Saturday, December 08, 2007

Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)

I think that you have to recognize the blindspot Sean Penn surely had while making this movie- indeed, the film would probably not exist without it, for had Penn not been so enamoured by this story, he would not have worked so hard to get it made, and it probably would have dropped out of sight. So, with the film's reason for being also comes its inherent weakness, and one that, surely, can only be laid at Penn's door. He is too enamoured of the story. He is too in love with the idea of what Christopher McCandless did to really get across the deep ironies ingrained in the story. Read reviews or comments on this film and you seem to get an unsurprising thick line drawn between two parties: those who see Chris as some kind of a hero, and those who think he was a selfish, foolish idiot. The book, although I haven't read it, on which Penn bases his script, apparently have a more balanced version of things, seeing Chris as both a hero and a fool, and this is how, despite the way Penn tries to skewer things, I saw him: what Chris (played by Emile Hirsch in a terrific performance) did was brave, commendable and free-spirited, but at the same time he was undeniably rather foolish, clearly not prepared for what he wilfully treks into. Jena Malone, who spends more time narrating than appearing as Chris's sister Carine, at one point speaks of how Carine feels a bit hurt, a bit betrayed, that Chris didn't try to contact her, even if his reasons for abandoning his parents (played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt in roles that are remarkably small and really don't deserve them) are made clear- Chris's reasons are obvious, understandable, and even sympathetic, but in his desire to cut himself off from human relationships he fails to realize that family is something that you can't ever cut yourself off from- tellingly, and in one of Penn's best moments of actual insight, the film opens with Harden waking in the night and distressingly announcing that Chris is dead.

Penn can't keep the balance, but many of his other decisions are interesting: though this structure may come from the book, I found it fascinating how Penn interweaves Chris's journey (accompanied by four chapter titles, rather unsubtly representing stages of life) with what is, essentially, his death- several months on the "Magic Bus" where he was eventually found. Commendably, too, Penn doesn't just glory in the wide, open, gorgeous landscapes, all showing us an America that we've really never seen before in the movies, but in the minute details of nature, too- insects and plants photographed in close-up, as if they're as massive as the imposing mountains. Penn's blindspot as a human is made up for by his growing skill as a filmmaker (this is a long way from the stolidity of The Pledge), and, if nothing else (I hasten to add it is more than this), Into the Wild is a beauty as a visual spectacle. Grade: B


Kamikaze Camel said...

I'm of the mind that I can understand what the character did, but I think he was selfish. Like, I find it hard to find sympathy (or worshipdom for that matter) for a man who had the resources to be able to do anything he wanted in life. Couldn't he have used his life to become a laywer and help underprivelidged people or whatever. Something. Instead he had this romanticised view - and a view that only someone who has grown up with money can have - that having money, an education and all that stuff is bad. Cry me a river that your parents wanted to buy you a car. I'm so sorry you chose to live in a car by choice and that you aren't an actual homeless bum. Life's tough.

And, from what we saw of the movie, I'm not sure why he hated his mother so much. It was his father that was abusive towards his mother and it was the father who seemed to be pushing him to be something he didn't necessarily want to be.

Dave said...

But that's the point. He didn't want the resources. They represented everything he hated. I'm not saying that's a particularly good or selfless view to have, but that's how I saw it. He wanted out of that way of life altogether, and the film shows that that is, really, ultimately impossible, because even when he's alone in Alaska he's using an old bus for shelter and a book to help him eat. I think in some way his ideas are good- back to nature, etc.- but as you say he has a very warped view of everything.

I think I really feel more sympathetic on a basic level- as in, I understand the feeling of wanting to live in a different world to the one he's in.

As for the mother thing, I think it was less geared towards the mother- he really just lumps her in with his father because she lied too. Again, a rather skewed view, but that seems to be the way he was. And like I said, Penn sadly doesn't get that.

I hope that came to something coherent.