Into the Wild
Sean Penn (Book by Jon Krakauer)
Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Brian Dierker, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Krisetn Stewart, Hal Holbrook
R (for language and some nudity)
If you ever wanted to curl up with a good book about philosophical explorations of the meaning of existence, Into the Wild may be just what you wanted without having to slave away for hours reading.
Based on the life of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), Sean Penn adapts the book by Jon Krakauer exploring McCandless’ life as he decides to abandon his wealthy roots and hitchhike to Alaska so he can explore the vast frozen wilderness that exists there.
Along the way, McCandless meets several interesting and unusual individuals including a pair of motorhome hippies, two exhibitionist Swedish tourists, and an old man who never had a child. Each individual helps shape Christopher’s life and each provide great insight for him on his journey.
The colorful cast of characters is almost more interesting than the actual emotional exploration in the story. Catherine Keener gives one of her best performances as Jan Burres, one of the motorhome hippies who treats Christopher like her own son. Hal Holbrook is the best he’s been in years as the kindly old man who provides Christopher with a place to stay before taking his final lonely steps into the Alaskan wilderness.
The rest of the cast provides able support, but none stand out exceptionally well, including McCandless’ parents played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, appearing so briefly that they have very little impact on the story. Jena Malone hasn’t leapt into the spotlight like many other actresses her age, preferring to turn in strong performances in smaller films. Sadly, she isn’t given very much attention in the film, making it hard for her to carve out more than a small niche.
Hirsch shows some signs of brilliance in the film, most notably as he struggles for survival in Alaska. However, for me, his more outgoing moments talking with the myriad people he has met are a bit rougher and needed to be fleshed out. The film is a bit too introspective at moments forcing the audience to wait expectantly for events to develop. While this kind of storytelling certainly makes a strong statement about how to explore oneself, these scenes drag a bit when the action should be taking us some place.
If most of the film didn’t focus on McCandless and feature sufficient dialogue on the matter, it might be considered a concept film for an album of Eddie Vedder music. His songs play frequently through the film and most of them sound relatively similar. They add somewhat to the film, making the quieter moments of the film, the ones that show us the natural settings through which the protagonist passes, less lethargic and tedious.
When the final scenes unspool, the action becomes more frenetic than it has during the entire film, making it feel a bit out of place, but it provides a good suggestion of what is about to happen. While the film certainly doesn’t try to hide the outcome, some of the impact of the film is diminished when you realize where it’s going.
Why do we exist and why does the world exist if we are not meant to explore it and ourselves? How can we faithfully interact with society when our very actions are dictated by social requirements? McCandless’ escape from the confines of society to delve into his soul is a powerful statement on existence, but not everyone will be able to take that kind of idea away from the film and that is probably Into the Wild‘s biggest weakness.
September 24, 2008