random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Friday, January 11, 2008

REEL REVIEW: Into the Wild (2007) ****

Into the Wild (2007) poster

R (for language and some nudity)
2 hrs. 20 min.

written by: Sean Penn (from the novel by Jon Krakauer)
produced by: Art Linson, Sean Penn & William Pohlad
directed by: Sean Penn

I made my way out to the movie theater on a numbingly cold December night. The wind was whipping through me on this last Saturday of 2007. I wondered what it would be like to wander off on your own with your only focus being just you and the surrounding natural elements. Familiar people and places left behind, the open road ahead with all it's possibilities of sights and sounds. I was alone (something I rarely do), on my way to see "Into the Wild" a movie based on the true story of a young man who did something similar with the last two years of life on earth.

Back in 1996, the cover to writer Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild caught my attention in a bookstore. It had a cover image of an abandoned snow-swept bus on the top half and on the bottom half it read....

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25, 000 in savings to charity and abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter

....After I read that, I knew I would someday have to read this book.

What happened to McCandless in-between his departure and his death is just as extraordinary and shocking as his decision to discard his family and friends. This is the rugged territory covered by screenwriter/director Sean Penn in his film which adapts and takes its title from Krakauer's book. The film depicts McCandless (Emile Hirsch) as a restless searcher roaming from one fresh experience to another, be it working the land for a rascally farmer named Wayne (Vince Vaughn) in South Dakota, hitching a ride with a hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) in Oregon, or befriending a lonely old man named Ronald Franz (played superbly by Hal Holbrook) in the Southern California desert.

Along the way, McCandless (who renames himself Alexander Supertramp on his journey) made reckless and foolhardy decisions on his westward journey. He almost got himself arrested, injured and killed with no experience and it seems he's become for today's disaffected youth either a folk hero or a cautionary tale, depending on your point of view. Penn's take on McCandless sojourn is one of a tragic figure, and his film mixes the beautiful with the devastating. Nature witnessed in the film is powerful, communing with it can be rejuvenating; yet, to view it alone is indeed a terrible thing. When reading all this about McCandless, one obvious question continues to surface....Why? What compelled him to come to such a decision? How did all this come about?

Emile Hirsch in Paramount Vantage's Into the Wild

Well, the film gives us a look as to what elements may have contributed to his decision to drop off the grid. We meet 22 year-old McCandless near Atlanta, Georgia, as he graduates from Emory University in 1990. His parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) are wealthy east coast socialites who want to purchase him a new car as a present and an incentive to go to grad school. The real reason could be that they're embarrassed by the Datsun clunker he drives. McCandless is insulted and refuses their gift, he could care less about a new car. Throughout the film there are scenes that portray his parents as superficial as they cluelessly raise McCandless and his sister Carine (Jenna Malone). In flashbacks, they're seen constantly bickering and abusive to one another yet always prepared with a facade in public. Whether or not his family was depicted accurately is unknown but it does show how this upbringing had a tremendous impact on McCandless' life. He wanted to be nothing like his parents and wanted nothing to do with them.

Having rejected his parents and their lifestyles, McCandless focused his love and attention on the words of Thoreau, Jack London, and other naturalists. This too possibly tainted McCandless. After all, these writers wrote romantic works of natural adventures and reflections but that doesn't mean they necessarily lived them out. Still Chris believed a life living off the earth without material possessions and personal ties could be possible and should be pursued. He wanted to leave society entirely....not just the material trappings of it, but all of it....and commune with the rivers and the forests.

Penn's film cuts between two time-lines which is a smart approach since we see where he is and also how he arrived there. One follows him on his westward journey, kayaking down the Colorado River, meeting hippies and foreigners, working for a time flippin' burgers at a McDonald's as well as a wheat harvester in for Wayne, all with the goal of his "Great Alaskan Adventure". The other time-line is two years later and shows McCandless living in an old bus he's found in the Alaskan woods. He has a rifle to hunt his food, some rice, his beloved books and of course the big surrounding country he cherishes. He's reached his destination and faces the peaceful beauty along with the unpredictable wild.

