Thursday, March 11, 2010

Books and Other Arts Film Review: Into the Wild

The film "Into the Wild" is based on the true, tragic story of Chris McCandless. However, the film and the book on which it was based have been the center of controversy. More about that later. The film takes place in the early 1990's.

Opening with narration by Chris McCandless' younger sister, Carine (Jena Malone), she chronicles the events unfolding this particular day and for a few months afterward. Chris is graduating from Emory University in Georgia. His family lived in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. His parents were in business together in an aerospace/telecommunications field, his father having served as an antenna specialist at NASA.

We soon learn that Chris (Emile Hirsch) was always a bit of a daredevil, but we also see through his undergraduate experience, he was a brilliant, compassionate student, who eschewed a lot of social conventions. He lived in a small apartment on campus, but had no telephone. At dinner at a restaurant to celebrate his graduation, Chris informs his parents he thinks his grades will be good enough to get him into Harvard Law School. His parents had given him a college fund, and he had $24,500 left in it on the day of his graduation. After his high school graduation, he purchased a beat-up Datsun and drove across the country. Clearly this young man yearns for the open road.

After his family leaves, however, Chris sets about on realizing a dream of traveling to Alaska. We see him destroying his ID and credit cards (this is controversial, because there's evidence it didn't actually happen), and mailing a cashier's check off to Oxfam for a $24,000 donation. He loads up his backpack into the Datsun and drives off. He decides to adopt the name Alex Supertramp.

In his first adventure, Chris parks the Datsun one night too close to the shoreline and his car is hit by crashing waves. He abandons the car, takes his backpack, removes the license plate from the car and we also see him burning some cash. (It's questionable as to whether he burned the cash.) He hits the road by hitchhiking.

The film flips back and forth in time, and we do see Chris in winter in Alaska, hiking by himself, and finding, like a magical castle, what he refers to in his journal as "The Magic Bus". The bus was originally a transit bus in Fairbanks, but somehow ended up abandoned in the woods. It's outfitted with a bed and a a wood-burning stove, a few utensils, a table, a chair and some windows, both broken and intact. It is here he reads by the light of candles or a kerosene lamp, here he writes in his journal, cooks and consumes his meals.

In flashbacks prior to his arrival in Alaska, we see Chris being temporarily "adopted" by a hippie couple, Jan and Rainey, and learns that Jan is plagued by memories of her son, who hit the road when he was even younger than Chris is, not to be seen again by Jan for some years. Jan and Rainey travel the roads in a small, ancient RV, and sell paperback books and goods Jan has crocheted or knitted. Whenever and wherever weather permits, however, they sleep in a tent outdoors.

These same flashbacks show Chris near Lake Phoenix Arizona. He purchases a kayak at one point and discovers when he asks a sheriff about kayaking down a river that he can't do it unless he applies for a permit and there aren't available permits for the next 12 years! The sheriff explains the other alternative would be to join a licensed group that does tours on the river. Always enthused by nature, and with what he feels is a healthy irreverence for laws, particularly laws that prevent people from enjoying the beauty of nature, we next see Chris kayaking down the river. He hears music at one point, and sees a young couple, singing and dancing, the young man on shore, his female friend in the water. They spy Chris, and wave him over and invite him to join them for a meal. They're from Copenhagen and enjoying a trip to America, telling Chris they've been to L.A. and Las Vegas, and cooking hot dogs on a hibachi, they ask him where he's going. The guy tells Chris he could actually kayak all the way down to Mexico and together they consult a map. Suddenly they hear a siren from the river patrol, and Chris gives the couple his hurried thanks and apologies, and bolts off into his kayak, paddling energetically to elude the long arm of the law.

Chris does manage to kayak into Mexico, but then has problems re-entering the United States without identification. (Again, there's some evidence he actually had identification, so this part of the film apparently was fictionalized.) He uses trains to "hobo" into parts of America, until he is brutally beaten one night by an employee of the railroad.

We see Chris learning to steer a huge combine across wheat fields in South Dakota. Here he befriends a group of men working the wheat harvest and also develops an appreciation of the land. The crew chief, Wayne (Vince Vaughn) finds Chris hard-working and bright, but also quite an enigma, and can't fathom why Chris wants to pretty much abandon society of any and all kinds for a life in the wilds of Alaska. Wayne introduces Chris to Kevin, however, an avid hunter and fisherman, who teaches Chris about killing and butchering wild animals.

