When I read Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" approximately ten years ago, I was mesmerized by the tragic real-life tale of Christopher McCandless. But as much as I loved the book, I never even thought about a film adaptation. Maybe that was shortsighted of me. Recounting McCandless's life and reconstructing it with minimal data and much introspection, "Into the Wild" succeeded as a cautionary adventure of idealism gone awry. Much of McCandless's life was lived alone and much of his story was pieced together though brief encounters or recovered writings. So what was a thoughtful portrait on the page never really seemed like it would translate to the screen--certainly not with the same impact. Luckily, though, Sean Penn thought otherwise. Adapting and directing Krakauer's fine book, Penn has fashioned a sad, funny and exciting film with tremendous emotional resonance.
An affluent and likable young man, McCandless graduated with honors from Emory University and then set a course to redefine his life. Abandoning his family, friends, and material possessions--McCandless assumed the pseudonym of Alexander Supertramp and set off to explore the world in its most innocent form. Living off the land and experiencing nature, fellow travelers, and much adventure--McCandless was looking for a modern day utopia and sought to discover his real self as he cast away the corruptions of modern life. Touring the country for two years, McCandless's exploration was to culminate in an Alaskan sojourn--where he would commune with "the wild." His aspirations can be viewed as both admirable and delusional--but that is part of the complexity of McCandless's life. As much as you want him to succeed, you realize there can be no happy ending with the expectations he has in place.
Penn's "Into the Wild," thus, depends on evoking a McCandless that you will care about--either because you commend his pursuit or because you want him to come to his senses. And it really works in combination. In a dynamic performance, Emile Hirsch transcends his previous work and becomes a full-fledged leading man. Hitting all the right notes, Hirsch creates a character who evokes our sympathy, our frustration, and even our laughter. McCandless meets a lot of companions on the road, and Hirsch makes it easy to see why he was so accepted. A great role--Hirsch meets all the emotional challenges and also makes a physical transformation that is a both startling and powerful. His great work is matched by a roster of big names including Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, Jena Malone, and Marcia Gay Hardin (among many others). But Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook are real stand-outs--their adoptive relationships with Hirsch both challenge him and make him understand (eventually) that life is not meant to be lived alone.
If there is any flaw in the film, it exists in the book as well. We can only know so much about McCandless from the resources available. He had a heightened sense of injustice particularly when it came to the "untruths" or perceived wrongs perpetuated by his family. Nothing presented, however, can explain how his relatively normal dysfunction blossomed into such an extreme world view. This secret is in McCandless's mind alone.
"Into the Wild" works as a character study and a gritty drama, but also as an adventure. The scenery and photography are breathtaking and the action sequences are well executed. There is much genuine warmth and humor in the film as well. It was a fully satisfying film experience, to me, and has many quiet moments that have stayed with me. Highly recommended for serious adult audiences. KGHarris, 11/07
on April 28, 2008
Into the Wild is one of those movies whose images stay with you after the screen goes dark. This is a tribute to the subject-- a tragic and confused young pseudo idealist, Christopher McCandless-- and Sean Penn and his crew.
McCandless has just graduated from Emory University. He's bright, well-liked, talented, the world is his for the taking-- it seems. Then he chucks it all, burns his money, abandons his vehicle, donates his graduate school fund to charity and hits the road. He's a leatherfoot, hoofing all across the country from Atlanta to South Dakota, on to California and finally to his goal of the utopian loner's dream world of "Alaska". Alaska is quoted here because it represents far more for McCandless than just a remote place full of emptiness and nature. It represents the "wild" - that gorgeous and challenging place where he can find himself, or so he thinks.
He's on a wild goose chase with himself but doesn't quite understand or realize it. He thinks he's stuffing life and experience and learning into all the time that he has-- he's abandoned everything including his sister and parents. In fact, he refuses to communicate with them at all. Their heartbreak, worry, fears, and frustrations are with us the viewer at all times and we wonder (as do a few characters in the film) silently, "how can he do this to them"?
Chris hits the road hard. He takes odd jobs, and goes from frustrated relationship to the next one. But they always are frustrating because he simply will not give of himself. They aren't frustrating for him, but for those who want to befriend him. His search for personal meaning is truly little more than an avoidance of his own personal demons, mostly from his parents' history and rocky marriage. He is surrounded by love, people who want him, his company, his brilliance and soft, caring approach to the world. He is attractive to others, but he loathes himself somehow. In the wilds of the Alaskan wilderness he thinks he will find what he is looking for and he does, but not in the way that he expected.
