the truth is, he was getting regular meals at his sister’s, and said sister was regularly doing his laundry. His hypocrisy (telling a poor family that if they worked less, they wouldn’t need as much food, and thus could get by with working less; meanwhile, he’s getting fed by his sister) was really quite astounding. I really wish that he was taught with a more critical slant.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Until recent technological advances made it difficult for anyone without access to special computer equipment to perform their own tune-ups, it was not unusual for some suburbanites to take pride in working on their own cars. Of course, this was more often seen in blue-collar neighborhoods. But some suburbanites did it as well.

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