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A movie directed by Sean Penn

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Note to self: maybe people don't suck as badly as I thought

  • Mar 14, 2008
Pros: Acting, scenery

Cons: Story is weak or weakly told, still not sure which

The Bottom Line: Take a look at the cast list, if you like any of them then the film won't be a waste. Otherwise consider it carefully, starving isn't fun to watch.

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

Into the Wild’s narrative is like a line graph of Enron’s final month except that at the end there is something a bit unexpected that saves the film from oblivion. I will have a section below for opinions about the subject of the film—I will clearly mark it and it will include a plot spoiler.

Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild covers the life (after graduating college) and death of Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch). He decides to disappear. Christopher donates his college fund intended for graduate school to charity, walks away from his former life and family without a word, and sets his sights on an otherwise personless world.

He drives only so far then relies on the kindness of people who will pick up a hitchhiker. He takes a kayak down the Colorado River into Mexico despite never having kayaked, ever. He hobos it for a while meeting strangers cum friends all the while focused on going to Alaska. In less than a year, he starves to death.

The film, a near perfect example of naturalism, is not linear. It is broken into three different sections that braid together like a ponytail: Christopher’s (now self-renamed Alex Supertramp) journey westward, his time in Alaska, and memories of and recent events with his family. For the most part each of these narrative pieces is chronological so it is easy enough to follow without 100% attention.

Naturalism is not the same thing as liking/loving nature. Naturalism was a short lived (thank all that may be holy) movement in American Literature that essentially said nature will do as nature wants and if a man survives whatever nature throws at him then it is due as much to luck as skill. Into the Wild uses this and does so in a pretty ham-fisted way: one of the authors who inspire this ill fated trip is Jack London who wrote “To Build a Fire” a story about a man who knew how to handle himself in the wilderness but still freezes to death. I do not like any of the naturalists (some post movement naturalistic books are pretty good, but they are crafted by far better authors than Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser). Into the Wild is in the middle region between Theodore Dreiser and Cormac McCarthy; this means it is somewhat artfully done, but not inspiring.

Every actor in the film was as strong as all others (and this means that I’m offering the same praise to Catherine Keener--who plays a hippy vagabond called Jan—as I give to Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch—a bit more on Mr. Hirsch below). Jena Malone (Carine McCandless—Christopher’s sister) narrates the film and her voice is lamenting but not sappy and adds depth to a film lacking in this category. I’ve said the following fairly often lately: if you like acting in general or any of these actors in particular, the 145 minutes will be time well spent.

I don’t know if Into the Wild would have been presented as it was without Brokeback Mountain. This idea may have been floated in many other reviews so I’m pretty sure it isn’t original. I like and respect Mr. Penn as a director, but the landscape is at least as important as the characters and, especially in desert and the Alaskan wild, the landscape becomes more important than the actor. The reason I point to Brokeback is that the way nature is shown, you could switch one scene from either film with the other and the flow would be the same. There were also significant scenes that would have easily been the subject of a Thomas Cole painting.

There is another ham-fisted image that runs through the film: against a background of a perfectly blue sky, jet trails appear and follow in the plane’s wake. It says loudly: no matter where you go, you cannot escape entirely. You can try to be an island, but you will still have plastic bottles on your shores from time to time.

The soundtrack is probably the best thing about the film. Eddie Vedder wrote the original songs (I liked all of them and that is very odd for me), he and others chose fitting songs to illustrate a situation or scenery: “Hard Sun” and “Rise” for example.

Into the Wild is one of the few films lately for which I had fairly high expectations and it failed to reach those. The acting, scenery, and soundtrack are all good but it felt that these pieces didn’t fit as closely together as they should have. The problem, I think, is Supertramp (Mr. Hirsch puts in a fine performance, but his character was limiting). Supertramp comes across as a completely flat character driven by obsession and self-important crap. A bio-pic of something contemporary is going to limit what license a director can take; however Mr. Penn may have been more bound to the real story that he was unable or unwilling to take a bit more of a license. This is not a documentary, it is a film which means the focus (pun not intended) should be on telling a compelling story than sticking too closely to the facts.

The story is either weak by itself or the interpretation of it is. I won’t pan it outright because of the acting and that is the only reason to spend the time it takes to watch the whole film.

Personal opinions about the film and what it seems to say about the real Christopher McCandless—it will have a plot spoiler and it may be, probably will be, offensive to some.

