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Monday, July 14, 2008

Review: Into The Wild (2007)

* * * *

Director: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsh, Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener

Into The Wild is a thoughtful and thrilling movie about one young man’s desire to simplify his life by returning to nature. On the surface it looks like a fairly straight-forward story, but to see it is to experience something of incredible depth and meaning. Beautiful and tragic, this is an absolutely mesmerizing film.

The story centers on Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsh), who decides after graduating from University that he’s going to pursue a simpler way of life. He cleans out his savings account, giving most of the money away to charity, destroys his I.D.s, and disappears on an odyssey through the United States, dreaming of a great adventure in Alaska where he can finally be on his own and live off the land. He encounters a number of people during his travels, making connections that are both fleeting and lasting. Running parallel to his story is the story related by his sister (Jena Malone), which details the way the family is affected by Christopher’s disavowal of them and his desire to escape.

Director Sean Penn uses a variety of different methods in telling the story. Some scenes are used to call attention to the film itself, employing techniques such as a split screen to push the audience away and out of the story. Other scenes draw the audience right in, the composition of shots so intimate that we seem more like casual observers intruding on the action. There are also scenes which fill in the blanks of the McCandless’ family’s history which are filmed and filtered as if they’re old home movies. The variety of storytelling techniques helps to highlight the duality inherent in the story itself.

We’re obviously meant to feel sympathetic towards Christopher and perhaps even admire him for his desire to get back to basics. He’s disgusted by the materialism and greed that he sees all around him – one section finds him in Los Angeles and he seems absolutely allergic to the pace and temper of the city – and wants simply to get away from it, to be by himself and do things for himself. However, as admirable as his ideals are, the film is also critical of the way he pursues his dream of living on his own and off the land. His family is far from perfect, and his childhood is portrayed as having been downright toxic, but by simply disappearing and making sure that it’s impossible for his family to find him, Christopher does irreparable damage, leaving his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) completely broken. He’s left a void in the family, just as he leaves a void in the lives of the people with whom he briefly comes into contact. On the verge of death, he realizes that he’s left a void in himself, too: “Happiness is only real when shared,” he writes. Furthermore, while the film obviously appreciates Christopher’s enthusiasm to experience life and nature, it is also critical of how unprepared he is when it comes to bringing his dream to fruition. He’s read books and he’s taken notes, but in and of themselves, that’s not enough to prepare him for the realities of living on his own in the wilderness.

The performance by Emile Hirsh is really excellent and completely enthralling. In lesser hands, Christopher might seem self-centered and maybe even foolish, but instead he seems like a decent guy who genuinely cares for the people he crosses paths with but feels that he can’t be tied down by them. You can see why people care for Christopher and why his loss is something felt deeply – there’s just something very special about him and something very special about his story.


Anonymous said...

This is a flick I initially didn't want to see. When we rented it at my wife's insistence, I ended up loving it, largely due to Emille Hirsch's performance.

A fine review.

Norma Desmond said...

Hirsch is really great. It's a tricky role in that there are so many points where the character could seem like a jerk or a fool or whatever, but the sense of joy that Hirsch brings to it makes you understand how he came to mean so much to so many people.