Film Review Of Into The Wild
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/23/07
How did the bus get there? Of all the questions (pseudo and real) that Sean Penn’s latest film, Into The Wild, is so manifestly trying to provoke- and in a semi-retarded hippy-cum-tree hugger sort of way, this most basic and elemental plot point is never addressed. But, more on that later.
The film is based upon the 1996 nonfiction bestseller by Jon Krakauer, about a spoiled rich white suburban boy who basically commits suicide in the Alaskan wilderness, although he is so painfully unaware of the real world that he does not even know his own dark- almost Objectivist, impulses, and where they will lead. The book the film is based upon was a good read, even if one might question the wisdom of making a martyr out of such a delusional narcissist as Christopher Johnson McCandless (Emile Hirsch)- the 24 year old who starved to death on the aforementioned bus, after accidentally poisoning himself with inedible berries, in the middle of Alaska’s wilds, after adopting the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp.
The lead character is simply annoyingly repellant- perhaps only Roberto Benigni’s lead character, Guido, in the awful Life Is Beautiful, makes a viewer more actively root for the character’s death. In that film the lead character is so annoying that one actually roots for the Nazis to kill him, and in this film McCandless is so pompous and the film so long (140 minutes, compared to a book barely over 200 pages) that, at the hour mark, one wishes he’d just die already, so one can vacate the theater. But, no relief will come for over an hour. But, as repellant as Chris McCandless, the character, is, the direction by Sean Penn- in his first truly big budget feature, is ATROCIOUS! Yes, Penn is a great actor, but his direction, and even worse screenplay, make this film a chore. Only some stellar acting, mostly by supporting actors, saves this film from total disaster.
Let me detail the many flaws in the film’s direction and writing, before detailing the ethical conflicts of deifying such a silly figure. First there are the technical aspects of the film. The cinematography by Eric Gautier is simply not good. There are some beautiful scenes- but that’s because the outdoor scenes, especially, are naturally beautiful. The camera only lingers on them for 4 or 5 seconds, tops, and does nothing to impart a unique vision. Most scenes are cut even more quickly, and instead of the deep penetrating images of, say, an Antonioni film, the scenes of Alaska or the Southwest fade swiftly from memory. In Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, by contrast, there are scenes in mountain settings that really penetrate the character simply by isolating him against the slowly changing immensities. Not in this film. There is nothing that suggests that McCandless’s fleeting arrested adolescence is tiny, in the scheme of the cosmos. Instead, it is fetishized in slow motion close-ups that rapturously pore over even his pores. This reminds me of the wasted cinematography in The Motorcycle Diaries, another film that glorified a bored suburban loser to a near Christ-like hagiography- a character whom all see as touched by something from beyond, endowed with all goodness and wisdom, despite being manifestly nothing like that. At least this film, however, did not glorify a mass murderer.
Then there is the neverending stream of filmic tricks, as if Penn wants mere razzle-dazzle to carry the film, rather than substance. These are not only signs of artistic anomy, but are very poorly used. They include postcard scrolls in McCandless’s handwriting, an opening Byronic epigraph, voiceover narration, split-screens, several breakings of the fourth wall- for no apparent reason (the worst being when McCandless eats an apple), pretentiously titled chapter sections, and musical selections as inapt as the whirr of MTV-style editing. Perhaps the only such trick that works is the opening of the film, where McCandless’s mom, Billie (Marcia Gay Harden), awakens and calls his name. Yet, the rest of the film vacillates between the past and the present- with no justifiable narrative reason, and the mother disappears into the background, so the opening’s jarring effect is pretty much lost since we never get to caring about her, much less her husband, Walt (William Hurt). Later in the film, a florid and anomic voiceover by McCandless’s sister, Carine (Jena Malone), tells us that these children of millionaires had to deal with such hardships as finding out they were ‘bastards,’ that society is shallow and materialistic, and that their parents dared to want the best for them. Oh, yeah, their mother was also a shrewish harpy and their father would sometimes slap her around because of it. Ain’t life tough in suburbia? But, the voiceovers are not only ill placed and written, but largely superfluous and at odds with reality.
As for the latter posit, the fact that Carine claims to know McCandless inside and out, and understands why he left on an odyssey without informing anyone, is at odds with what the film depicts: that they were not close, and that he was not a caring individual. As for the former posit, one scene, among many, illustrats the superfluity of the narration. Carine tells us that her mother, after many months, started thinking any young man she saw with a backpack was McCandless. As this is told to us, we see Marcia Gay Harden overreacting as she drives her car past a young man with a backpack. Now, remove the narration, and the scene is still rather self-explanatory. Any intelligent viewer can know exactly what the mother is thinking. Thus, it is unnecessary. But superfluity reigns not only in the voiceover, but in other scenes and techniques. While tramping through Los Angeles, with his stuff in a homeless shelter’s locker, McCandless passes by a yuppy bar, with kids his own age there. He sees a young guy hitting on a girl, and imagines himself in the guy’s place. He is repelled by the vision. Yet again, any intelligent viewer can easily make out what McCandless is thinking as he longingly looks through the window at the young hedonist. The substitution of himself for the yuppy, who then tips his own drink to himself, is just too much, and this sneering condescension shows just how little Penn thinks of his audience.