Note to self: Jack London and Russian novels are not survival handbooks. If you are carrying all you have to rough it in extremely rough territory, Tolstoy and Pasternak should not take up space or add weight. Note to self: the hippy era is over; it failed under the weight based on the entropy of addicts and the serious differences of opinions about how to interpret and/or change society. Note to self: if you rely on strangers to get you somewhere, why would you think that you would be able to make it in the wild all on your own? Codicil note to self: if you are a loner looking for a place where you are the only person, aren’t the strangers part of the society you want to shed and if so, aren’t you using them rather than adding value?

Charm will carry you far. I have no doubt that Alex Supertramp was oozing with charm. There are two problems with charm, though. First, it only works for short periods if you do not have any substance behind the charm—eventually you will be found out. Second, charm only works on other people; it will not save you if you are the only person around. Intelligence can get you farther than charm, but intelligence alone has problems too. It is too often mixed with wisdom, most often by the intellectual him/herself. It also has a way of hypnotizing the intellectual into believing that no problem presented to her/him is without a solution—that is how I was until some wisdom came to nest and I began to realize the limits of what I know.

Combine charm and arrogant intellect and you have a lethal mix, a one-two punch if you will. The charm will disarm people and the intellect can either help them or harm them and the more of this fatal mix someone has the more likely harm will happen. The harm here was limited to the McCandless family; however, this is one of the most serious problems I have. Screwing up and dying in the wilderness didn’t just harm him. Disappearing crushed his family. Whether the McCandless family was exactly as portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, it doesn’t forgive the arrogance. For this reason alone Supertramp was really someone to dislike at best (my personal feelings move the tachometer closer to loathing).

Ted Kaczynski separated himself from society and used his intellect to blow up people. Was this what Supertramp had in mind, or was this a journey that would have an end—this being a flight back home after he had had enough of Alaska? As impetuous and self-important as he comes across, it was essentially inevitable that he kill himself, if not in the “magic bus” it would have been some other scheme to take on even more extreme adventures.

He seemed to be lucky and this is the worst trait of all. Each of us has bits and pieces of luck and some of us even have a rather long string of it, but as we all know luck cannot be trusted. Supertramp didn’t seem to realize this. Being able to get from Atlanta to Alaska with a very few scratches had to give him the sense that he knew what he was doing, thus increasing his arrogance and reliance on luck. Then he finds the otherworldly bus (how did it get into the heart of the heart of the middle of nowhere?). Ah ha, more luck. He creates things like an ad hoc bridge over a rivulet and other items that had to make him feel more and more able to deal with his surroundings. Then it falls apart.

Stephen Crane wrote “The Open Boat.” It is the perfect example of nature not giving a rip about people and, in the story’s case, luck won over talent and knowledge. Supertramp ran out of the first and the second (not ample enough anyway) failed to compensate.

I suppose my biggest gripe is that I’m not at all sure what I’m supposed to take away from Supertramp’s misadventure. Is it a warning? Is it turning a brat (I use this word because I come from the same society that created him, so I’m just as much a brat as anyone else in that upper-middle class plushness) into some sort of hero? Is this just a non-fiction account of “To Build a Fire?”

What I take away from this is that I really don’t like the subject of the story. Fortunately the movie was not long—it would have taken me a significantly longer time to read the book—this way I didn’t have to spend much time in the abstract presence of someone I wouldn’t want to spend any time with. I am about a year older now than McCandless would have been had he decided living off alone is just not possible if you don’t really know what you are doing and if you really do need people around. I’m intelligent and have had strings of luck. I am suspicious of strangers, so I tend to rely on myself more than not, but I am not afraid to ask for help and I would never assume that I could make it anywhere on my own, no matter how cat-like I can be when it comes to people. I made some decisions that could have been slowly fatal. I have and know how to use charm. But I have always been able to make myself alone in a crowd. I’m using this potentially/probably arrogant take on the situation because I (and many others my age) had and have the same traits. We just chose paths that were less likely to end in death.

In other words, Supertramp made a crap decision and compounded it by making more crap decisions. It is entirely fitting that something fundamental occurs to him when he realizes that “happiness is only real with other people” after it is far too late to find anyone to help or be happy with.

