Friday, 21 March 2008

Into the Wild

Good Friday seems like a good time catch up on a couple of movies. I like Sean Penn so 'Into the Wild' is first up. I like Penn mainly because he happens to have appeared in three of my favourite movies: Mystic River, 21 Grams, and Carlito's Way. Into the Wild is directed by Penn.

The (based on a true) story tracks an naively idealistic young man, Chris McCandless, who walks away the expectations of material and academic progress to a life on the road and a mission of self-discovery. We get a taste of McCandless through a quick scan of his bookshelf stacked with Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Jack London (Call of the Wild.....duh.) If the portents weren't worrying enough, he then renames himself Alexander Supertramp. Straight 'A' student, he leaves behind his tunnelled existence to pursue his great Alaskan adventure. For much of the film, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Chris is the young man that Sean Penn wishes he had been.

Who wouldn't sympathise with a young man rejecting the awful fate of Harvard Law School? Potentially, we have a guy here who is wise beyond his years. By the time he parts with a young flame with the words, "You are magic. If you want something in life then reach out and grab it," you are kind of feeling that some time at Harvard Law School might actually have done him some good. Or time at another sort of corrective institution perhaps....He reduces the young girl to tears. And you have to sympathise with her really.

McCandless charms a cast of characters through South Dakota, Colorado, Reno, Arizona. Finally he leaves behind an elderly friend, who wishes to adopt him as a grandson and reaches Alaska armed with a machete, a book on edible flora, and his belt. Having eaten a poisonous plant which inhibits digestion (having misidentified it in his book) and induces slow death by starvation, he finally comes to wisdom. Happiness is something that is better shared. In failing to provide for an escape from his self-imposed exile, perhaps the thing that McCandless was in search of was not wisdom at all but just some basic common sense.

The main character, brilliantly portrayed by Emile Hirsch, rather than a paragon of liberty, is rather less likable than the people he meets along the way. One can't help feeling that the story of his sister who is the film's narrator would be rather more affecting. Or even his hypocritical, driven, bickering parents. But they live in West Virginia so the breathtaking cinematography swishing through Atlanta, the Hoover Dam, Alaska, and Colorado would be lost and that would be a loss indeed.

Whereas one suspects Penn wants us to heroise McCandless, we are left to reflect how far he falls short of the type of flawed (male) icon of American liberty that we find in Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, John Updike or Richard Ford. In fact, were we to meet him in some hippy commune somewhere we'd probably want to shake him to his senses. And he'd probably reply with some pseudo-religious platitude.

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