Again and again, people that Chris meets offer their friendship to him and sometimes their love. But he cannot accept it. Something in him prevents him from accepting love or truly giving it. Perhaps it would be contrary to the loner path that he'd chosen?
This is a sad story, so beautifully filmed. The acting is spot on, too.
Hal Holbrook plays an old man with a painful secret of his own. He knows that Chris and he are two of a kind and need each other. We in the audience also know this. Holbrook is Chris' chance for stability and a home, the true path to insight for someone whose core issues are built upon a perceived betrayal and lack of love from others, mainly his parents. It's a hard moment for the viewer when Chris walks away from Holbrook abandoning another fortunate opportunity for healing and happiness, but it is not so hard for Chris whose focus is solely on getting to his personal nirvana that he understands and expects Alaska to be.
Alaska is a beautiful but challenging place. Superbly filmed, it is easy to see how Chris would want to be there, challenge himself and try to find himself, alone-- try to find a way to fit in with others which is truly the issue-- alone.
The exact cause of Chris' death is not fully known. The book's author and Penn both make the case the McCandless accidentally poisoned himself. But later tests on the suspected plant material recovered from his camp site cast serious doubt on this theory as no poison was found. According to the diaries that he left behind he had decided to return to civilization but a raging river full of spring melt prevented him from doing so. He stayed in his camp, wasting away. But only a mile away was a perfectly usable crossing, and less than half a mile away was a still part of the river where he could have fished to his heart's content with only his hands as the fish were so plentiful there. But he did neither and apparently chose to stay and face his demons and his new understandings alone.
It is not clear if Chris is a hero-- the lone introvert heading into the wilderness akin to Thoreau to find the "truth", or rather a spoiled city boy with only ignorance and dreams and personal pain and perhaps some mental illness driving him on.
The locals in the wilds of Alaska often speak of such people who come to Alaska to find themselves, swollen with pride like the rivers full of melting snows. And they have little respect for them, as they tempt fate and the extreme wilderness and usually lose.
McCandless affected everyone he met in a positive way. His writings are those of a young man still trying to understand but so deeply haunted by something he could only identify at the very end that was at the heart of his troubles. The tears of his parents, his friends, and even his own at the end are palatable in this beautiful film by Sean Penn.
This is a deeply troubling story of someone who so needed help, was offered it-- but would not or could not accept it.
The world is full of Chris McCandlesses going about their daily routines. And perhaps this is why his story has such resonance for so many. He chose to break out of the life he was living, a life that gave him no comfort or solace-- and stride into the unknown to find one that worked for him. It may be a loner's story or a vagabond's tale, but there is a universality about the demons that haunted Chris, and his single-minded yet unfortunate response to them.
There is no glory here, and little to reflect upon but the pain of someone who is unable to stop, unable to find another path-- until his dream of Alaska and the wilderness with all its perils was met and its lessons pulled from it at whatever the cost. This is a superb film.
Christopher McCandless, in becoming 'Alexander Supertramp', holds a mirror to us all, a meditation on what the ideal life completely in tune with nature, surviving only on ingenuity and adaptation skills, leaving the increasingly burdensome conflicts of society behind in order to become at one with the universe. Based on Jon Krakauer's reconstruction of McCandless' journey from his diary, from letters, and from notes found after his death at age 23, IN THE WILD has been transformed into a Waldenesque film by Sean Penn who provided both the screenplay and the direction. While some may argue the very loose technique of relating this story, few will come away form this film untouched by the sheer dreamy valor of a youth determined to find his own connection to the meaning of existence.
The bright McCandless (Emile Hirsch) graduates from Emory University and faces a celebratory dinner with his wealthy but dysfunctional parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and his adoring younger sister Carine (Jena Malone). During the stilted and revealing dinner Christopher declines his parents' gift of a new car and instructions on how to proceed with his life of success, instead electing to leave it all behind and secretly set off on a personal journey to live in the wild. Stripping himself of worldly possessions he begins his road trip with the ultimate destination being Alaska. Along the way he encounters various people: Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughan) who offers him work harvesting grain and camaraderie; Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), two middle-aged hippies who offer him a sense of family; Tracy (Kristen Stewart), a 16-year old who offers him physical love Christopher cannot condone; a Danish couple he encounters while rafting; and the elderly Frank (Hal Holbrook) who has no family and lives alone making leather trinkets, eager to 'belong' to the young man whom he sees as needy yet courageous.
