Sunday, February 10, 2008
Into the Wild ***
Director: Sean Penn
Cast: Emile Hirsch
Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone
Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook
After graduating from Emory University, Christopher McCandless (Hirsch) donates his savings to OXFAM and leaves on a journey to Alaska where he intends to live without the hypocrisy of society and the evil within materialism.
Along the way, he meets people that influence him and his attempt at some sort of postmodern enlightment becomes instead a moving, ultimately tragic, rite of passage.
The film features some of the most beautiful, poetic images shot on the American wilderness reminiscent of the great, generation-shaping, road movies of the 70s.
Led by what is an obviously demanding lead performance by Hirsch, the plot takes its time to win over you, mostly because it isn't trying to do that at all.
At first McCandless comes off looking like a selfish brat with idealistic dreams. He is condescending to the people he meets and most of the time acts as if his presence and example should be taken as some divine message.
Hirsch conveys this convincingly precisely because he doesn't act like some cult leader, but possesses a cockiness that makes everybody believe in what he thinks.
Considering that most of the film consists of Hirsch hunting, swimming, building fires and all other kinds of survival activities, his performance never exhausts you.
Slowly though his venture begins to shift into more of a revenge fueled by pride and anger. The plot accuses his parents (played by Hurt and Gay Harden who both make the most out of their limited roles) of being the reason why he fled "normal" life, but Hirsch easily avoids easily detectable motivations and remains so enigmatic that by the end, the pain his parents caused on him shifts from being perceived as weakness and arrogance, turning into the kind of excuses people come up with to cope with unbearable loss.
The supporting performances make up a beautiful collage that includes Keener as a grieving, hippie mother and Vaughn as a rowdy farmer.
But just as the film is coming off as a selfgratifying ode to McCandless' narcissism, Hal Holbrook appears playing Ron Franz, an army veteran who finds in Chris both the youth he lost and the chance to make it right again.
A performance that carries sorrow and loneliness, Holbrook gives the last act a heart that isn't coercive, but possesses the kind of wisdom that counterpoints everything the young man feels to be true.
If good actors are measured by the way you wish you could influence their character's fate, then Holbrook is among the best.
At the center of it all, other than the fact that it is based on a true story, what ends up affecting you the most is the palpable truth that director Sean Penn found in the film.
One could say that McCandless' pride can be compared to the way in which we perceive Penn.
Like its character the film begins with a self assuredness that makes it seem almost invincible, whether you care about what it's saying or not.
The adventure is terrifying, but you can't help but admire Chris, and Penn's crew, for going to such places to deliver cheap philosophy.
And just when it's about to turn all forcedfully transcendental on you, the whole mood of the film shifts into a meditative place that make us wonder if this is necessarily at all.
While the beauty of the outdoors is undeniable, it is no coincidence that most of the beauty found here lies in the people who go and capture it for us to see.
When McCandless is ultimately "betrayed" by that he thought would never harm him, instead of feeling like poetic irony of a feral kind, the events remind us that there is beauty to be found in both wildernesses: the one untouched by humans and the other one, where skyscrapers and corporations still harbor some kind of hope.