Saturday, September 29, 2007

MovieWatch: "Into the Wild"

"Into the Wild"
Director: Sean Penn
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 62 (but I'm wavering up *and* down)
In a Nutshell: While waiting for a different movie this afternoon ("The Kingdom," opinion pending), I stopped by a Borders and, since it was in the 3-for-2 stack and since I was able to easily secure another two and since I barely have any time to read *anything* anymore, I grabbed a copy of Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild."

Basically, I want to read the book to try to unpack the reasons why so much of "Into the Wild" annoyed me so very, very much. I'm trying to get a grasp on whether I took issue with the story as Krakauer told it, whether I took issue with the story as the film's writer-director Sean Penn told it, or whether something about the film's main character -- tragic, glorified, pathologically egotistical Christopher McCandless -- just rubbed me the wrong way.

Of course, since my non-vacation reading pace is akin to a mentally stunted gerbil (bet you didn't know they were literate at all...), I don't have the time to read the book before reviewing the movie (if I'd been doing an actual journalistic feature on "Into the Wild," I'd surely have done my due diligence). Thus, this review is just of my reactions to the movie, which is probably what a movie review ought to be anyway, eh?

The short version of my feelings: Penn's film infuriatingly wants to have it both ways. The director wants to turn McCandless into a Christ-like figure (note the already notorious nude scene in which Penn depicts star Emile Hirsch in the Full Monty, arms outstretched) while also backtracking at the end into a "Yes, what he did was an awesome way to spend two years, a way that I wish I could spend two years, a way you should spend two years if you're COOL... But don't do this at home, because it's bad" conclusion. Somebody's gotta call bullshit on Penn here.

Follow through after the bump for my full review... Warning, though, it's gonna include spoilers, some of the "Well duh" variety.

Click through...

Granted that Chris McCandless seems to have had an awful childhood -- upper-middle-class upbringing, complete with all of its advantages and trappings aside -- but I never found myself viewing him as anything other than an arrogant ass with a classic 21-year-old's misunderstanding of Thoreau, of Tolstoy, of Pasternak. But Penn buys totally into Chris' view of the world, treating his written and spoken words as gospel, with both voice over and moments where his writing either animates across the screen or is shown in tight close-up as every pearl of wisdom is being transcribed. Accompanied by the solemn moaning of Eddie Vedder at his most earnest (which has to be just about the most earnest that any human being in history has ever been), the filmmaker offers no hints that Chris' choices are vaguely questionable. Even when Penn gives voice to Chris' cruelly abandoned sister Carine (Jena Malone), her thoughts are all weirdly understanding, weirdly robotic, weirdly retroactive and they're heard over Eric Gautier's lovely cinematography, which treats Chris' extreme lifestyle like it's nothing more than the most beautifully shot Mountain Dew commercial ever.

The film's point-of-view is a muddle. Usually, Penn just gives Chris the benefit of the doubt, treating his increasingly wiry physique like that of an absolute Vitruvian man, mens sana in corpore sano, on faith. But every once in a while, Penn sees things that his main character clearly wouldn't have noticed. He notices the underlying sadness in the way the film's male adults treat Chris. Brian Dierker's Rainey, Vince Vaughn's Wayne and particularly Hal Holbrook's Ron all love Chris, but know they can't save him.

Nowhere was I more perplexed than by Penn's depiction of Los Angeles, where Chris has a very brief. After treating hitchhiking and rural wandering as the safest possible way to see the country, Penn goes wildly overboard in depicting the threat of urban life. On one hand, you have LA's Skid Row, where Penn captures the film's only minority faces in the most threatening way possible. Compare Penn's portrayal of black city poverty to the nobility of white rural poverty and it's nearly laughable. But Penn isn't satisfied there, he also wants to show LA's downtown urban hipsters (Did LA have downtown urban hipsters in 1992?) as soulless ghouls too. I think these scenes are supposed to rely on Chris' actual point-of-view (hence the images where he sees his alternate self as a fellow hipster), but it's one of several moments where Penn's storytelling technique is just all over the place.

I hope you're sensing my ambivalence here. As I write this, I realize that many of the things that irked me within the movie were products of my distaste for main character. But it's also a distaste for the way the main character was being presented by a filmmaker who ought to be wiser, more mature, more reflective. After launching his directing career with three relatively introspective dramas, though, Penn is oddly extrospective (is that a word?) when it comes to McCandless. He just accepts the most superficial view of the guy, attempting to neither pity or understand him, just to embrace him.

Hirsch is treated as an idealistic vessel and as good as he is, I couldn't view the performance as anything other than "A series of things Sean Penn made Emile Hirsch do," from whitewater rafting to running up California mountains to dropping his weight down to a dangerous point that no piece of popular entertainment should ever require. Penn, who has always been an actors' director, gets fine work out of all of his performers, especially Holbrook, who has to be due for an honorary Oscar nomination of some type.