Christopher's journey pretty much covers America and Mexico, from the plains and farms to the homeless streets of Los Angeles to the splendors and natural cruelties of nature in Alaska. His struggles survive are balanced by his inebriation with the wonders of the natural world untouched by society. Yet in the end he faces his own dissolution into the dust of nature alone.
Hirsch immerses himself in this physically demanding role and manages to hold onto our hearts all through his journey. The flow of the story is at times discordant with the over voice narration by Jena Malone and the insertion of bits and pieces of quotations that aren't pieced tightly together enough to avoid sounding superficial. Yet the supporting cast is very strong, including a brilliant little cameo by Cheryl Francis Harrington as a social worker with heart. The photography (Eric Gautier) is stunning and the musical score, courtesy of Michael Brook, Kaki King, and Eddie Vedder, fits the mood through the film. And throughout the film Sean Penn has the restraint and taste to keep the story vital without ever making it maudlin. A very fine film. Grady Harp, March 08
on May 9, 2008
Just about the time Sean Penn was reading the book "Into the Wild," so was I. The book reminded me, first, of a good friend whom I've known since the mid-1960s. He's always fancied himself as somewhat of a wild man. He barely made it through high school, lived a kind of offbeat lifestyle for a long time--even turned me onto some music I might not otherwise have heard. He always wanted to relocate to Alaska. Thus far, he hasn't made it.
Then, after seeing the movie, I spent a few days with a group of students and their teachers from Alaska. They were delightful people, yet when I brought up Chris McCandless, they referred to him as, essentially, nuts. That didn't surprise me much. Indeed, it's an irony: We live in a country that proclaims individualism, yet when one pursues his own path--look at even the well-known like Thoreau--they're condemned for it. "Conventional thinking" is that one is to pursue a lifestyle of comfort and consumption. That's why we go to school, right?
Anyway, when I finished the book, I envied first the author. He's one of the best writers of today. But I also envied McCandless. What? Envying a dead man? Well, we're all going to die some day. Some will do it without having lived--to paraphrase Thoreau. Chris lived before he died. Maybe a little naively, but he lived. That's truly enviable.
It was so long ago that I read the book that I need to read it again, or listen to the recorded version. Frankly, I recall that the author did a little speculation in the book. How much, for example, did Chris's parents' relationship have to do with his behavior? I repeat, the author speculated. In the film, Penn had Chris's sister self-reflecting a lot, and that's where the speculation took place. (And Chris's relationship with his sister in the film seemed a little peculiar. But I'll let you watch and see if you agree or not.) And in the film, it came across as assertion rather than speculation. That's the only weakness of the film.
The film, other than that, was quite accurate to the book. McCandless took off on his own, essentially cut all ties to his "past," including getting rid of a lot of money that could have made his pursuit less valid. Emile Hirsch looks uncannily like McCandless. And the over 100 lbs. that he lost for the role--incredible!
I thought the rest of the casting of the film was superb. Some of the roles were chanced into, but that made the film all the more realistic. And I thought William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden were spectacular as Chris's parents, their own self doubts and passions exposed in both expressions and behavior.
What motivated McCandless? We can only speculate. Did he make some mistakes? Yes, as would any of us.
Might we learn something from him? Most definitely! Like in the book, Chris's notes were an integral part of the film's script. I'm so tempted to list them here, but that would give away an important element of the film.
The additional disk in this version of the DVD also gives you a little to think about, on the characters, the production. And it's not a self-aggrandizing extravanza as many of the "bonus materials" are.
Anyway, my thanks to Sean Penn for making a fine film out of one of the better books I've ever read, about a "great American." No, Chris McCandless didn't write declarations. He didn't write bestsellers. He didn't make long speeches about himself. But he pursued something he was compelled to do. I wish more of us had the guts to do so.
Rest in peace, Chris.
on March 5, 2008
Excerpted quotes from Ranger Peter Christian are from a document available at George Mason University (pasted below):
Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective
by Peter Christian
Both Chris McCandless and I arrived in Alaska in 1992. We both came to Alaska from
the area around Washington, D.C. We were both about the same age and had a similar
idea in mind; to live a free life in the Alaska wild. Fourteen years later Chris McCandless
is dead and I am living the dream I set out to win for myself. What made the difference
in these two outcomes?
There was nothing heroic or even mysterious about what Chris McCandless did in April
1992. Like many Alaskans, I read Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild" when it first
came out and finished it thinking, "why does this guy rate an entire book?" The fact that
Krakauer is a great outdoor writer and philosopher is the bright spot and it makes a great
read, but McCandless was not something special.