But, none of these techniques are fundamental to the narrative of the tale, thus Penn’s film goes all over the map because he is like a child with too many toys, unable to use any of them properly. Furthermore, Penn is utterly incapable of any deeper introspection than having McCandless utter banalities to people clearly older and wiser than he is. Like almost all Hollywood tripe, Into The Wild worships, if not fetishizes, youthful recklessness and folly, for that lack of introspection the cipher of McCandless cannot engage is matched by Penn’s own lack of insight, which makes the film recapitulate its lead character’s flaws, but this vapidity is hardly a positive aspect of the film. This flaw in the screenplay is best illustrated when it focuses what little screen time it does, on his parents, solely on their problems, while spending the whole movie ignoring the glaringly obvious flaws of its protagonist, whom it views as someone profound, when the reality is that one could go into any artsy-fartsy bar or café, on any given day, and encounter tens of thousands of McCandless types with childish dreams. The difference is that most of their obsessions do not lead them to death; therefore McCandless’s exceptionalism was merely evidence of his overweening stupidity- or, to be generous, immaturity.
Along the way to his self-determined death in Alaska, he meets up with a bevy of good-minded people who embrace, envy, and help him, and one railroad bull he beats the shit out of him for hitching a ride on the train. The bull, ironically, was the only person who really did McCandless a favor, and one can only admit that those who tried to help him only enabled McCandless’s addiction to the drug of his choice- irresponsibility, when what he really needed was a good bitchslapping. These enablers included aging hippies, Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a South Dakota wheat worker (and apparently drug dealer), Wayne (Vince Vaughn), and a retired military widower and leather craftsman, Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). Of course, all of them find themselves in awe of the youngster with such ‘depth,’ even though their lives are manifestly more joyful than his, and he is even more lost in life than they or his parents are.
But all of their characters, even in their short appearances onscreen and despite the silly idea that they would genuflect at this kid’s altar, are defined by exceptional performances- especially Holbrook, sans his trademark mustache, as Ron, who wants to adopt McCandless just before he leaves for Alaska. Perhaps the only good directorial sign Penn shows comes when a 16 year old female songstress, Tracy (Kristen Stewart), he meets when at a desert retreat with Jan and Rainey, tries to seduce him. McCandless turns her down because she is underage, and we see he likely cares for her. That Penn did not opt for a trite love story seems a sign that Penn has some potential as a director, until one realizes he had no choice, lest change the very autobiographical details of this film he seemingly strove to make as real to McCandless’s life as possible.
This is where Penn makes another error. Not that he should have had McCandless get some thigh, but that he should have developed the relationships of McCandless with the minor characters more, for they would have illumined McCandless more. As is, his character is a virtual cipher, whereas the minor characters range from very well sketched to indelibly brilliant. That said, little of this is the flaw of Hirsch, who does very well with what little meat Penn feeds him in his horrid screenplay. The worst part of the script is that it is told in flashbacks, for ridding the film of this structure would get rid of the voiceovers, and let the emotional power in the film, especially that developed within the brief relationships McCandless forges, to build up slowly- especially in such a long film (trimming it by 50-60 minutes is a necessity). Instead, Penn undercuts even that with his manifold examples of directorial incompetence.
The soundtrack is similarly bad, save for a brief comic respite where McCandless paddles down the Grand Canyon without a permit, is chased by River Police, and encounters a wacky Dutch couple. They are playing M.C. Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This, which reverberates off the canyon walls. Other than that, the music far too easily gives away emotional endpoints, and is suffused with atrocious Eddie Vedder humalongs. The ending of the film is appropriately awful, as McCandless dies of food poisoning, looking up at the sun in his bus, as he is too stupid to properly realize what berries he is eating, after he claims to be trapped by the thawed river. Yet, it never seems to have occurred to him to simply follow the raging river downstream to where an easier crossing, or other people, will inevitably be. Yet, as bad as so much of this film is (it also bizarrely includes a poem from the awful doggerelist Sharon Olds, to boot), it is the perfect sort of vapid Oscar-worthy fare that Hollywood loves to celebrate, loaded with nostrums of pseudo-insight as ‘Happiness is real only if shared,’ and ‘You can have it all if you know what you really want.’ Of course, mature individuals know the answer to both those claims is no.
So much of Into The Wild reads like a bad poem with good intentions, or a slice of 1970s Jonathan Livingston Seagull mindfarts, that one wishes Penn had a dram of humor so he could have at least given his audience some campy joy- especially in some scenes, like one where Ron and McCandless are debating in the desert near a nudist colony. But, he does not, and all the blame for that is Penn’s, who, like so many other mediocre Oscar winning actors-cum-bad directors (Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood), takes a mediocre tale and makes it worse. A great film director, like Werner Herzog, however, can take just such a tale (see Grizzly Man, about another idiotic nature lover who got himself killed in the Alaskan wilderness) and make it interesting, while simultaneously empathizing with, and laughing at, his main character’s idiocy. And when will there be a film made about a true Alaska icon, like Dick Proenneke, a man who tested himself against the worst Alaska had to offer….and survived because he was smart, prepared, and determined?
Probably, it is not even thought of, much less in the works, for such realities do not feed the youth-glorifying machine Hollywood feeds the Lowest Common Denominator zombies who dream McCandlessian aeries. That so many people identify and sympathize with this unfortunately deluded and hollow young loser bespeaks how little they even notice themselves, and their own flaws, much less the many other McCandlesses that proliferate in cafes across the nation. Life is as real, both for the good and ill, in a New York City deli, a doctor’s waiting room, or in a tenement, as it is on the peak of Mount Everest, riding the tube of a forty foot wave in Hawaii, or trekking through the Amazon. McCandless never learned this for no one seemed to care enough to even try to stop him. Of course, even had they, he was so selfish and uncaring of others’ feelings, that he likely would not have been deterred. And, Penn would likely not have cared to make a film about such a character, anyway.
So, given the predetermined mess of this film, I return to the opening query- how did the bus, which the film refers to as ‘magic’- thank you to The Who, get there? A Google search reveals the bus was fortuitously left by a highway construction company, decades earlier, to be used as a waystation for hikers, hunters, and campers. Since everything else in this film is so obvious, I just thought you’d want to know that and, also, to avoid this film. Thank me later.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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