Monday, 22 June 2015

Review: Into The Wild

Into The Wild (2007) - Directed by Sean Penn

In the April of 1992, rambler Christopher Johnson McCandless ventured out into an area of the Alaskan wilderness known as the Stampede Trail. He had a small number of provisions - he had spent the last two years on the road, not communicating with his old friends and family, aiming to become totally independent and self-sufficient. In the September of the same year, McCandless' malnourished body was discovered by hikers, and the story of his doomed adventure entered into the American consciousness. And then, fifteen years after his death, two films were released which investigated McCandless - one by an independent filmmaker with a more documentary bent, and this film, directed by Sean Penn and fully dramatised.
     Penn seems to admire the subject of his film - the man who liked to refer to himself by the alias "Alex Supertramp" on his travels. The film covers his journey across the States over the two years before he travelled to Alaska, presenting itself as a sideshow of interesting places and faces, and intercutting with a more conjectured portrayal of the last few months of his life, living in an abandoned bus. It's difficult for me to make judgement on the film without directly judging the man himself, which I feel would be something of a dick move on my part, and so I'll clarify that when I say that Alex is someone I have very little sympathy for, I am referring to his dramatised counterpart, here played by Emile Hirsch.
     On first viewing Into The Wild I didn't know that this was a true story - this was one story that hadn't crossed the pond. This is important because it meant that my view of the subject was completely free of prior bias. Chris is from a fairly wealthy middle-class family that can afford to let him run a car and is prepared to buy him a new one on a whim. He seems to have gone to a fairly good University and passed with flying colours, with Harvard being a possible career path. His eventual escape from his home-life therefore feels an act of pure selfishness. We hear possible rationalisations from his family: his father was abusive; his father never told him or his sister that they were bastards. But none of those things (with the exception of his father's alleged abuse) cover up the fact that though all this, I see Chris as a pretentious, naiive figure, far from the tragic martyr to the American Dream that the film paints him as.
The last photo taken by the real McCandless, rip.
      Which is, as far as I see it, something of a flaw within the diamond that is the rest of the film. In all the ways that matter, this film is excellently made and it looks and sounds gorgeous. The cinematography is clever and vibrant and it brings out the best of the film's sweeping landscapes. It also takes an amazingly demented turn near the very end of the film as we see Chris literally shuffle to his final resting place and die of malnutrition. By far my favourite thing about the film, though, is its soundtrack and audo work. Complementing an amazingly poignant soundtrack by Eddie Vedder are the voiceovers done by Hirsch as Chris and Jenna Malone (The Hunger Games) as Chris' sister Carine, the latter of whom gives the film the vast majority of its hindsight.
     Despite the film's popularity having stemmed from the perception of its protagonist as a great figure of freedom and independence and rejection of society, I think the film works a lot better as a long, bittersweet epitaph - one which, despite often being as pretentious and unnecessarily verbose as its subject, Which is why I think you really should watch this movie - because, no matter what conclusion you come to on McCandless himself, this is a beautiful movie and a beautiful, real world tragedy.