As a park ranger both at Denali National Park, very near where McCandless died, and
now at Gates of the Arctic National Park, even more remote and wild than Denali, I am
exposed continually to what I will call the "McCandless Phenomenon." People, nearly
always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving
wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are
practically nonexistent. I know the personality type because I was one of those young
In fact, Alaska is populated with people who are either running away from something or
seeking themselves in America's last frontier. It is a place very much like the frontier of
the Old West where you can come to and reinvent yourself. In reality, most people who
make it as far as Alaska never get past the cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage because
access is so difficult and expensive (usually by airplane), travel is so hard, the terrain is
challenging, the bears are real, and so on.
A very few competent and skillful people make a successful go at living a free life in the
wild, build a home in the mountains, raise their children there and eventually come back
with good stories and happy endings. A greater number give it a try, realize it is neither
easy nor romantic, just damn hard work, and quickly give up and return to town with
their tails between their legs, but alive and the wiser for it.
Some like McCandless, show up in Alaska, unprepared, unskilled and unwilling to take
the time to learn the skills they need to be successful. These quickly get in trouble and
either die by bears, by drowning, by freezing or they are rescued by park rangers or other
rescue personnel-but often, not before risking their lives and/or spending a lot of
government money on helicopters and overtime.
When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did
wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic and inconsiderate. First off, he spent
very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail
without even a map of the area. If he had a good map he could have walked out of his
predicament using one of several routes that could have been successful. Consider where
he died. An abandoned bus. How did it get there? On a trail. If the bus could get into
the place where it died, why couldn't McCandless get out of the place where he died?
The fact that he had to live in an old bus in the first place tells you a lot. Why didn't he
have an adequate shelter from the beginning? What would he have done if he hadn't
found the bus? A bag of rice and a sleeping bag do not constitute adequate gear and
provisions for a long stay in the wilderness.
No experienced backcountry person would travel during the month of April. It is a time
of transition from winter's frozen rivers and hard packed snow with good traveling
conditions into spring's quagmire of mud and raging waters where even small creeks
become impassible. Hungry bears come out of their dens with just one thing in mind--
Furthermore, Chris McCandless poached a moose and then wasted it. He killed a
magnificent animal superbly conditioned to survive the rigors of the Alaskan wild then,
inexperienced in how to preserve meat without refrigeration (the Eskimos and Indians do
it to this day), he watched 1500 pounds of meat rot away in front of him. He's lucky the
stench didn't bring a grizzly bear to end his suffering earlier. And in the end, the moose
died for nothing.
So what made the difference between McCandless and I fourteen years ago? Why am I
alive and he is dead? Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide while I
apprenticed myself to a career and a life that I wanted more badly than I can possibly
describe in so short an essay. In the end I believe that the difference between us was that
I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die (whether he realized it or not). The
fact that he died in a compelling way doesn't change that outcome. He might have made
it work if he had respected the wilderness he was purported to have loved. But it is my
belief that surviving in the wilderness is not what he had in mind.
I did not start this essay to trash poor Chris McCandless. Not intentionally. It is sad that
the boy had to die. The tragedy is that McCandless more than likely was suffering from
mental illness and didn't have to end his life the way he did. The fact that he chose
Alaska's wildlands to do it in speaks more to the fact that it makes a good story than to
the fact that McCandless was heroic or somehow extraordinary. In the end, he was sadly
ordinary in his disrespect for the land, the animals, the history, and the self-sufficiency
ethos of Alaska, the Last Frontier.
6.13.08: Comment by Catherine Todd on the comments:
I just now saw all these comments from where I had originally posted this in the "review" section. I had no idea posting an actual letter from an Alaskan Park Ranger would elicit such a overwhelming response. I agree wholeheartedly with the ranger, having had some wilderness experience but not enough to ever attempt to "go it alone" in Alaska or elsewhere.
Being a Girl Scout and in the Boy Scouts too (when they would let me!) showed me how much I "didn't know." Living up in the mountains in Colorado for a winter's season when I was 18 years old, and being lucky enough to hike out in the snow by myself - when I ran out of food & firewood - and find my way to town - showed me how much experience is really required. I could have died up there and wouldn't have been found until the Spring thaw. Just like in the old-time books and Western movies.