Eventually Chris is befriended by an older gentleman, a recovering alcoholic named Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) who gives him a ride one day back to his temporary campsite in California. Ron takes Chris home, they share a meal, and Chris does his laundry and takes a shower there. Ron tells Chris his story, which is that while serving abroad in the armed forces, one New Year's Eve his wife and young son were killed by a drunken or sleeping driver. The accident was the impetus for Ron's alcoholism. However, he realized life as an alcoholic would not be what his wife would want for him, so he went "cold turkey" into a life of sobriety. Ron teaches Chris how to work with leather, in a workshop on his property, and Chris proves to be very skilled in the craft. Ron apparently manufactures belts, purses, hats, all kinds of things "on spec" for people, and this supplements his income. Eventually Ron realizes Chris is going to leave for Alaska, after Chris tells Ron that Ron needs to engage more actively with the world, and travel. Ron puts together a box of supplies for Chris, composed of a machete, a retractable fishing reel and some other odds and ends. Saying a poignant goodbye to Chris, Ron asks if he could "adopt" him as a grandson. Chris asks "Can we talk about this when I get back from Alaska?", and Ron nods in the affirmative, trying to hold back his tears.

In Alaska we see Chris chopping wood, killing a moose (and failing to properly butcher it, so he leaves it for wolves to eat), shooting, roasting and consuming fowl, and identifying plants. His provisions dwindling (he had a 10-pound bag of rice in his backpack), Chris is unable to find animals easily and begins to starve; his emaciated frame serves as ample evidence that things have become dire. (Emile Hirsch lost 40 pounds for the portrayal of this part of the film, and his gaunt face looks as though it would scarcely support the beard growing on it.) Pulling out a book on wild plants, he goes foraging, finds some plants he harvests and brings them back to the bus, where he consumes them. Belatedly he discovers he erred and ate something poisonous. We see him write a "farewell note" and in his sleeping bag, he peacefully passes away.

The controversial aspect of the film comes not only from certain fictionalized components already discussed here, but from Chris' speculated motives for abandoning society. Chris' parents Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) and Walt (William Hurt) have a terrible, tempestuous marriage, punctuated by loud fights and threats of divorce, terrifying Chris and Carine. The family realizes at the end of summer, when there's been no word from Chris, that he's "taken off", and in September the police force notifies them about Chris' abandoned Datsun. They also discover his Oxfam donation. In a pivotal scene, Walt runs out into the street where his suburban home is situated, screaming, mourning the surrender of his son to "the wild". However, there are other accounts that state Walt and Chris argued more or less as much as any average father and son would. The screenplay was written by Sean Penn, who waited years to film the movie, not wanting to tread on "fresh grief" of friends and family, and he supposedly also wanted to have the complete permission of the McCandless family. Also, autopsy results reveal that Chris did not suffer from any form of poisoning, but starved to death. Sean Penn did not incorporate into the film an "S.O.S. note" that Chris had affixed to the exterior of the bus. It stated he was injured and implored whoever saw the note to either help him or go for help. It's been speculated that while already emaciated, he incurred some type of shoulder injury which at least partially immobilized him and subsequently he was unable to fish, hunt or forage for plants due to the impediment, and this contributed to his death.

Sean Penn also directed the film and did a wonderful job bringing his vision to the screen. Every scene was shot on location, in the actual locations except the bus itself. Penn has said he felt that would have been disrespectful to Chris' memory. In order to capture the changing of seasons, the filming took more than a year for exterior shots. Billie and Walt are depicted as a cliché of suburban success, but Gay Harden and Hurt manage to turn in decent performances. Emile Hirsch is astounding and makes Chris likeable and troubled simultaneously. Hal Holbrook has also done an admirable job in portraying a lonely old man, not quite able to understand Chris, but who longs to maintain the connection to him. Catherine Keener's Jan is wistful and wise and knowing. While the whole "parental" motivation for Chris McCandless' actions are somewhat plausible, I'm still doubtful it fully explains why such a bright, promising young man would literally be consumed by a need to be alone in the wilderness.

1 comment:

  1. I hesitated to see this film because I knew how it ended. . such a tragic loss. I like everything that Catherine Keener does, isn't she great ?