Into The Wild

November 9, 2007



Actors who turn their hand to directing are an interesting breed. Differing crucially from directors who act (Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, errr… Hitchcock?) in ways too numerous and tedious to discuss any further in this review, only the rare Clint Eastwoods and George Clooneys actually make a significant mark on the industry. Self-importance, self-indulgence and other self-somethings are all potential pitfalls when an established thesp thinks he can handle the pressure behind the lens. This week the king of mean ‘n’ moody Sean Penn releases Into The Wild into the wild, an intriguing little film that (after some promising false starts) could give a good hard kick to his future as the maverick in the chair.

I have begun to approach cinema-going with a new philosophy. Rather than read up and research every detail of the production history, cast, crew and story of the film I’m about to see, I simply open my mind and absorb the material from scratch. Not only does this force me inside the head of the naive reader/film-viewer and free my soul from all prejudice and pre-judgement, it also involves almost no work. Concerning Into The Wild, this puts me in a position to warn you that it’s based on a true story, which should save you several hours of scoffing and nay-saying at the screen. If only I’d done my research. 

Back to the film. Sprightly young college graduate Chris is so fed up of his twisted parents and perfect life that he abandons a future of opportunity and profit for a humble existence as a wild man in Alaska. The End. Well, after a long sequence of events arranged in a timeline designed by Ray Charles, apparently. That’s right folks, it’s one of those crazy narrative movies which near enough starts at the end and should really be finishing somewhere in the middle. That’s not to say it’s difficult to follow- there are clearly some very clever dramatic reasons for such a structure, but they rarely cause much of a stir and soon the film becomes trapped in its own device. The masturbatory length of the whole business doesn’t help matters either. 

At a whopping, unnecessary two-and-a-half hours of hunting, starvation, reading, writing, kayaking and combine harvesting, you’ll feel you’ve endured Chris’ back-to-nature adventure yourself (which, annoyingly, is probably the point).        

Complaints aside (for now), the premise makes for a juicy cinematic opportunity. The idea that a young student so disgusted by the state of society that he returns full circle and attempts to survive as a wild man is an interesting one. It seems the question posed is: is he really regressing and wasting his life, or is it our ‘modern’ materialistic culture that’s primitive? The breathtaking landscape photography screams its argument from the screen,  the beauty of Chris’ new homeland always a visual feast- at times you’re waiting for David Attenborough’s charming voice to comment on the origins of that big old forest there. The sumptuous spectacle of the environment is so much so that when social necessity calls Chris briefly back to reality in search of an ID, the high-rise world of industry and heavy traffic is an eye-sore. Dirty, uncomfortable and soulless.

It’s a shame, then, that Penn can’t leave the natural wonder of the relatively unseen (at least to most movie audiences) American back-country to speak for itself. His passion for the project and creative vision are undoubtedly strong, but as the aforementioned self-indulgence bug nips around his ankles, the director tramples on any hint of subtlety and overcooks many of the already dramatic shots with gimmicky camera and editing tricks pulled straight from a user’s manual. This feeling is echoed in the misjudged collection of original songs that often work against rather than enhance the action, and spills over into the fussy structure, which might have worked well if not for the ill-advised overdose of voice-over from Chris’ sister (the lovely Jena Malone). Sticking her irritating oar in every time the pace starts to build, her heartfelt odes to her missing brother come across as nothing but wordy, overwritten pieces of arrogance that add little to the film’s effect. Grrrr.

Where Penn works best with Into The Wild is when he simply lets things happen. For a film which devotes most screen time to one inevitably lonely guy going solo in the wilderness, the care and attention afforded to the characters on the fringes of Chris’ life is at best hearbreaking, and even at worst gently life-affirming.

The people that flicker in and out of Chris’ journey are a fascinating bunch, each one troubled and enigmatic and lovingly detailed in script and performance.

From hippy (Catherine Keener) to crooked farmer (Vince Vaughn) to lonely senior citizen (Hal Holbrook), however fleetingly they may populate our hero’s adventures, their pasts and futures provoke as much interest and empathy as Chris himself.  

It’s tough to pidgeon-hole Into The Wild, but it follows that it’s also tough to decide how good it really is. What seems to tip the balance is the fresh-faced bag of talent Emile Hirsch, who consistently impresses in the central role. He transcends the character’s obvious potential as a wet, righteous, Bible-weilding nutcase and fleshes him out with all the charisma and commitment he displayed in The Girl Next Door and Alpha Dog. On reflection, we’re in a happy place as Penn continues to find his style and a very smart line-up of passionate actors bring a captivating story truly alive. Come the conclusion, you will be moved.                                     


3 / 5  chops of moose meat ruined 



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