There is nothing "romantic" about the "Jeremiah Johnson" life, no matter how good it looks on film. This film showed that, to me. I'm going to post the Ranger's letter in a discussion area here on Amazon, where it probably belonged in the first place. Thanks for all the comments. Boy, am I surprised! But I absolutely LOVED reading the Alaskan Ranger's Letter (written by Ranger Peter Christian). He knows what he is talking about, "North South East & West, forward backwards over & under." I hope I never have to "get rescued," but if I do, let it be by him!
Update April 14, 2010 Two years later: more comments on the comments:
Reading all the comments about this review makes me wish, in part, that I hadn't posted the ranger's letter, no matter how on target it is. I am amazed that anyone could find fault with someone who is writing from EXPERIENCE. Here's my final comment I posted today, at the bottom of 6 pages of comments. I hope that Ranger Peter Christian knows how much I admire the work that he and countless others are doing to protect both our last remaining wildernesses, and our lives when we do go out there.
People who seem to like criticizing the ranger who wrote the commentary, written from EXPERIENCE, might change their tune if they get trapped in the wilderness and have to be bailed out by guys like him. I for one am grateful that people like this are prepared, and do their job; what would we do without them?
The ranger is saying that people need to BE PREPARED before they go out into the wilderness, as they endanger other people's lives when rescue teams have to go in to save them. It's no different than people who start forest fires inadvertently or through inattention; look at the damage they cause. These kind of people are dangerous, whether they mean to or not. TRAINING COUNTS. Doesn't anyone remember Boy Scout and Girl Scouts, where we learned a bit about how to survive in the wilderness before taking off on a trek?
In many countries in the world, no one would even try to help; you just die in the wilderness and someone might one day find your bones.
Hats off to the men and women who work in the field and save our skins and get little thanks for it. They deserve a medal, for sure. Forest Rangers are another group I call "hero" in my book.
Second update: Read more about McCandless at:
on March 8, 2008
This movie is an adolescent boy's nocturnal emission, and while I found it entertaining, it was far from the profound experience it means to be.
Likeable and intelligent, Christopher McCandless was also self-centered, selfish, and extraordinarily--nay, fatally--foolish. This movie romanticizes that foolishness to make McCandless's death have "meaning." The fact is, though, he died an idiot's death, and he died desperate. In the movie, his parting written words are, "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!" Those words are accurate--he did write them--but the words that the hunters who found him read posted on the door of the bus were no less believable: "S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless." Not the heroic smiling existential death the movie portrayed and that teenage boys imagine for themselves, is it?
This kid was a lousy son, and a lousy brother, and the movie shows this but distorts his real-life relationship with his parents in order to make his abysmal selfishness less damning. He took off without leaving word to his family, and never let them know where he was or how he was doing. He disappeared, and 2 years later Mom and Dad found he was dead. And now this hagiography paints them in a very unflattering light and will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Chris chose to go into the bush with minimal gear and no map. Had he taken a map, he'd have realized that only 1/4 mile from where he tried to cross the river he would have found a manual tram in which he could have easily crossed; he wasn't stranded, and he needn't have starved. He starved a a couple days' hike from the highway, in the middle of summer. This movie suggests (probably based on early versions of Jon Krakauer's book) that he accidentally poisoned himself by eating a toxic plant that is very hard to distinguish from a certain edible one. That was speculation, and was proved false by the toxicology report. McCandless died from simple starvation. In the middle of summer. 20 miles from a highway. At one point 1/4 of a mile from a river crossing. That isn't romantic; it isn't heroic. It's stupid. Let's call it what it is, so other young men aren't seduced by the same juvenile hubris.
If this movie didn't purport to be a true story, and didn't romanticize what is really an unhappy story, I wouldn't have a problem with it. It's well acted and maintains tension from beginning to end. There were some Hallmark Card moments, but I enjoyed it and would watch it again. But the movie is a sorry representation of the truth, and if this movie is about anything, it's about truth.
Obviously spoilers below ...
I have a difficult time writing this review because of concern with the star rating that I've chosen for it. I've broken this review down into seven different sections for obvious reasons, as each section is something that should be addressed when talking about either this film, this book, the people involved from the actors to the McCandless's to Sean Penn himself.
The Book -
There are probably more people that will initially come to this film because of the book than the other way around; but over time this film will be seen by more people that haven't read the book or possibly even be aware of a book. That's not a critique of the material, just a plain fact. More people watch films than read books these days.