I'm just having a hard time evaluating this movie. If Sean Penn thinks Chris McCandless is worthy of only-slightly-cautionary adulation and I think he was probably more worthy of more of a "Grizzly Man"-style approach, am I approaching "Into the Wild" with clear eyes? Probably not. But I'm a kid who loved "My Side of the Mountain" growing up. "Easy Rider" remains one of my favorite films. Like just about every other male of a particular political incarnation, I was temporarily moved by "On the Road." Maybe there's just a certain amount of pragmatism I require from my stories of youthful rebellion and wish that Penn had been similarly pragmatic over the 145 minutes of his film.

I get the feeling I could talk in circles for hours about this one. But I've got to write up "The Kingdom" at some point...

Now back to watching USC football.


  1. I'm frankly amazed that a parent of two children could have made this film as it's so outwardly cruel to McCandless' mother and father, two people whose greatest sin is failing to live up to the impossible standards of the arrogant little shit they've spent 22-years providing for, and for that they get to live every parent's worst fear for two years. I wonder how Mr. Penn would respond if one his children just up and disappeared on him, never making contact with him because they just figured he was an asshole.

    No doubt Penn is placing himself in the position of the insulated young man and values ideals over actual knowledge and maturity but I agree that this material needed someone that wasn't going to serve as a lapdog. McCandless' story is incredible but it's also tragic long before the stupid kid dropped dead and for failing to realize it (and actually going in the complete opposite direction, celebrating the journey) the film ultimately left a lousy taste in my mouth.

  2. I think the movie makes it clear that the parents are guilty of some sin worse than just their failure to live up to the little shit's standards (perhaps the book will give me more specifics?), but the interesting thing is that at least at some point they were willing background providers for Penn, who thanks them for their assistance.

    Given that Penn went through his wild child phase and ended up, as you note, as a family man with a wife and kids, it's a bit odd that none of that wisdom and personal growth on his part shows up in the film. It's also odd that a man who definitely considers himself as liberal as they come and probably thinks of himself as something of a humanist (he *did* rush off to New Orleans after Katrina and all) would be so sympathetic with a young man killed basically by his own egomania...

    So what I'm saying is that I think we both ended up with a similar bad taste in our mouths...


  3. Anonymous11:16 PM

    egomania strikes the wrong chord in my head; it's too harsh. maybe it's more like idealism and immaturity -- the hubris of youth. i think we saw plenty of bad behavior from the parents without any other great "sins" needing to be outlined. paternal absenteeism, an enabling mother, a huge family secret that -- once revealed -- destabilizes the boy's identity and his trust in his father, violent fights between parents, threats of divorce and family meetings brashly asking the kids to choose sides (i.e., who they want to go live with -- wh. feels like choosing sides to a kid). plenty o' baggage there. not more than most well-to-do kids with human parents must suffer through, probably, but still. given mccandless's youthful and untempered untempered idealism, all this stuff seems to have stuck pretty hard in his craw.

    agree with everything else you wrote.

  4. I think the problem is that the film (at least in its first half) presents the McCandlesses' personal problems as THE reason Chris turned into such a smug, self-centered ass, while it seems more likely that they were one catalyst that caused someone with a borderline personality disorder to take off on his own, uncaring of the feeling of others.

    I kind of liked everything where Chris had to deal with other people, but the hyper-earnest stuff where he was on his own grew too cloying, at least until he made a stupid mistake that cost him his life (which sort of had the feel less of tragedy and more of the filmmakers chuckling and saying, "Yeah, ya burnt"). Kudos to all of the supporting players, though, especially the under-praised Vaughan who perfectly captures that sort of Midwestern dude.

  5. Anonymous1:34 PM

    Geez, Todd, I've known and cared for many people that basically fit into the "Chris McCandless type" -- there was a preponderance of them at my college -- at least somewhere on that spectrum of behavior, and I don't think it's fair to label them with borderline personality disorders. Low-grade autism or Asperger's, sure, but not borderline. I don't think there was anything the matter with McCandless that some good ol' fashioned talk therapy couldn't have sorted out. And maybe a couple more rigorous literature and philosophy courses wouldn't have been such a bad idea, either.

  6. Christina - How many of those people you say fit into that type actually dropped off the grid and spent two years tramping around the country, living in isolation and never contacting you or any of the other people in their lives? And just joining the Peace Corps or Teach for America or taking a three month road trip across the country doesn't count.

