28 October 2007

Into the Wild

I admire Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild quite a bit, and so I was wary about seeing the movie. What I most like about the book is the interplay between Krakauer's sensibility and Chris McCandless's story -- Krakauer understands the mix of idealism, frustration, and foolhardiness that led McCandless to abandon as many of the accoutrements of civilization as he could, dub himself "Alexander Supertramp", and set out with very little preparation or knowledge, eventually heading for the wilderness of Alaska -- and yet Krakauer is also different enough in temperament from McCandless to be able to provide a counter-narrative through his wrestling with the implications of McCandless's actions, ideas, and mistakes. It's not as drastic a counter-narrative as Werner Herzog provides the story of a somewhat similar Alaskan dreamer, Timothy Treadwell, in Grizzly Man, but it's enough to make the book compelling and thought-provoking.

Alas, the movie Sean Penn has made is a sentimental and declawed version of Krakauer's book. I didn't really hate it -- Emile Hirsch gives a warm and dedicated performance as McCandless, which makes the movie generally pleasant to watch -- but every time I was about to fully surrender myself to the characters and events, something annoyed me, and the more I've thought about Into the Wild as a whole, the more I've been frustrated by its many lost possibilities.

A story like Chris McCandless's cries out for a visionary director, and I couldn't help wondering throughout Into the Wild what a director like Herzog or Terrence Malick or even David Lynch would have done with the material, because Penn is too pedestrian a filmmaker -- too given to visual, audio, and narrative cliches -- to do real justice to the source material.

The music for the movie consists mostly of songs by Eddie Vedder, and though I like some of the individual songs, they are used so obtrusively that they turn otherwise interesting scenes into banal music videos. At moments of emotional intensity, the score (by Michael Brook) reverts to strings, letting us know this is a place where we're supposed to feel. (There's a nice moment, though, when Hirsch and Kristen Stewart perform a pleasant duet of one of my favorite songs, John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery". It's contrived and obvious, but it's such a good song I didn't mind.) The editing and cinematography don't help -- each shot is designed for short attention spans, and much of the footage of wilderness looked to me like it could have been taken from any anonymous nature documentary. (For comparison, take a look at a masterpiece like Paris, Texas.)

And then there's the voiceover. Usually, the voiceover is of McCandless's sister, Carine, who yaks about Chris and about life after he disappeared from the family. It's at best unnecessary, at worst a clumsy reiteration of things we could figure out otherwise or decide for ourselves. (At the end, we get Chris himself taking over the voiceover.) Worse, though, are words from McCandless's writings occasionally scrawled across the screen in big, handwriting-style yellow letters that seem more appropriate to a show on Nikelodeon circa 1988 than to a movie such as Into the Wild seems to aspire to be.

The biggest problem I have with Into the Wild as a film, though, is that it presents McCandless as a holy fool. Wherever he goes, he makes people seek out what is meaningful in existence, he makes them recognize love, he helps them see beyond consumerism and materialism and other, like, bad stuff. So even though he might not, himself, have the best end, he nonetheless helps other people find meaning in their lives, repair their relationships, and dream. It's the sort of gooey, optimistic woo-woo appealing to everybody from people who use the word "spirituality" without a trace of irony to devout fundamentalists of various religions, and in that sense it's hardly different from the average feel-good movie or get-well card.

McCandless sought some sort of truth, and in seeking this truth he sacrificed absolutely everything. That's the sort of idealist I like, the sort of person who sticks to deep convictions and tries to build a life from them, even if they do so rashly or ignorantly. Herzog is attracted to this sort of figure, and has spoken of "ecstatic truth" as a goal of his films, and though this idea is a bit abstract for my tastes, nonetheless it leads Herzog to produce interesting work, and I wish Penn had been better able to aim for such a truth; instead, he emitted rote simulacra of ecstacy, reducing McCandless's quest for truth to, more often than not, comfortably familiar imagery and easy emotions.

There are, though, redeeming aspects to the film, including some of the scenes of McCandless's last days -- visceral scenes presented without bombast. There are some fine performances (especially by Hal Holbrook) that transcend the inspirational-movie-of-the-week situations the actors have been given for material. At brief moments, the music gets out of the way and we are allowed some choice and ambiguity in how we will respond emotionally. The attention to books throughout the movie, and McCandless's fascination with writers such as Tolstoy and Jack London, will please anyone who has carried books around as totems and companions.

I suppose, then, that my strongest feelings about Into the Wild as a film are feelings of disappointment -- disappointment at the lost potential to film the story as something unique and powerful, something that escapes received ideas and gestures; disappointment that the fleeting moments of real excellence couldn't be extended.


  1. Good review - I haven't seen the film yet, but I did read the book years ago.

    I was afraid that Sean Penn would handle the book in the superficial way you described.

  2. I disliked almost everything about this film. I see quite a few films but none really strike me as anything I'd hate. I hated this film. The music at times seemed to be a clawless Cat Stevens impression as if he wanted to rescore Harold and Maude. Christopher was clearly a jerk. Hirsch played him with grinning idiot sympathy which didn't work. The actual Chris seemed like a moocher and a freeloader who truly didn't want to live off the grid but had a chip on his shoulder about people telling him what to do. In fact it was that very issue that killed him. Ideals don't keep you alive in the wilderness, skills do.

    Thanks for giving me a place to vent about this damn film.

  3. It's amazing how shallow and uninspired this review is. In my life, there haven't been many movies that have ever really changed something about my day-to-day existentialism, but this has been one of them. The lack of passion you have towards this film probably crosses into your life and causes you to listen to equally soul-less music. This film wasn't aimed at people like you to begin with, so my feelings won't get hurt when you just keep humping the American Dream. If you really hate this film, I'm sure the book wouldn't do much for you either since it's probably not within your picket-fence parameters of ignorance.

  4. Ahhh, Dear Anonymous! You have convinced me! Yes, I am shallow! That is why I could not recognize this masterpiece for the genius that it is! That is why, despite having enjoyed the book quite a bit (for the reasons mentioned in the shallow and uninspired review, which you clearly did not read, but rather decided to hate the moment you discovered it was not enamored of the film's brilliance), despite having frequently proclaimed such writers as Thoreau and Barry Lopez among the most important to me, despite having even for a time during college worked with radical environmental organizations ... despite all this, yes, I am an ignorant tool of the American system of commodification and consumption and you you you are the enlightened one! Thank you for shedding some of your light on me!

  5. Without ever meeting Chris, or even reading the book, I watched the film with out any preconceived ideas. I understand that it's probably a watered down version of the book, and the people are probably not anything like the film portrays them as being. But the film, by itself, has inspired me greatly. I love everything about it. It is one of only films that ever moved me to tears.