Sunday, 8 January 2012

Into The Wild (2007)

Dir. Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone

In Fried Green Tomatoes Ninny comments to the secret to life is friends. The protagonist of Into The Wild, Christopher McCandless (or ‘Alexander Supertramp’ as he calls himself), rejects that notion. He is searching for solitude, for isolation, to escape from ‘society’. Following graduation he empties his bank account and sends the contents to Oxfam, packs what little he feels he needs, and hits the road. His travels take him across Arizona to the coast of California, up to South Dakota, down the Colorado River to Mexico, and then back up through California, the Yukon and into Alaska. Alaska, the dream of ‘the wild’, called him and led him out into the great outdoors to live off the land, relying only on himself. And this results in his death. The irony is that he made friends along the way who helped him to this destiny – hippies Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), farmer Wayne (Vince Vaughan) and widower Ron (Hal Holbrook). At last, weak and starving, he reaches his final conclusion: happiness is only real when shared.

Escaping from the grind of daily life is a dream, finding solitude and tranquillity out in the wilderness an ideal. There is a reason why we have phrases such as ‘quitting the rat-race’ and ‘escape to the country’. But it is a hard road to take. There is truth in Chris’s warning that “money makes you cautious”. What would you do with your life if you didn’t have to justify the next pay-cheque? Turning ones back on civilisation, on society, on friends and family is the ultimate expression of this philosophy. It is not something I think I could do. But he believes in the dream of living at one with nature rather than living in a net of pettifogging human-created rules and regulations (whether learners are allowed to drive in different states or a twelve-year waiting list to get a permit to raft down a river).

Emile Hirsch deserves plaudits for his performance as Christopher. By turns outgoing and introspective, vigorous and skeletal, he breathes life into a character that can only be understood through his writings and his reading. From devouring Jack London and Henry Thoreau he comes to reject society and idealise living at one with nature. He owes everything to his books. Not just his philosophy which comes to be like a mania for him, but also his survival skills. After shooting a moose he sprints back to fetch his notes of what he should do next. He relies on his nature guide to tell him what wild plants he can and cannot eat. His failure to turn over a page leads to him to confuse two species, one edible and one poisonous. His books led him out into the wilds of Alaska, and his books gave him false confidence that he could survive.

Christopher is fleeing the ‘lie’ of his childhood and his parents. He rejects his family, not even letting them know that he is alive. Yet the people that he meets are all searching for their own family. He reminds Jan of her own son. Ron offers to adopt him. Tracey (Kristen Stewart) falls in love with him. And left behind at home is Carine, his sister (Jena Malone). They had supported each other against their emotionally distant parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt). His escape is a betrayal of her. Her voiceover seeks to explain why he did this to her. Searching desperately for a reason she can believe in she rationalises his behaviour; her excuses for him sound like nothing so much as those of a cult-member. Everyone is searching for someone. The only person Chris is searching for is himself.

Looking for something:
Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless

This true story obviously meant a lot to Sean Penn, who not only directed the film, but also adapted Jon Krakauer’s original book for the screen. Throughout the bare, hypnotic Eddie Vedder-composed soundtrack complements the lush cinematography perfectly. It conjures up a back-woods hobo-y feel but never intrudes. Amazingly – considering that they do not come out of it well -  the McCandless family gave their blessing to the production.

What have I learned about Alaska?
Alaska is a land of wonder and beauty. But then so is everywhere Christopher travels. These elements can be found in storms over the Arizonan desert, the forests of the Californian coast, or the gorges and canyons of the Colorado. But here nature is much more fickle. A river can change from fordable to a raging torrent, plant species look alike, no sooner has a moose been killed then its meat is rendered inedible by flies. Most importantly, if you want to venture out into the Alaskan backwoods prepare properly, know your route, and make sure you can get out again in an emergency.

Can we go there?
There’s a lot of ‘there’ to go, with the film being shot on location in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, South Dakota and Mexico as well as Alaska. But it is the Alaskan scenery that will stick longest in the memory. These were shot in Denali National Park near the town of Cantwell. More interestingly, the actual ‘magic bus’ where McCandless lived and died is located around fifty miles further north along the ‘Stampede Trail’, around 25 miles west of Healy. And the bus is still there. It can be hiked to – as long as the Teklinika River is not in flood.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Christpher McCandless himself at the 'Magic Bus'

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