Into the Wild (2007) dir. Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, Vince Vaughn
I didn't have too many complaints about this year's Oscars. We saw a varied selection of films be nominated and win the awards. But having seen Sean Penn's film again its a crying shame Oscar voters chose inferior films "Michael Clayton" or "Atonement" over "Into the Wild". "Into the Wild" creates an immensely powerful from situations and character so real and relatable compared to the salacious "Atonement" and arguably "Michael Clayton".
Based on the novel by Jon Krakauer, “Into the Wild” recounts the true story of Christopher McCandliss, a young man, who throws all his material possessions away and disappeared into the American wilderness to get closer to nature. Sean Penn gives himself an unsusal on-screen credit that reads "screenplay and directed by". This is Penn telling us the film will always be McCandliss’. Penn's visualization of the story is both uplifting and tragic and a flawless and reverent interpretation of McCandliss' epic journey.
To review this film, I must discuss spoiler story elements, some of which readers will already know of. Please beware. The film opens with McCandliss (Emile Hirsch) already two years into his journey in the wild. He’s found a bus in the middle of a desolate Alaskan patch of land, which he names “the Magic Bus”. It’s a moment of bliss for the young man, who finds much needed shelter in the harsh northern environment. Penn then flashes back two years prior to show us how McCandliss got to the Magic Bus.
In 1990, McCandliss is a straight A student, just graduating from Emory University. At lunch with his family he pleases his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) with his plans to apply to Harvard Law School. On the surface his parents are supportive and generous (offering to buy him a new car as a gift), but over the course of the film we learn about a history of domestic unrest that shaped Christopher’s outlook on life. As a form of rebellion, Christopher turned into what his parents despised and rejecting materialism as a form of social acceptability.
So Christopher decides to cut up his credit cards, and disappear from the world. It’s 2 months before his family realizes he’s gone, and despite desperate efforts to find him, McCandliss successfully loses himself. His journey takes him across the United States, meeting all sorts of weird and wonderful people. His ultimate goal is to get to Alaska, which becomes a question asked by everyone he meets, but never answered. His journey is a blissful and enlightening experience until he reaches Alaska where the realities of nature catch up with him with tragic consequences.
Part of the joy of the film is that we, as the audience, never quite understand McCandliss, and neither does anyone else. Even though we get diary entries from the man, he is still an enigma. His tumultuous relationship with his parents certainly contributes to his behaviour, perhaps it’s his love for adventure novelist Jack London, but there is something deeper in the man that we never quite understand. This is what makes the story and the film so fascinating. Emile Hirsch, who plays McCandliss, expresses all of this inner conflict with a solid solo performance.
Hal Holbrook, once a great character actor from the 70’s and 80’s, makes a surprise cameo towards the end of the film and richly deserves his Oscar nomination. He is absolutely terrific as a man who allows McCandliss to forgive his parents with a simple and eloquent speech about love and God.
As a director, Penn channels some of the organic free-form techniques of Terrence Malick (remember they worked closely on “Thin Red Line”). Penn uses flashbacks within flashbacks, Super 8 footage, slo-motion, video, bold macro close-ups, Hirsch even breaks the fourth wall and look into camera on occasion. All of it is natural and a free form expression of the journey.
At two and a half hours, it’s a lengthy film, but it never tires. By the end, when we see his last days in the magic bus, though he wrote his thoughts in a diary we still don’t know if he truly fulfilled his journey. Enjoy