Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Into The Wild (2005) On Further Review

Before I get into the movie I do have to warn you that I will be freely discussing what happened in the film...so if you don't want to know, don't read the review.

That said I now proceed to a discussion of Into The Wild.

Into The Wild is Sean Penn's adaptation of Jonathan Krakauer's book on the life and misadventures of Chris McCandless. The film tells the story of McCandless as he got out of college and traveled around the country trying to find himself. Eventually he made it to Alaska and headed out into the wilderness, where he set up camp in an abandoned bus, before he ended up getting in way over his head.

Into The Wild was one of the best looking films of 2005. Here was a film that married sound and image to the pinnacle of what films can do. Watching the film on my 42 inch flat screen I was reduced to murmuring "...Wow..." repeatedly.

Unfortunately as good as all of the technical aspects of the film are, I find that ultimately the film is a failure. Penn and his cohorts fail to make the central character, the one person who the film is about, likable, as he comes off as a spoiled brat with his insistence on going his own way.

I want to go on record yet again as saying that Chris McCandless, as portrayed in this film, is one of the most self-centered, egotistical twits ever put on film, and in all honesty he couldn't die fast enough for me.

I also want to go on record that the McCandless McCandless that is in Jonathan Krakauer's original article, and his follow up book, is a much more complex character. This is a guy you really like, despite it all. It's easy to see why Penn and the millions of readers who read the article and book are drawn to him. McCandless is not one note and it's easy to understand how we could yearn for the life of simplicity that he tried to find. There is a sense of loss when he dies, with the mistake coming honestly and not as the result of the actions of a pig-headed know-it-all.

I'm trying to find a reason that the McCandless character doesn't work on screen. I don't think it's the fault of Emile Hirsch who plays him. Rather I think it's the result of the limits of film. There are times when film can't give you the shading, the back story, or the subtle nuances that you get with words. When you are reading you naturally pause for a description or an aside that adds color. This may go on for several pages and there is no real pause in the narrative flow. You can't do that in a film, which even with its time jumping capabilities, must always move forward in some fashion. Without the shading, without the asides, we are left with just the actions of McCandless on a most basic level, and the result is we have a character that I, and many people I know, loathe. As I said, in the film he seems to be a smart-assed know-it-all who got what he deserved, which is a shame since the book the film comes from creates an intriguing character that challenges our notions of what life is and what it means to be alive and connected to the world we live in. I never felt challenged by the film the way the book challenged me. Perhaps the filmmakers were too in love with the book that they couldn't see what was missing from the film.

What bothers me about the McCandless problem is that the rest of the film is utterly amazing. The marriage of music and image is some of the finest I've ever seen committed to film. I remember watching the opening minutes of the film and being completely blown away. Penn should be commended for nailing everything about this film in every way, except the screenplay. Had we actually had a likable central character, this could have, and should have, been one of the best films of the "naughts"...instead it's an interesting misfire.

Frankly the rating of this film on the IMDB top 250 best films of all time completely eludes me.

As always comments are welcome, however I ask for one caveat. If you seek to take me to task for my views and you're going to argue about things that are in the book and not in the movie, don't do it. I saw the film first and read the book and article second, and found that there is so much more to the book's McCandless, and I would think the real one as well, that never appears in the film. To me the book celebrates McCandless even as it questions what he's doing. The film just celebrates him blindly and doesn't make him fallible enough. I've seen the film a couple of times now; twice before reading the book and once more after. Seeing the film after reading the book only drove home how wrong Penn got it in his screenplay.

To me my feelings are best summed up by what I wrote for the IMDB just after seeing the film and prior to reading the book:

...For what ever reason I couldn't connect to McCandless at all. He sounded like a spoiled brat. I don't know if it's because McCandless was a twit or because Penn has chosen to portray him as an epic hero for individualism. For me there was nothing he did or said that deserved a two and a half hour movie, other than living a life that we could project a sense of longing and lost utopia on to. Clearly it connects with some part of ourselves that connects to Thoreau's Walden (the great tale of self-reliance...which apparently is a lie since Thoreau went home every night for a good meal and a warm bed). It was clear to me that he was heading for trouble, and even if I hadn't known how it all came out I probably could have guessed.

Technically I think this is probably one of the best films of last year, but emotionally I don't. I know a good number of people are in love with the film and it's just outside the IMDB top 100, but I'm lost as to why. For me it's a beautifully told film that is in its way close to death porn, where the death of the hero somehow makes everything transcendent...or rather is changed into something transcendent so that someone's life has meaning, instead of being a cold, lonely, painful death all alone somewhere in the wild. For me there was no transcendence, only sadness at a life lost.


  1. I had the same problem with this film that you had--I found the lead character unappealing. But then again, I don't like hippies. Wasn't there a scene in which he's working at McDonald's or something and he has to be told to wear shoes at work? Even little things like that made him obnoxious to me.

  2. The whole deification of the character as a great representation of the perfect individual was a mistake. He was a very flawed character. I don't know if you read either the original article or the book that followed, but he isn't as obnoxious as he is in the film. I like him more having read the book after the fact- but at the same time I find him damn near insufferable in the film and always turn it off when I run across it.