Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Review: Into The Wild

Into The Wild (2007, trailer) is based on the life and death of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a middle-class kid who, after graduating from university, abruptly leaves home (and his mom Marcia Gay Harden, dad William Hurt and sister Jena Malone).

He adopts the name Alexander Supertramp to avoid recognition, and becomes a homeless wayfarer - albeit a rather clean and well-groomed homeless wayfarer.

Git lost, ya stinkin' bum!

His ultimate goal is to find his way to the Alaskan wilderness and live off the land.

My Take

I normally don't like to see movies as having specific agendas, as I believe one of the great things about art is its facility to be open to interpretation. That being said, I felt that Into The Wild's filmmaking perceives Christopher McCandless in a drastically different way than I did. I assume this is because the movie was made by Sean Penn, a man not exactly known for being subtle with his views.

Just before setting out on his adventure, Chris cuts up his credit card, ditches his car and burns his Social Security card and all of his cash.

Although Chris has a contentious relationship with his parents, he is close with his sister Carine. However, he never makes any effort to keep in contact with her. He also does not own a cell phone. If anything was to go wrong, - which it did - he would have no method whatsoever of finding help. Which is exactly what happened.

Chris constantly quotes platitudes from authors and poets: 'It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape, from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations. Absolute freedom.' (Wallace Stegner)

He also writes self-aggrandizing poetry: 'No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager, whose home is the road. So now, after two rambling years, comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within, and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. No longer to be poisoned with civilization, he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become: lost in the wild.'

When someone asks him: 'Alaska? what the hell are you running from?' Chris avoids answering honestly, and instead deflects the question:

'I could ask you the same question...You got to get back out in the world...You should make a radical change in your lifestyle. I mean, the core of man's spirit comes from new experiences. And there you are, stubborn old man, sitting on your butt.'

All this made me see McCandless as a pretty arrogant, misguided and delusional person who took a lot of risks without fully realizing the consequences.

The movie, however, presents him through a very rose-tinted lens.

Chris is sometimes deified by the camera, like when we see him float down a river naked in an arms-spread, Christ-like pose; or the sequence where he runs amongst a herd of wild horses while silhouetted by the sunset.

hero with his horses.

Meanwhile, the civilized world is depicted as very nasty: when looking for a hostel in a city, Chris is surrounded by menacing, shifty-eyed types (who are all black, for some reason). When he takes a temporary job at a Burger King to afford supplies, we see a shot of an obese kid wolfing down a Whopper. Alas! how far our society has fallen!

The soundtrack of Chris's travels mainly consists of corny-as-hell songs by strained-voice American rock legend Eddie Vedder:

'When you want more than you have/
You think you need/
And when you think more than you want/
your thoughts begin to bleed/
I think I need to find a bigger place/
'Cause when you have more than you think/
You need more space.'

The movie's much-lauded cinematography shows us a lot of sweeping, Lord of the Rings-y helicopter shots of vast mountain ranges and forests. I found all this to be too grandiose for what is supposed to be a true story about one guy and his journey of discovery. All this imagery and music seemed to me like the movie really wants us to feel that McCandless was an amazing person.

In real life McCandless never burned his cash and his ID; he stored both in a hidden pocket in his jacket, ready for whenever he decided to return to society. Why did the movie change this? Is this story somehow meant to be more inspiring if he takes stupider risks than the real guy did?

The reasons for Chris's rejection of society are never quite clear. He complains: 'This sick society!...You know what I don't understand? I don't understand why people, why every fucking person is so bad to each other, so fucking often. It doesn't make sense to me. Judgment, control; all that, the whole spectrum...Parents, hypocrites, politicians, pricks...'

Early in the film his sister's voiceover informs us that 'From as long ago as Chris and I could remember, there have been daily bouts of rage in our house.' But they don't show us this, they only tell us about it. We don't get a flashback of the parents fighting until much later, and their argument is completely ridiculous:

'There ain't gonna be a party, I'm gonna cancel Christmas this year!'

'Cancel Christmas? Who do you think you are, God?'

'That's right! I'm God!'

As the McCandless family has a restaurant dinner, his parents offer to buy Chris a car as a graduation gift. However, Chris doesn't want it.

'Why would I want a new car? 'Datsun runs great. Do you think I want some fancy boat? Are you worried what the neighbors might think?'

'We weren't gonna get you a brand new Cadillac, Chris. We just want to get you a nice new car that's safe to drive. You never know when that thing out there just might blow up.'

'Blow up? Are you guys crazy? It's a great car. I don't need a new car. I don't want a new car. I don't want anything. These things, things, things, things.'

I'm sure the real Christopher McCandless did have real problems within his family, but in terms of the movie, how is this supposed to represent family discord? A squabble over a lavish gift? It casts Chris as awfully petulant.

Something that I found distracting about Into The Wild was its star-power in roles ostensibly meant to be everyday people. I had a hard time buying Caravan Wanderer Catherine Keener,  Ole Farmer Vince Vaughn and Hippie Chick Kristen Stewart.

Nope, no Hollywood stars here. Just us reg'lar folk.

Chris arrives in Alaska dangerously unequipped - save for boots, knives and a fishing pole donated to him by generous strangers. He has no map. He doesn't know how to properly preserve the game he shoots, so it quickly becomes infested and consumed by wolves. Despite this incompetence, Into The Wild continues to worship Chris with slow-motion, makeshift-shower shots.

A hero's shower.

He can't return for help because the frozen river he crossed is now melted and fast-flowing. Starving and weakened, he finally dies from eating poisonous seeds.

Alaskans familiar with the harsh conditions they live in deride McCandless for his lack of survival knowledge. He could have rescued himself by starting a fire, which would have sent firefighters running.

Also, the real McCandless did have a map, which surely would have shown that he was situated 20 miles from a highway, and only a half-mile from a road from which he could have caught a bus. In his diary he wrote: 'I have been advised to hike half a mile upstream to the place where the river braids out into shallower channels', although at this point he 'can barely move twenty feet.'

Contrary to what the film says, McCandless didn't die by poison, but by 113 days of starvation.

The broken-down bus where Chris died (dubbed 'the magic bus' by McCandless) is now a shrine to him. Fans make pilgrimages there to leave messages and pay tribute. I really don't understand the inspiration that people find in McCandless's story. I don't find it at all inspiring; I just find it sad.

Would so many people love his story so much if he had lived at the end? What is everyone's fascination with people dying young?


2010 brought the release of 127 Hours, another film about a man trapped by nature. I personally felt that this one was truly amazing and inspirational, way beyond Into The Wild. At least Aron Ralston lived through his ordeal to tell the tale, and was actively involved in the making of the film to ensure its authenticity. Into The Wild was written by a journalist, and some of his 'facts' are apocryphal.

Screengrabs: Into The Wild was produced by Paramount Vantage, Art Linson Productions, River Road Entertainment and Into The Wild. The UK DVD was released by Paramount Vantage.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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