Into The Wild

Into The Wild

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Sean Penn’s latest film wears its poetic intentions on its sleeve from the outset, with a quote from Byron: “There is pleasure in the pathless woods, There is rapture on the lonely shore, There is society where none intrudes, By the deep sea and the music in its roar; I love not man the less, but Nature more.”

Through the course of the movie, this quote will come to have a deeper, darker meaning than first appears but even examining it at face value it is imbued with the idea of nature as a lonely, roaring and inscrutable beast.

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Christopher John McCandless – on whose story the film is based – didn’t see it that way. He viewed the land as a place of purity, offering escape from the middle-class world of lies that his parents inhabited. So, at the age of 22, he gave all his cash to Oxfam – pinning, to a $24,000 cheque the note, “These are all my savings - feed someone with it” – and headed out to look for America, without a backward glance or a word to his family.

A brief brush with the elemental forces of nature leads him to abandon his car, adopt a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and continue the journey – both spiritual and physical – that will take him the length of America and see him ultimately head into the snowy hills of Alaska during winter.

Penn interweaves his Alaskan story with the events that led to it and a second voice-over from McCandless’ sister Carine (Jena Malone), revealing the thoughts of his family as they hunt for their lost boy.

Penn's camera loves the landscape and captures its immensity. There is never any doubt that what we are looking at is beautiful but dangerous. This is nature at its most impressive and you sense that it has the power to kill. These shots of wide-open spaces are balanced out by the way Penn shoots the people who wander through the narrative. They are frequently seen in close-up, intimate settings, and all are life-affirming in their goodness - from two middle-aged hippies who find themselves in the role of surrogate parents (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, in a remarkably assured film debut) to a wonderful turn by Hal Holbrook as a lonely pensioner, revivified by his encounter with this boy with a lust for life. Don't be surprised if a Best Supporting Actor nod follows at the Oscars.

Vince Vaughn also acquits himself well as a farmhand with a past and a heart and its nice to see Kristen Stewart (so good in The Cake Eaters) bring her particularly believable brand of vulnerability to a role as the teen of a hippy family. Like the Byron poem that kicks off the narrative, however, this is a romanticised aspect to these encounters – in reality would everyone really be so open-armed?

At the centre of it all is Emile Hirsch, bringing heart to this little boy lost. He puts in a nuanced performance but it is a shame he wasn’t given slightly more to go on. Curiously, for a character so central to the scheme of things, he feels less well fleshed out than the people he meets. He also has a habit of spouting bits of cod philosophy, so that you begin to wonder what everyone sees in him. On the one hand he seems almost too good to be true and yet his failure to connect with people on a truly emotional level begs the question, why do they all like him so much? It is almost as though Penn has become so absorbed with the bigger picture of nature in the raw and mankind’s basic decency that he forgets to flesh out his central protagonist, or perhaps this is just his way of questioning McCandless’ judgment, which is clearly not the best.

The voice-overs are also a problem, keeping us at arm’s length when we should be drawing closer to Chris, and the runtime could definitely do with a trim – a scene, for example, in which a pair of ‘wacky Danes’ (or possibly Swedes) offer him a hotdog is utterly unnecessary. Occasionally, too, Penn finds himself unable to resist camera trickery, but shots of water in slow motion or the use of split-screen down on the farm only serve to jolt the narrative flow, taking us out of the moment he has previously painted.

Griping aside, this is an immense film in many ways. Its scope is huge and it was truly a labour of love for Penn, who spent 10 years trying to get the rights to Jon Kraukauer’s best-selling non-fiction book on which it is based. He carefully explores the relationship of man and nature and leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions. Oscar will no doubt be paying attention.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2007
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A boy goes to look for America (and himself).
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Director: Sean Penn

Writer: Sean Penn, based on the book by Jon Krakauer

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughn, Jena Malone, Dan Burch, Joe Dustin

Year: 2007

Runtime: 140 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

London 2007

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