    It's not that Chris was just a pretentious dick with a half-assed understanding of Emmerson. You took exception to my description of his "egomania," but i don't know how else to describe a person who lived two years of his life caring 100% only about himself and his own view of the world. A casual level of self-obsession might just lead somebody to sit in a coffee shop and write pretentious poetry (or blog posts) about the crappiness of the material world, but I agree that the monomaniacal obsession he had with Alaska and his purposeful self-isolation goes beyond even the most obnoxious and pretentious people I went to college with...


  7. Anonymous4:27 PM

    "but I agree that the monomaniacal obsession he had with Alaska and his purposeful self-isolation goes beyond even the most obnoxious and pretentious people I went to college with..."

    Well, lucky you.

    My less flippant response:

    I guess I knew people with "monomaniacal obsessions" other than Alaska -- friends obsessed with particular a particular subject (literature, math, physics) wh. usually propelled them into grad school, a socially sanctified choice wh. characteristically self-selects for people with unbalanced social lives and various combinations of (low grade) autism, OCD and addictive personalities. (Speaking for myself, the way I see it, the healthier and more balanced I got in my own life, the less and less successful / productive a scholar I became.) But other friends, who've somehow managed to "throw themselves" into their selective projects, often with a very limited and proscripted valuation of human relationships have found success in their careers as academics and other professions which seemingly demand they choose "going to Alaska" at the expense of "writing letters home," at least in any meaningful way.

    Or maybe I'm just a magnet for egomaniacal, emotionally guarded souls. I've lost a lot of friends / loves to their own personal Alaskas.

    OK, that's about all the public confession I'm gonna do for today. Just saying I think your read of McCandless's behavior is pretty narrow. There's more than one way of "dropping off the grid." It doesn't necessarily entail setting out for frontier territories w/o a credit card. You can do it very easily in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London or Paris, too. Not to mention Darfur. (Little inside joke there.)

  8. Anonymous4:40 PM

    PS -- Given Chris McCandless's naive appropriation and glorification of Romantic idealism of the American Transcendentalist flavor, it's a shame -- or maybe telling -- that one of the books we failed to see stacked up on his pile of spiritual source books in his dorm room at Emory was _Moby Dick_. The stark terms in which you describe young "Alex Supertramp" resonate with the characterization of Capt. Ahab by most critiques, and indeed by "Ishmael" himself. Melville's a far savvier writer and more subtle thinker than Sean Penn is, judging from the problems with narrative framing we talked about and wh. you mention in your write up. I think that's probably the understatement / most self-evident observations of the year (Melville > Penn). Duh.

  9. I read the book a while back, and was so annoyed by Christopher McCandless that I could barely finish it. (Krakauer wasn't the problem for me — I've read Into Thin Air and, uhm, what's the one about the Mormons? Under the Banner of Heaven? That one.) Thus, it's an easy decision on my part not to bother seeing the film adapation. You may find it an easy decision not to bother giving the gerbil a run for its money, and spend your time reading/watching something (anything!) else.

  10. Anonymous3:02 AM

    This movie story line has been retroactively upstaged by the movie "Grizzly Man". There has never been a better example of a self-deluded, messianically self-absorbed individual as the character who treats grizzly bears as cuddly, stuffed animals until he is eaten by one. Both these individuals pay the ultimate price for using the real world as a laboratory for adolescent idealism. Life long drug abuse helps explain the stunted (can't remember his name)world view of the grizzly man who is desparately searching for validation and self-worth. He is a loser by any conventional measure. McCandless is a much more sympathetic character due to his younger age and the universally accepted romantic notion of a transformational "walk about" or "vision quest" having accomplished his more normal man versus nature survival goals,you got the feeling he was ready to deal with his personal problems if he could have just gotten out of the wilderness.

  11. Anonymous10:23 PM

    Actually I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. Certainly better than the insufferable Eddie Vedder soundtrack that preceded it. I remember back in the '80s Sting criticizing the Clash for spouting off Marxist lyrics while raking in the bucks. So much more so for pathetic billionaire Vedder droning on about the unique unnatural evils of materialism. At least the Clash produced good music, whereas Veder et al ushered in the true ugly dirtiness of the nineties that still hasn't left.

    You have to give some credit to the film for allowing supporting character who ably called McCandless on his angry BS. Consider that even the stupid hippies thought McCandless was a stupid destructive hippy! And Holbrook at the end seem to provide a healthier more practical alternative for manhood than McCandless' own psychopathic father or all the dumb hippy BS he'd been following.

  12. Anonymous11:03 PM

    Yes Its called Aspergers syndrome ASD - Autism spectrim disorder its heightend Stress And heightend Awherness .I have Aspergers so dose (Microsoft Bill Gates)peopel can be so meanful and not understand it And what its like lived in the bush for 8 years !..And was a bush microlight pilot another way to over come the Nickel city live!.I will view the movie soon cheers from David rs Greer Aspergers from newzealand.-4 temp