Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Human Nature

Into The Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)

With ‘Into The Wild’, Sean Penn has made a beautiful film that captures the awe and wonder of the natural world in a way that many directors have attempted but where few have succeeded. The film is adapted from a book chronicling the existential wandering of Christopher McCandless, a wealthy young man in his early 20s who abandoned plans to study law at Harvard, donated his $24,000 savings to Oxfam, and ventured out into the wilderness, eventually reaching the remarkable frozen wilds of Alaska. As such, it is certainly a picture with rather heavy literary pretentions. The somewhat forced poetry of its voiceover, along with the film’s spectacular imagery, suggests a certain kinship with Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’, although it by no means scales that film’s considerable heights.

The central performance is a triumph of extreme method acting from Emile Hirsch, in whom Penn has certainly unearthed a major new talent. In the flashback sequences, he is handsome, charismatic and charming, but with the sequences in Alaska that bookend the film, he is pale, gaunt and monstrous, physically weakened beyond anything the audience could imagine. Throughout, he is remarkably resourceful, but also deeply reckless. He takes a number of uncalculated risks, any of which could have resulted in disaster. Travelling with as few possessions as possible, we see him brazenly making a fire from his remaining dollar bills

The film is intelligently structured, initially affording us only limited glimpses of McCandless’ background. As he pompously renames himself Alexander Supertramp and sets out across America to convene with nature, he initially seems both excessive and naïve. His quest is essentially a selfish one – and seems to stem from a desire to reject all forms of human relationships (something he inevitably does not achieve) in favour of pursuing a love of untamed nature and unrestricted freedom from the bland conventions of society. Hirsch is careful to bring out McCandless’ considerable charm as much as his disconnection and vanity, but as we are presented with gradually greater glimpses of his family background, we begin to learn how much of his actions stem from frustration, resentment and rage.

As a result of this, it is a shame that his family, completely unaware of his condition or whereabouts, are afforded such limited screen time. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden both give convincing, dramatic performances worthy of their talent – but are not allowed much space to develop as characters. We see brief hints of the darker elements of their relationship, and get a palpable sense of their grief, but our understanding of them is limited by Jena Malone’s clunky voiceover. Seeing them purely through this and McCandless’ own actions prevents us from appreciating them as complete human beings and from fully comprehending the devastating impact their son’s actions must have exerted on them.

I could also have done without some of Penn’s more messianic touches. There are too many shorts of Hirsch in grandiose poses. One example that lingers in the mind is a desperately cloying ‘Jesus on a mountaintop’ image, with Hirsch’s arms outstretched and Eddie Vedder wailing unpleasantly in the background. That being said, some of the accusations of pretension that have been levelled against Penn can be mitigated by the fact that the film relies heavily on McCandless’ own journals. Whilst these demonstrate his love of literature (books would appear to be permissible worldly possessions), they also betray his own self-aggrandising streak and unsuccessful lunges at poetry.

What really makes ‘Into The Wild’ both immersing and affecting is the wonderful cast of people that McCandless meets on his journey. There’s Vince Vaughan, performing splendidly against type as a hard drinking but good natured farmer whose criminal activities get him into trouble. There’s also a couple of ageing hippies who have refused to abandon their chosen lifestyle. McCandless’ unexpected entry into their lives restores spirit, vitality and honesty to their relationship. The hilarious young Scandinavian couple he meets whilst illegally canoeing down the Colorado river offer unexpected and welcome respite from the film’s serious tone by blasting out MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ from a rather ugly boombox. There’s a teenage singer-songwriter with whom McCandless becomes emotionally, but not physically intimate. Best of all is a truly moving performance from veteran character actor Hal Holbrook, as a solitary old man who offers to adopt McCandless as his grandson. Having long ago lost his wife and children in an accident, he accepts McCandless’ presence as an opportunity to embrace life once more. The dialogue in all these scenes is spare and utterly convincing – at times the film seems to assume an almost documentary style, and it very much feels like we are observing very real, very touching conversations, filled with insight and mystery. Some critics have emphasised only the more selfish elements of McCandless’ behaviour (his refusal to stay in one place too long, and his ultimate rejection of the relationships) without observing the changes and benefits his presence brought to these people.

The film ends on an almost unbearably poignant note, with McCandless alone, poisoned, freezing and starving in his ‘magic bus’ in Alaska. He endures his final days by reading Tolstoy and Pasternak, scrawling the epitaph ‘happiness is only real when shared’ into his well-worn copy of ‘Dr. Zhivago’. It is the ultimate paradox that, in one sense, McCandless died having reached his desired destination and lived the life that he wanted to live. Yet the lingering sadness of these words suggest that he did this at a massive cost to his own personal fulfilment. There’s enough ambiguity here for audiences to make their own judgements about McCandless’ choices and behaviour – Penn sustains an admirably detached vantage throughout, and his lead actor is nuanced in giving a convincing portrait of a complex and driven young man.

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