It sounds like I wanted McCandless to meet the end he did; in the sink or swim paradigm is in place because you eschew people and water-wings, you get what you do. If you remove yourself from all of society based on a limited understanding of what “society” means, you cannot expect society to give much of a rip if society doesn’t notice you left—except for the small society of the McCandless family upon whom this decision brought nothing but grief (and public grief at that).
What died was Supertramp. This moniker and the thin personality attached began to fail when he wrote “lonely” where this name became just tramp. Tramp died when happiness was defined as requiring more than one person. The problem is that Supertramp killed Christopher Johnson McCandless.

In the early part of this personal section, I said that Supertramp was oozing with charm. Obviously, that was entirely on purpose. It is also obvious that I believe this personality died before and was responsible for McCandless’s death. Based on what I’ve seen (and now read by way of Wikipedia and a few other sources), I cannot determine exactly when Alex Supertramp was really born. I don’t think this is a trifle because this alternate personality turned out to be so poisonous. It may not be a trifle, but it is something I now want to waste no more energy discussing or considering.


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More Into the Wild reviews
review by . November 15, 2010
Let me come right and admit that I dislike Sean Penn a great deal. His politics are infantile, silly and represent Hollywood's penchant for knee-jerk liberalism at its worst. His trips to Iraq are an embarrassment.     But let me also admit that he truly is an artist to be reckoned with. From his wonderful performances in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH through is Oscar-winning work on MYSTIC RIVER, he has proven himself a unique talent. And now his skills as a director cannot be …
Quick Tip by . June 25, 2010
This movie makes my soul ache. It's so gorgeous. One of my all-time favorites.
Quick Tip by . December 09, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
A powerful film about the choices we face living in modern society & about one young man's attempt to break free with tragic results.
Quick Tip by . September 17, 2009
This made me want to hop on the open road & go on an adventure- the story was reminiscent of Buddha, leaving luxury to pursue something more
Quick Tip by . September 17, 2009
Phenomenal film with an amazing plot, cast, and soundtrack. Really tugs at your heart strings and makes you reevaluate life.
review by . June 27, 2009
When Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) graduated from college, he had one goal in life - to finally break away from his unhappy family and the constraints of society in general and live off the land in Alaska. The episodic film flashes back and forth between Chris' adventures in Alaska and the months leading up to it, focusing on the people who befriended him - including an aging hippie couple and a lonely, old man (well-played by the venerable Hal Holbrook).       Based on a true …
review by . February 06, 2009
Having recently completed Jon Krakauer's arguably most famous book, "Into Thin Air," about the Everest disaster, I was very eager to read more from this journalist-cum-book writer. I'm very glad to say that "Into the Wild" did not disappoint.      Krakauer crafts a very interesting story, splicing together as much of his protagonist's final journey as possible, and he is remarkably detailed considering this boy, Chris McCandless, roamed about for more than a year and never stayed …
review by . May 03, 2008
Pros: acting above all, scenery, production, soundtrack     Cons: none     The Bottom Line: "Society, have mercy on me.   I hope you're not angry, if I disagree.   Society, crazy indeed.   I hope you're not lonely...   without me.   ~ Eddie Vedder (Into the Wild)      After reading Jon Krakauer’s book, I hesitated watching this movie. I wondered if it would explain some things I questioned …
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Jon Krakauer's bestselling nonfiction book about the life of Chris McCandless is finally brought to the big screen in INTO THE WILD. Directed by Sean Penn, the film opens in 1992, when Chris (Emile Hirsh) is a promising college graduate. Shortly after graduation, Chris gives his life savings to charity, burns all of his identification, and begins hitchhiking across America, his ultimate goal being Alaska. Citing passages from his heroes, Thoreau and Jack London, he is determined to escape society and get back to nature. He blows from town to town like a tumbleweed, hopping trains, camping with aging hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), working briefly with a farmer (Vince Vaughan), and befriending a widowed leather worker (Hal Holbrook). He revels in his newfound freedom, but meanwhile, his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) have no idea where he is, and are sick with worry. While their relationship with Chris was already troubled, they are nonetheless devastated by his disappearance. ...

Into the Wild is a 2007  American drama film based on the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer about the adventures of Christopher McCandless. It was directed by Sean Penn, who also wrote the screenplay, and stars Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughn, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Stewart, and Hal Holbrook. It premiered during the second edition of the Rome Film Feast. The film ...
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Director: Sean Penn
Genre: Drama
Release Date: 2007, September 21, 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Sean Penn
DVD Release Date: March 04, 2008
Runtime: 2hrs 27min
Studio: Paramount Pictures
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