But McCandless learns the hard way that there's more to inner peace than that. Crushingly and heartbreakingly at times we see him scrounge for food and shelter, often meeting disappointment but sometimes making friends. Hirsch's surrender to the role is impressive, both physically and emotionally. We see the anger McCandless feels toward his parents in his performance, which has led to a disillusionment with society in general....and yet he remains a optimistic, good and decent person himself, more disappointed than cynical. His charisma enthusiasm and drive are witnessed by all who meet him but I wondered if this was the side McCandless wanted them to see. He has a solid moral code about him and it could be his parents' failure to live up to it that has turned him off. With all of these characteristics in mind, you can't help but to like him but you also wonder and worry about him.

Penn's treatment of all this is passionate, ambitious and respectable. It's probably my favorite film he's directed thus far. He takes a lyrical, poetic approach that serves the film well from a visual standpoint. Throughout parts of the film we actually see words and phrases written across the screen, running along with Eddie Vedder's songs and Michael Brook's soundtrack. His weighty baritone provides earthy, folky tracks that temper the romance of absolute freedom with an eerie foreboding. At times, we also hear Carine's voice-over narration, presumably from her diary but Penn also injects some well-needed silence to the film. After all, when you're off on your own in the wild all that can be heard is what's around you.

Cinematographer Eric Gautier films outstanding shots of nature here but it's the performances though that really make this film fantastic. Starting with Hirsch's mature portrayal of the immature McCandless. Vaughn has a decent part as the shifty grain harvester who gives Chris a job. The always reliable Keener is great, playing a woman who is estranged from her own son about Chris' age. He runs into her and Rainey, these freewheelin' hippies, a couple times on his trek. They become replacement parents to him, in a way, and Jan has a conversation with Christopher late in the film that reminds him of the pain his real parents must be feeling after all these months of not knowing where he is. She almost gets him to confront his feelings, to maybe put himself in their shoes but he keeps his guard up and pretty soon he hits the road.

Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch in Paramount Vantage's Into the Wild

The most impacting character that McCandless encounters is an 84 year-old gentleman named Ron Franz, an old man Christopher meets in the California desert. Holbrook gives a buzz-worthy performance that supplies the film's needed emotional weight as it comes together as it heads into its final act. Ron was living on his own just fine until he came across McCandless with his backpack. Something in him must have immediately connected to this young man and when he tells Chris a lil of his history we see why. He gives plenty of sage advice, but he's more than just a typical Wise Old Man. Ron can see that someone this idealistic, naive, and unprepared as McCandless isn't going to make it in the harsh world without help, and he's visibly saddened by this knowledge, practically pleading with Christopher to forgive his parents and return to real life. Holbrook's work is a true definition of a great subtle supporting performance.

Sure I can appreciate what we're asked to believe were McCandless' motivations and hurts but his actions were ultimately selfish and irresponsible. The sad part of the film is really the lives that he touched. While he was a charming character and often a delight to be around he could also be a stubborn fool. He resisted the attempts of all those around him on his journey to love him, having determined that such concerns were irrelevant to him. He wasn't rude about it but right about the time that an opportunity would present itself for someone to really get to know him, he'd dodge them. It's not until it's too late that he realizes what they were subtly teaching him all along: that communing with nature can bring tranquility and joy, but it's ultimately nothing if you don't have someone to share it with.