The story of Chris McCandless though, should start with the book and how Krakauer started a snowball with a simple article in `Outdoor' Magazine which A LOT of people who had met Chris (as Alex) had responded to with comments like: "Hey, I met him trying to hitch a ride ..." Jon Krakauer spent a lot of time putting the book together through accounts, phone calls, letters and meetings to find out how the information of Chris all come together; and more importantly how Chris had touched the lives and made such a stand-out impression on each of these very random people that he came across. In fact, Chris made such an impression on these people that some people read the article and wrote Krakauer stating: "This guy sounds like a guy I met near the Salton Sea, etc." This is the real essence of how this story really came together and people should be aware of it. All of this transpired BEFORE the book. Someone had even heard the story of a dead hiker found in Alaska on Paul Harvey and Westerberg thought it might be him so he called the Alaskan authorities. Strangely, the Paul Harvey piece was how I had first heard of McCandless as well. So, knowing what you know now, maybe having read the book and seen the film, one must give proper credence to the impact of Chris McCandless in the lives of the people he met. I'll come back to this point later.
The Screenplay & Film -
Having watched hundreds of films through the years and then going back and listening to the Director's Commentary whenever possible, I've learned a great many things. Foremost, which is relevant to this story, is how Robert Zemeckis worked with several writer's over the course of a handful of years sharpening the Forrest Gump adapted script. Anyone who had seen the film and read the book, knows the point that's coming. Sometimes the spirit of the material is more important than the bulk of the material. In the case of Forrest Gump, I believe Zemeckis stated that the screenplay went through three different writers and multiple revisions until the last person, Eric Roth had figured out what Forrest Gump was really about. Christopher McCandless's story was surely about the spirit of the material; and definitely not about the bulk, which is how it comes across on the screen as delivered -- and very choppy at that.
Sean Penn adapted this directly from the book, decided which parts to focus on and what to leave out. The real problem seems to stem from Penn not wanting to get into the middle of the McCandless / Supertramp dynamic which was painfully obvious in the book, but Penn tries to maintain the high ground of being impartial which doesn't really serve the story. Sean Penn probably would've been better served leaning one way or the other regarding McCandless and showing us "why" through the film, rather than leaving it ambiguous. The whole point of being there, was to be transported to a point of view.
Christopher McCandless was not a middle-of-the-road / dry-journalism kind of guy. I will say that this long drawn out, meandering approach worked well for Penn with The Indian Runner, an older film of his which is one of my top ten films of all time. In Indian Runner, Penn let the viewer decide and observe the true nature of Frank Roberts, wickedly played by Viggo Mortenson. Viggo emoted so thickly, so heavily and breathed such life into the character that you couldn't help but be compelled - no matter how long the movie was. When it ended you were looking everywhere for more footage, maybe a book, a Bruce Springsteen album, footnotes, anything that would give you more about what you had just seen. But with Chris, Penn should've made a decision about which was a greater loss - Supertramp or McCandless, simply because Frank was a fictional character, while Chris was not.
Ignoring the psychological breakdown and split of the character should've been the touchstone of this movie, but it wasn't. The split, Alexander Supertramp, was treated as just a shallow creation or a childish whim by a foolish youth - instead of the self-absorbed superman from Nietzsche's `"Thus Spake Zarathustra"' that Chris had imagined himself to be which seemed to take root while he was at Emory. Most of the readers of the Krakauer book seemed to have bonded with the idealistic Supertramp, rather than the foolish McCandles that the readers of Outdoor Magazine unanimously gave a thumbs down to for the fear of being a reckless role-model to other readers and enthusiasts.
This film does not tell the story from the perspective of Alex Supertramp, although it tries to shed light to it. It also does not tell the story of Chris McCandless, although it tries to convince us of this, by wrapping itself in the facts that were collected by Jon Krakauer and passing itself as a film version with the same title.
However, some of the book's complicated undertone of sadness, confusion, and idealism are lightly palpable in the film. Chris McCandless was a romantic; Krakauer's book appreciates that, as well as Chris's youthful idealism and smugness. But unfortunately, the film seems to miss most of this.
A real, and massive breakdown in this film was the use of narration. While I am a huge advocate of V.O. Narration, a case exists here for the absence of one. Having Jena Malone, of Donnie Darko fame, and a mediocre talent, speaking her inner thoughts over scenic footage does this film a serious disservice, comes across as inconsistent and tacked on for effect. There were many other ways to tell this story better, but sometimes good books do not always translate into good movies.
