Into the Wild

Into the Wild (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Sean Penn
viewed: 10/09/07 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I think Sean Penn is a pretty cool guy, self-righteous and all, but pretty cool, a good actor when he wants to be, but I’d never gotten around to seeing any of the films that he had directed.   They’d mostly gotten mixed reviews and didn’t sound particularly fun, focusing on a lot of emotional turmoil and being heavy kind of dramas.

Well, Into the Wild is and isn’t different from that.  It’s heavy.  About a young man, disillusioned with society who escapes into the outskirts of the civilization and ultimately “into the wild”.  And he ends up starving to death.  Real “upper”.

Actually, I remember stumbling on this story in something like People magazine or something back in the early 1990’s, probably when the story first came to light.  The story I’d read was tainted as more a plight of suicide than some emboldened enlightenment that Penn sees in the character of Christopher McCandless, the real 23 year old whose life is captured here, adapted from a book of the same name by John Krakauer.

It’s pretty fascinating, the reality of it.  It’s sad.

The guy had a lot of issues with his parents both personally and idealistically and he “dropped out” more along the hippie lines than the punk lines.  He sought nature and independence, experience, challenge.  But he was also very much a loner, someone who dropped away from his family until his death.  I kept thinking that he could have used some therapy.  Maybe then he wouldn’t have led such an interesting life but then again he might still be around.  Who knows?  There is a lot in his attitude that is shared by so many people of that age.  Something, not just aging or maturing, but there is perspective and change that modifies (mollifies) those angers, those frustrations, those conflicts.  If we survive them, that is.

The film features some good performances from Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener among others.  But I really didn’t like the film.  I actually felt like walking out of the theater quite early on.  I didn’t.  But the booming soundtrack with the deep bombast of Eddie Vedder is enough to chase me out of the theater alone and it often made me seek such escape.  But beyond that, the direction felt muddled and choppy.  Something that I can’t really put my finger on how to describe.  Shots would cut too quick or scenes would feel put on or wrongly taken.  And ultimately, it’s love and admiration for McCandless moves into idealization and idolization.  The tragedy and mystery are not there.

His story really echoes that of Timothy Treadwell’s, the grizzly bear nut who escaped also into Alaska and ultimately into death, running from a middle class, middle American mediocrity of society that is almost inexplicable.  Grizzly Man (2005) had the benefit of a lot of footage of Treadwell himself and being documentary, there is more to be gleaned potentially from the film.  That’s a debatable point, I guess.

The weird thing, and maybe it’s just that the story is compelling and interesting, but I’ve been thinking of recommending this film to a couple of specific friends despite the fact that I really didn’t think it was very good as a film.  I don’t know what that says.  Maybe I should just suggest the Krakauer book instead (not that I’ve read it).  Who knows?

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