Into The Wild - DVD Review

'McCandless’ journey is so expansive, so metaphysical and so visionary that it makes it almost impossible to put his motivations and desires on screen in any discernible way'

In 1990 Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) disappeared from his rented accommodation in Atlanta to hike across the United States under the moniker ‘Alexander Supertramp’. Eventually deciding upon living in the Alaskan wilds Christopher left behind a family, twenty-four thousand dollars in savings and most of his cash and possessions.

Into The Wild is Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book which attempts to document Christopher’s journey and his eventual time living in an abandoned ‘magic bus’ in the Alaskan wilderness. Taking on board both screenplay and directing duties Penn here attempts to create a film as expansive as McCandless’ journey, narrowing and broadening his focus from his hero’s (and make no doubt, he is his hero) days in the bus to his journey across America. The photography from Eric Gauthier captures Penn’s vision fantastically, bringing in elements of his previous expansive journey in The Motorcycle Diaries and ensuring we see the America McCandless saw on his tour.

Performance wise it is hard to fault any of the key character actors. Hirsch is stunning as Christopher and a late photograph shows how similar the two are in terms of their physical appearance. A complex character, Hirsch manages to inhabit the role of a simultaneously intelligent student and penniless bum with a high degree of accuracy and sincerity. Opposite this performances other key roles, by and large, manage to keep up, being mainly filled by the people Christopher met on his journey. Hal Holbrook secured his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for a tear-jerking performance as Ron Franz, a war veteran and ex-alcoholic who adopts Christopher for a short period. Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener also make brief appearances as characters who both made a big impression and were impressed upon by the enigmatic traveller. Most impressive however is Kristen Stewart as Tracey Trato, a trailer park girl who Christopher strikes his closest relationship with. It is an all to brief glimpse of a young, precocious talent, whose relationship with Christopher is too intense to ever be gratified by other means. Displaying a tenderness that, in later parts of the film, is often absent, Stewart creates a character which manages to shift the focus from Christopher, something which again is often absent.

With all the above elements it seems impossible for this film to fail, however, Penn comes dangerously close to ruining a good story, muddling events and focuses to a degree where audiences would be justified in feeling disengaged and confused. The greatest example of this is in the portrayal of Vince Vaughn’s Wayne Westerberg. Later focuses by Penn show the influence Wayne had on the impressionable Christopher, the latter writing him letters declaring what a great man he was and how well treated he felt by him, but in his own ‘segment’ Westerberg is given short shrift, disappearing off screen with barely more to show for it than a couple of alcohol-infused bar conversations. Even Wayne’s eventual disappearance from the screen is handled muddily, leaving the audience uncertain as to his crime and/or fate. It is a model which is repeated throughout with even the aforementioned Stewart receiving a similar lack of focus and development.

The only real reason Penn can have for this is to justify McCandless’ eventual decision to continue his journey to live alone, despite the apparently passionate and positive interactions he has had along the way. In some ways this shows real insight from the director, recognising that the Supertramp’s decisions are often irrational, impulsive and ill-judged. And here we get to the crux of the film which is that many people really won’t, even after watching from start to finish, understand the decisions Christopher makes. At times he is a frustrating and un-likeable character who seems to have no more problems to run from than the average, well-off, western youngster. Despite frequent offers of love and redemption McCandless doesn’t reach his moral epiphany until he has finally isolated himself from all and sundry.

The fault that the film isn’t a resounding success doesn’t ultimately lie with Penn but perhaps in the fact that he has attempted to film an un-filmable story. McCandless’ journey is so expansive, so metaphysical and so visionary that it makes it almost impossible to put his motivations and desires on screen in any discernible way, despite fantastic photography and assured performances. It’s a brave attempt by everybody involved, including Christopher himself, but in the end it is a character piece with only one character and even that one not completely realised.

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