The Music -
Eddie Vedder, like Sean Penn, is difficult as a personality to separate from his art due to certain things that have transpired in the last decade. Anytime I hear Pearl Jam these days, all I can hear is a talented musician who wasted himself indulging in his own flaws - strangely much like McCandless, except Vedder did this with his career and not his life. Vedder thought that it was appropriate to repeat and stick with the now-dead North-West sound which is the last bastion of Seattle Grunge. Granted, this soundtrack is probably the biggest departure for him in a long time, but looking at the contribution of his work for this film, one is left wondering - why Vedder? The music sounds uninspired and dull, where nothing really stands out thematically and there actually seems to be a void where a musical theme should be. Penn should've befriended Gabriel Yared as the first choice to do the score. But I find this just one more bad choice in a long line of bad choices made by Penn for the production of this movie. Going back to Indian Runner, which has a great score and a well-placed soundtrack, it seems as if the magic just couldn't be duplicated for what would've been a great film and probably an equally great soundtrack and score.
I do want to state that I don't agree with the Awards Academy that the music comes off as "too song based", whatever that means. I think that's one of the most ridiculous statements ever to come out of whatever administration Hollywood has. I also believe that, even though I didn't like it, Vedder should at least been nominated for his efforts for an Oscar.
The Actors -
I'm holding the minority report on this one, but I really don't believe that Emile Hirsch was all that good in this film. Yes, he has a basic resemblance to McCandless as any young, mousy haired twenty-something actor would. McCandless was a magnetic personality that people were struck into awe by when they met, even once. Emile Hirsch has none of those qualities, if he does, they certainly weren't evinced in this movie. I feel he came off bland and gave a very weak performance of McCandless, which actually bordered on shameful and pedestrian. It was if someone had asked him to play Jesus Christ and he decided that maybe a hollow representation of Truman Capote was more appropriate. Emile Hirsch's acting in this is the real Achilles heal here and couldn't have been further off the mark. There could've been so many other actors who would've handled this role with more realism, energy and vivaciousness. Emile Hirsch's rendition of McCandless is pretty sad to say the least, he was filler for those just wanting to navel-gaze.
The casting director and Penn set up a would-be Oscar dream-tream with the supporting cast. Hal Holbrook gives his "John Wayne" performance here and does so magnificently and very memorably. Catherine Keener is dynamic, William Hurt (my favorite actor in this) is magnetic, delivering a strong and convincing portrayal of the person you encounter when you read the book and Vince Vaughn is a nice choice for Wayne Westerburg. So what could go so insidiously wrong here?
The Critics -
A lot has been said regarding what was left in and what was left out, differing between the book and the movie. It should be stated that McCandless had a basic road map of the area, some money, his identification cards and some have speculated -- a broken or injured arm. Some cite the picture of Chris in front of the bus as evidence-light. Looking closely at his right arm, it appears not to in the sleeve but under his shirt wrapped in a sling. In a later photograph though, he's seen with both arms visible and free from sling or obvious injury.
I have posted both photos above for those interested to see.
Chris M. / Alex S. -
What would Christopher J. McCandless say about all this? How would he have felt about a feature film immortalizing and lionizing his deeds for better or worse?
McCandless did want to become a writer, this much is known from the friends he met and made. Had he lived, he would've wanted to chronicle his adventures, and maybe becoming famous for it. If he did, it would've been an after effect and if a film was made of his works -- spoils of war, so to speak. But this is all hyperbole and supposition now. The truth is no one would want the worst decisions of their early twenties to be the defining moments of their lives and then be broadcast across the globe for all to see without any say.
Alex Supertramp would've loathed the telling, the filming and the mass marketing of this effort. Alex would've wondered where the spirit and the fire and the message was had he sat in a theatre and watched this play out. Perhaps this was the problem McCandless's parents had when they saw this during the screening, maybe they "felt the lack of it", to quote Penn from another movie. Having been author to anti-establishment writing, I may be a little biased in my viewpoint. I only state this as some readers of this review might click on my other reviews or see my writings and then feel that I was being inconsistent. While I can understand McCandless and see the world of which he spoke of, as an ex-Marine and a long-distance hiker of the Appalachian trail, of his methods and planning - I cannot abide. So, like many other readers and viewers, I too have a split opinion of McCandless.
Sean Penn -
Like I stated about Vedder, it's hard sometimes for consumers of art to sometimes remove their view of the artist from the art and therefore see it unobstructed. Sean Penn has done and said many things in the last numerous years to anger enough people, and isolate himself with his point of view. Maybe making a film about a man who railed inwardly in anger over consumerism, urban blight and gross waste and personal attachment was more powerful and greater than anything he could've said or done by himself. So, at least in the spirit of the thing, he does deserve that much credit - if that was the case. Otherwise, many viewers might see this movie and only witness the smugness of Chris McCandless and the smugness of Sean Penn, and thus walk away disappointed and regretful of the time spent. That, at least, does sum up much of the bad reviews so far about this film.
