Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Into the Wild (2007)
(Image from IMP Awards)
Into the Wild (2007)
I expected to find 'Into the Wild' to be a good film, but I was surprised at just how good Sean Penn's latest directorial effort is. His other films that I've seen - 'The Pledge' and 'The Indian Runner' - were pretty good but just shy of being truly great. This film, however, is at another level and is absolutely terrific.
Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer (which I now must read!), it centres on Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man with promising career prospects who upon graduating from college decides to leave his life behind, assume the name Alexander Supertramp, and journey to Alaska to live in the wild. He gives away all of his money to charity and moves from place to place by hitchhiking or sneaking rides on trains while doing odd jobs to get by. He also befriends various interesting people along the way. The film cuts back and forth between his journey to Alaska and the story of his subsequent life in the Alaskan wilderness. The different threads are bound together and given context by the narration from his sister Carine (Jena Malone) that explains his troubled childhood. There's also the occasional scene where we witness his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) trying to cope with his disappearance.
I was captivated by the film from the start. There isn't much meat to the story, which is surprising given its 150 minute runtime, and at its core it's simply a journey - but what a journey! There are some stunning visuals and unforgettable moments that bring McCandless' adventure to life - many scenes are devoid of dialogue and rely on visuals and sound alone, and they bring to the fore the solitude and beauty of the environments he passes through. It's also very much a character study that attempts to explain his behaviour, to allow us to understand him and his past and how it affected him and drove him to find meaning outside of society and people (though ironically his journey brought him into contact with many interesting people along the way). Despite his actions being borderline insane, the manner in which he tried to push himself to the limit somehow comes across as strangely romantic. The film is only successful in explaining McCandless upto a certain extent though; at some level there's something about his actions that really defies logic and explanation, and Penn almost seems to be mythologizing the man and his adventure. Ignoring his love of adventure, McCandless character also embodies the undercurrent of contempt towards modern society and consumerism that permeates the film as well, but fortunately this isn't too heavy handed and as a thematic element never overwhelms the film.
Emile Hirsch is simply brilliant, disappearing into the role and really becoming the character (cliched, I know, but so true here!). McCandless was intelligent and good natured, and perhaps a little quixotic and foolish as well, but always fascinating, and in many ways his audacious recklessness was inspiring. Hirsch really brings these traits to life without making the man ever seem bonkers or too detached from reality; he's relatable and sympathetic. His interactions with the supporting cast are also terrific, and while there is at times a sense of over-earnestness to them they serve to show how he affected the people he met, and how he himself grew and changed as a result of meeting them. All of the cast are terrific, but Hal Holbrook's much lauded performance as the lonely old retiree Ron Franz is worthy of the praise and accolade it has received.
On paper this film could have been repetitive and dull, but it ends up being incredibly varied and with its intercutting timelines and sense of progression it never comes close to being boring. It's a bit long but, I think, quite well paced. I found it to be exceptionally well made in every way; the performances I've already mentioned, but there's also the awesome photography and soundtrack that add so much to the mood and enhance the overall experience. Despite being overlooked during awards season, I'm fairly confident when I say that 'Into the Wild' is one of the best films of 2007.