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Into the Wild
by Jon Krakauer
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering..."
Writer-director Sean Penn ("The Pledge," 2001) makes clear in this, his 4th feature film as director, what a fine and intense taste he has for character. That admirable quality and talent extends as well to his casting choices as he re-creates the life of an adventurer/traveler who couldn't get far away enough from civilization, its comforts and, to him, its meaninglessness.
Few people have been as harsh on themselves outside the scope of monks and other religious zealots as was Christopher McCandless, an ascetic to the core. Even fewer have had the intelligence and skill to keep a running diary of their experiences, which became the basis of a true story by John Krakauer (see left) recounting McCandless' short life. That book affected the filmmaker in such a way as to inspire him to craft the story into an affecting and extraordinary film.
In a post-graduation luncheon, his totally unsuspected cutting of the parental strings instantly deflates all pride and understanding. In one brief but profound lesson, they learn that they didn't know their son, had no idea what he was about. Although, in case the lesson wasn't fully received, the discovery that Chris had contributed his life savings of $24,000 to charity before he set out for parts unknown left no room for doubt.
In contrast, the love and understanding between sibling Chris and Carine was total and uncompromising. But that only proved to be the greater pain for her when he set off for the road without ever contacting her again. As we follow his travels, Penn keeps us aware of Carine's feelings by way of a narrative voice as weeks, then months go by without a word. She tries to understand his complete physical detachment as a message to their parents that must be sent, but the pain and bewilderment of his utter silence toward her clearly takes an emotional toll.
Meanwhile, the calm, affable wanderer renames himself Alexander Supertramp and sets forth upon his noble tragedy with a series of adventures that include jobs and contact with people up and down the continent. The movie, in fact, starts with an Alaskan local who takes him to the edge of wilderness and gives Chris a pair of high boots to improve his chances of survival. From there, the story is told largely in flashback so that we may understand what steps brought him "Into the Wild."
Intellectually, the writings of Tolstoy, with his renunciation of wealth and call for a return to nature, and of the adventurous Jack London are suggested as the seeds of his idea to sever all ties to society. Subsequently, wherever he goes en route to his wilderness, the impact he has on people is almost inspirational, every one taking to him like a brother, a buddy, a lover, or a grandson, always bordering on instant affection. It comes from a diverse list: mill operator Wayne Westerberg (terrific Vince Vaughn) who hired (and paid) him and would again in an instant; AV travelers Jan Burres (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker); fetching 16-year old Lolita, Tracy (Kristen Stewart, "The Cake Eaters"); 80-ish Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) and others.
He stops at the Salton Sea; then in South Dakota. Once up in his promised land, he treks deep into the wilds of the Denali National Park. He crosses a stream and discovers an abandoned bus, converting it into his lodgings. For a time, armed with a rifle with scope and fishing rod, he subsists on wild animals and fish, reveling in the realization of his dream. But available game peters out as the weather conditions grow fierce, game disappears, and he faces starvation. When he does try to backtrack, the stream is an uncrossable river and he's forced to remain. Turning to wild vegetation, he consults his guidebook for edible plants. Mistaking a toxic plant for an edible one of the same family, he grows very sick.
The audacity of a commitment that contains such a high potential for death brings to mind the story of Timothy Treadwell ("Grizzly Man," a Werner Herzog documentary), another adventurer who engaged in a dangerous enterprise in a remote location. Treadwell was of (arguably) a nuttier disposition than McCandless' and one's reaction to his fate, horrific as it was, had a greater sense of inevitability and emotional distance than McCandless' tragedy.
The story that Krakauer put together from the diary, letters and notes of the ill-fated trekker, which were found with him in his bus, was aided by Krakauer's parallel experiences and special understanding of the adventurer's psyche. Krakauer had climbed Devils Thumb, an Alaskan mountain, which he did as a symbolic gesture of rebellion against an autocratic father. This tie-in made Krakauer as insightful a biographer of his difficult-to-understand subject as could be found.
Penn's 140 minute conveyance of the story is rambling and structurally unsteady but every essential ingredient is there, which we put together with a lingering impression of poetry and pain. The camerawork is skillfully designed and executed by cinematographer Eric Gautier ("The Motorcycle Diaries" who takes advantage of the beauty and off beat off-the-beaten-path nature of the locales. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder comes up with a soundtrack that cohesively underscores the tone and emotional journey of the film. His fans will want his first solo album in which he sings nearly every note! (See below) And, what a great idea Penn had to pry him away from his group for this new venture. Of such originality do great careers make.
The compulsive route taken by this figure in his misguided true adventure story, the sense of loss we feel for the outcome, and the art of all participants before and behind the camera, maintain a grip on your interest throughout. But even as I write that, I'm aware that it's a personal response to the empathy and commitment behind the work, and my response to it may be less than universal.
The key to it is Hirsch, himself. Though he may be a bit short on charisma and heavyweight screen command, he imparts a joyful presence that you can't not admire. I can almost guarantee you'll walk out of the theatre wishing you could hug him or take him to dinner. He's up to the full load of physicality the part calls for and, moreover, his easy-going charm and lovability produces the same affect on the film viewer as on the characters whose paths he crosses, making an immediate bond to him ring perfectly true.
~~ Jules Brenner