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Into the Wild

#726 - Into the Wild
Sean Penn, 2007

Based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young college graduate who gives away his worldly possessions in order to travel through the American wilderness.

Sometimes I wonder what difference knowing the true story behind a biopic makes to the film in question. Knowing how the story of the individuals involved is likely to conclude isn't automatically enough to ruin a film, but it can definitely put a damper on the proceedings. Into the Wild is based on the true story of would-be adventurer Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a college graduate and son of an affluent family. Inspired by reading books by the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Jack London, McCandless opts to abandon the career path set out for him, sign away his life savings to charity, and set out on a journey along the open road with the goal of eventually making it to Alaska. The film begins with him taking up residence in an abandoned bus somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness before cutting back and forth to different points in his journey, ranging from his idealistic beginnings through to the various adventures (and misadventures) he has on the road.

It's pretty much a given that in order for a story to work, an audience has to care about what happens to its characters; this much should apply regardless of whether or not a character is supposed to be sympathetic. Given the context surrounding the film's actual events, Into the Wild seems to be forced to provide a sympathetic portrayal of McCandless and his desire to strike out on his own. This much is borne out by the incredibly simplistic ways in which the film sets up characters that serve as antagonists to McCandless. The most immediate examples are his upstanding parents who supposedly want what's best for their son yet are shown to be incredibly flawed hypocrites underneath their picture-perfect exteriors (especially William Hurt as his verbally abusive father). In addition, McCandless tends to go up against other difficult authority figures that range from obstructively bureaucratic wildlife rangers to violently strict train engineers. While I can understand the reasons why the film might want to portray McCandless as sympathetic, I question just how well such a decision actually works on a cinematic level. The film seems to be guiding viewers towards siding with McCandless's free-spirited intentions, but it's just as possible for a viewer to be alienated by the sheer foolishness of what he's attempting; as a result, his eagerness can come across as irritating more so than infectious. The same goes for his high-minded romanticising of both nature and the road, even if that does gradually get deconstructed as the film moves towards its conclusion.

The reason I bring up the issue of audience sympathy in regards to McCandless's exploits is that your attitude towards his actions will definitely inform whether or not you can tolerate Into the Wild as a whole. The film favours a loosely episodic plot structure rather than a recognisably straightforward narrative. The inherent problem with building a film around clearly-defined segments rather than a continuous narrative is that the film's quality can vary wildly from segment to segment, which can easily result in a whole of inconsistent worth. This unfortunately happens to Into the Wild, with the bulk of the film feeling like a serious endurance test. I'm generally okay with films being slow and long if that measured approach actually means something in either the short or long run, but I never got that feeling with Into the Wild. When McCandless isn't wandering around on his own, he's having encounters with other travelers on the road of life. These people tend to be played by recognisable faces such as Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, and Hal Holbrook. For the most part, they don't yield especially interesting foils to McCandless - Keener functions as little more than an understanding adult whose implied back-story feeds into her becoming something of a surrogate mother to McCandless, while Vaughn makes an agreeable employer whose seemingly settled lifestyle is lent some semblance of roguishness by his criminal dealings. Holbrook is far and away the stand-out as a lonely old craftsman whose tragic past and earthy countenance feel compellingly sincere in a way that the rest of the film, earnest though it may be, struggles to match across the rest of its running time.

Despite its apparent attempt to provide a genuine tribute to Christopher McCandless's ultimately tragic journey of impassioned self-discovery, Into the Wild still ends up feeling like a very love-or-hate film. It collects a variety of recognisable actors to fill out various roles, but beyond Hirsch's notable physical transformation and Holbrook's bittersweet supporting role these actors get very little of worth to do. On a technical level, Penn's blending of natural scenery with elliptical storytelling is liable to conjure associations with erstwhile Penn collaborator Terrence Malick, but the end product never manages to stand out in its own right. Considering how McCandless's wonder at the marvels of nature is a large part of what leads him to pursue a life on the road in the first place, the film's inability to capture the scenery in a remotely impressive manner is either a blatant failure to do right by its protagonist or a clever subversion that still ends up making the film look boring regardless of its intent. The same goes for the bland acoustic score (complete with Eddie Vedder's vocalising, no less) that also fails to leave much of a positive impression. Though Into the Wild has a somewhat promising outline and Holbrook's handful of scenes are uniformly good, the end result still ends up being an extremely tedious affair that lacks the visual splendour needed to adequately compensate for its choppy narrative and largely empty characterisation.