Emile Hirsch and director Sean Penn on the set of Paramount Vantage's Into the Wild
The Skinny:

  • Hirsch lost 40 pounds to play his role.
  • Daveigh Chase auditioned for the role of Tracy, a 16 year-old girl who crushes on McCandless in a place caleld the Slabs near the Salton Sea in California, but lost to Kristen Stewart.
  • Penn once envisioned Leonardo DiCaprio as Christopher McCandless when he first became interested in making the film.
  • The film was shot entirely on location.
  • No stunt-men or doubles were used for Hirsch, including the scenes where Chris goes through river rapids, confronts a brown bear or rock-climbs.
  • Vedder agreed on the spot when Penn called him to ask to do the soundtrack, before he knew anything about the film.
  • Brian Dierker was originally hired as the technical consultant for the white-water rafting scenes. Penn cast him as Rainey after Hirsch suggested him for the role.
  • Penn waited 10 years to make the film to make sure he had the approval from the McCandless family.
  • The production made four separate trips to Alaska in order to film during different seasons.
  • The scenes of graduation from Emory College in the film were shot in the fall of 2006 on the front lawn of Reed College. Some of the graduation scenes were also filmed during the actual Emory University graduation on May 15, 2006.
  • The Alaska scenes depicting the area around the abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail were filmed in Cantwell, Alaska, a town forty miles southeast of the actual site.
  • The production made four separate trips to Alaska in order to film during different seasons.
  • The film was already won various film awards for Penn, Hirsch as well the co-producers. Penn, Hirsch, Vedder, Brooks, Keener, and Holbrook are still nominated for many awards.
  • Director Penn hand-picked Vedder to provide the music for the film. In the film's credits, Michael Brook is actually acknowledged for composing the film's original music (Vedder is primarily responsible for the songs in the film.)
  • Vedder's cover of the song "Hard Sun" (originally written by Gordon Peterson who performed under the name of Indio on the album Big Harvest) features backing vocals by Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney and appears in the film, along with a slew of other folky ballads. Vedder collaborates with Jerry Hannan on the song "Society", written by Hannan.
  • Ironically, my CD copy of the soundtrack was stolen on October 25th, 2007, when my 2000 Honda Civic was stolen. I hope whoever stole it is enjoying the music. Good think I had uploaded it to my computer.
  • Vedder's original compositon, "Guaranteed", has been nominated for a 2008 Grammy Award in the category of Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.
  • Vedder has also received two 2008 Golden Globe nominations for Into the Wild; one nomination is for his contributions to the film's original score and the other is for the song "Guaranteed".
  • Both film and book present compelling portraits of McCandless, but use widely different approaches. One significant change in the film version of Into the Wild is the removal of Krakauer as a narrative presence. Instead, the film is partially narrated by McCandless' own writing (from his journals) and partially by his younger sister Carine (played by Jena Malone).
  • The film also follows a more linear narrative structure, in keeping with the conventions of the media format. The book, in comparison, has much more of a documentary feel, relying directly on interviews, quotations from other sources (such as the books McCandless read), and what concrete facts could be extracted.
  • Additionally, certain plot points are slightly modified to fit the traditional narrative structure of film, as well as to fit time constraints. The film emphasizes and in some cases exaggerates certain aspects of personal relationships that McCandless experienced, including his parents' domestic conflicts and his own interaction with a 16-year-old girl he met in his travels. Other interactions portrayed in the film, however, seem very accurate based on Krakauer's research, including the characters of Jan Burres, played by Keener, and "Ronald Franz" (pseudonym), played by Holbrook.
  • McCandless' story is also the subject of a recent documentary by Ron Lamothe, basically debunking the book and film. Starting in 2005, Ron spent two years shooting and editing his next documentary, The Call of the Wild, a documentary on the self-proclaimed "aesthetic voyager", a filmmaking odyssey that took him through thirty U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and parts of Mexico.

Into the Wild book cover


Wes said...

Good review of Into The Wild.

David J. Fowlie said...

Glad you liked it! Thanks for coming by and feel free to check out th other reviews.

Moving Pictures


About Me

My photo
Believer. Brother. Son. Nephew. Cousin. Friend. Husband. Father. Colleague. Student. Teacher. Illustrator. Actor. Director. Singer. Improviser. Listener. Observer. Passenger. Driver. Tourist. Traveller. Imaginative. Resilient.