Thursday, September 13, 2007

TIFF 2007: Into the Wild (U.S.)

Into the Wild (U.S.) directed by Sean Penn
Tuesday September 11, 2007

Oh how we age, and how we soften in our old age, especially when we have had child! All I could think of while watching this film was: what had this boy's poor parents done to him to drive him to make the drastic, sometimes desperate decisions he made with his life?

The portrait of the main protagonist, Christopher Johnson McCandless (Emile Hirsch), is based on a real person, a young man who graduated from college in 1990. His life was documented by Jon Krakauer in a book by the same name as the film. Influenced by great thinkers such as Thoreau, Tolstoy and Pasternak, and a score of others, Christopher decides to go "into the wild" on a solitary, epic odyssey across America.

He gives away the $24,000 he has saved for Harvard Law School to Oxfam, burns his money (literally) and his Social Security card. He willfully destroys his identity and re-christens himself Alexander Super Tramp. He deceives his parents as to where he is living to give him time to "escape" his safe, upper middle class life.

He leads a largely nomadic existence - working when he has to on farms or in fast food joints or selling books in a hippie caravan - and traveling from state to state by car and rail. He is befriended by hippies (among them Catherine Keener); navigates dangerous grand rapids by himself; eludes the police; shares a meal with Swedish hippies; is assaulted by a security guard when he tries to hop a train; encounters a bear; falls in love with a hippie chick and befriends Wayne, a philosophizing farmer (Vince Vaughn) who employs him until Wayne is jailed for illegal activities. Christopher records everything in minute detail in his journal.

But what is he escaping from? It is unclear. A cold, withholding father (William Hurt) with a secret past? A loving but cloying mother (Marcia Gay Harden)? A upper middle class existence that he abhors? There is a suggestion that there is violence between the parents, that they drink too much and have erected a cold, suburban facade to conceal the lack of real love between them. The greatest personal outrage Christopher seems to suffer at their hands is their offer to purchase a car for him upon graduation which elicits a tirade of abuse from Christopher about the evils of materialism.

Although the family cooperated in the filming and the portrait is far from flattering there feels like a piece missing in the puzzle - why would a son wilfully deceive his parents, conceal his whereabouts for two years on the basis of his repugnance for material things alone? Why punish them so drastically unless he feels that he has been harmed irreparably by them? What is it that we don't know about his life? Or was he merely a spolied brat with an oversized ego?

He eventually ends up in Fairbanks, Alaska on a solitary sojourn on an abandoned bus that he dubs "the Magic Bus". In the end, he is undone by so small a thing that his needless suffering sparks contempt in the viewer, or at least in me, rather than understanding and compassion.

I am sure that this is not the feeling that the director Sean Penn hoped to evoke and he is obviously captivated by McCandless' audacity and courage (hence the near three hour film, perhaps 45 minutes too long). But it all seems a senseless waste of the life of a bright, passionate, talented individual. I'm afraid that Sean Penn, who wrote the screenplay, has not tapped into the mysteries of McCandless' fateful actions and the story, as unusual and passionate and surprising as it is, leaves one cold.

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