Living on the West Coast, in Los Angeles, I've actually crossed paths with Penn a few times so far in life. The last time was in San Francisco, when I was spending a long day at the bar drinking at Tosca's in North beach. It's the kind of place that most people, tourists included don't go, because they just don't understand the allure; which is absolutely fine by me. My exchange with him was brief and cordial. If I would've seen this movie first, I would've probably had a lot more to say to him.
I wanted to give this more stars because I do appreciate Sean Penn's contribution to film, his acting and his temperament. I also wanted to give it more stars for Chris McCandless, but ... it's more a review of the film than it is of any one person.
on March 7, 2009
When I was in high school, Jack London's story, "To Build a Fire" was required reading in at least one English class. Why? Well besides being an incredibly well-written story and from the unsentimental naturalist school, perhaps someone in the faculty was trying to send a not so subtle message to us teenagers to "not do something really stupid."
Chris McCandless either never read the story or blew it off thinking it could never happen to him.
To Build a Fire is story about an Alaskan adventurer who gets his feet wet and has about 15 min to build a fire and warm and dry his feet before they freeze making it impossible to get out alive. The story made a huge impression on me because it drove home the point that nature is powerful and in unforgiving conditions when it's man vs nature, nature usually wins unless man is just pure lucky. And in London's story, this is a guy who actually knew what he was doing.
In McCandless' case you could have titled the story "To Smoke a Moose" because after McCandless manages to shoot and kill a moose he has no clue what to do with the carcass and tries to skin, dress, and smoke the huge animal. It turns into a flyblown mess and as everyone else has already commented, McCandless dies of starvation not long afterwards.
It's a beautiful movie and is painfully true to the book. I gave my review 3-stars because as a production, Sean Penn did an amazing job not only of directing but of casting, cinematography, set design, and the sound track. It's a beautiful film in many ways and the performances, particularly by Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, and Hal Holbrook are affecting.
The problem is McCandless just isn't a sympathetic character. He's clearly bright, likable, and idealistic. But he's also young, self-centered, and clueless and completely caught up into the romance of his adventure. Like a lot of 20-somethings. Unfortunately his situation was a lot more extreme and unforgiving than the struggles most of his peers were dealing with.
The tragedy that struck me most was that Chris had a knack for connecting with people at a deep level. He seemed to make close friendships easily with others pursuing an alternative lifestyle. Yet, he's irresponsible in his relationships in the sense that he doesn't take into account the affect he has on the hearts of others. Nor does he fully understand what a loss it is for others when he moves on.
At the very end when, for the first, time he realizes that he's in over his head and he may very well lose his life, how much those connections mattered. By then, unfortunately, it's too late.
If you have a friend or kid with wanderlust, make sure they read To Build a Fire before they set out on their Great Adventure.
on June 22, 2012
I'd just like to start off this review by saying that no life is insignificant and while it's perfectly fine to disagree with the way someone lives their life, no one has the right nor the authority to deem someone a "waste". Everyone has a right to their opinion but there's this little thing called tact that people seem to forget every now and then.
This movie was amazing. I can't really find the words to describe how it made me feel and the immediate connection I had to this boy. I don't think he was a spoiled brat at all, I think he was so desperate to find himself that he was willing to go bush in order to do it. How many people can say they abandoned their lives in pursuit of adventure and how many people secretly want to but will never find the courage to do so? I don't know if I will ever find the courage to and I'm not sure if I would go about it the way he did but I admire him for his bravery. I think he did a beautiful thing.
on January 8, 2008
This is the best and most underappreciated film of 2007. I suspect that come oscar time it will garner an award or two, possibly Best Director for Sean Penn and Best Supporting Actor for Hal Holbrook. I'm not holding my breath for Best Picture however as it's ultimately a bit too bleak and the main character too unconventional to be an easy sell to the Oscar crowd. I absolutely loved everything about Into the Wild, most especially Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless who is amazing in his most impressive and challenging role to date. It is very true to the book and whether you feel it is the sad chronicle of a misguided youth or the ecstatic tale of one guys search for ultimate freedom, one couldn't ask for a more perfect adaptation. One is left regretful that McCandless only realized his epiphany too late..."Happiness is only real when shared."