Friday, March 7, 2008

Into The Wild

Director: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart, Brian Dierker
Running Time: 148 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

"I read somewhere... how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong... but to feel strong."

-Christopher McCandliss

Sean Penn’s Into The Wild isn’t merely a great movie, or just the visual documentation of an incredible journey. That’s selling it short. What really is, at its core, is a life-altering experience that reaches deep and touches your soul. Usually after I’ve seen a movie I give it some time to sit in my mind a little and let it "sink in" before attempting to write a review. It took a little longer this time since I actually had to emotionally compose myself when the film reached its conclusion.

It’s been about 8 years since I cried during a movie, but I guess I must have been due because I completely lost it during this one. And The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have some serious explaining to do. I can deal with them not nominating works of deserving quality. That always happens. What I can’t deal with is them overlooking an important American cinematic achievement that speaks to who we are as individuals. Of all the Oscar snubs I’ve seen over the years, this is one of the worst.

When it ended I knew I witnessed something unique and special but it’s difficult to put the exact feelings into words. I’ve been trying to figure out why the movie moved me to the level it did what can be taken away from a story that can be viewed as either a modern day tragedy or an uplifting story of independence. You’re not sure whether to be angry at or feel sorry for this admittedly selfish protagonist and Penn wisely doesn’t force us to make such a determination. He’s not asking us to like McCandliss or condone his decision to abandon his life and family, but only to understand what he was doing made sense to him. Foolish as it may seem to us and those he encountered in his travels, he left this Earth on his terms. The degree of empathy you feel for him or his family may vary, but your heart will break for the people whose lives he touched a long the way.

Penn’s film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling novel employs multiple timelines to translate the story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a top straight "A" student who upon graduation from Emory University in 1990 donates his $24,000 in savings to OXFAM, burns all the money in his wallet and sets off on a 2-year hitchhiking trek to Alaska. We join him at the end of that journey with Chris (going by the alias "Alexander Supertramp") hauled up inside his Alaskan "Magic Bus" as we’re given the details of the trip that brought him there. Flashbacks narrated by Chris’ sister Carine (Jena Malone) tell of their troubled family life that led him to rebel this dramatically. Their father (William Hurt), a strict disciplinarian who emotionally and physically abused their mother (Marcia Gay Harden), was arrogantly oblivious to the additional pain he was casuing his children. Talk of divorce never actually materialized, which just made the suffering drag on that much longer.

Chris’ parents have high expectations for the overachieving student to attend Harvard Law School after graduation but don’t realize he’s the type of person whose beliefs don’t come wrapped nicely in a box and can’t just be bought off with a new car. Material possessions are of little value to him as he questions society’s role for him, and many of those questions are good ones. A lot of movies have attempted to explore post-graduation angst but I think this is the only one to really ever get it right. It’s that feeling of not wanting to do anything and be completely freed from the shackles of responsibility placed on us by society and our parents. It’s every son or daughter’s worst nightmare to wake up one morning and discover they’ve turned into their mom or dad. This movie understands that. You could write Chris off as just an angry young punk but doing so would be failing to acknowledge that he brings up some real issues that we’re afraid to bring out into the open. And does the fact that we’re afraid to talk about them help create a Christopher McCandless?

The relationship between Chris and Carine represents the rarest sibling dynamic depicted in movies: A brother and sister who not only get along, but actually love each other very much. They lean on each other for support in the midst of their parents’ battles instead of choosing sides and drifting apart. She understands Chris’ decision to leave even though she can’t fully support it and the more lies and secrets he learns about his parents the more determined he becomes to continue on his ill-fated journey and cut them out of his life completely. And if it means cutting out his sister also then so be it.

It’s worth pondering whether his family's "punishment" is truly deserved or Chris is punishing himself more than anyone else. Jena Malone’s narration is the unsung crown jewel of the film, depicting all those conflicted feelings and her delivery of some of the script’s most emotionally stirring lines convinced me if she weren’t an actress she’d find permanent work doing voice-overs. The decision to use narration can make or break a movie and this is one of the best uses of it imaginable. The story couldn’t be told without it.

It’s insulting to call the individuals Chris encounters on his trip "characters." They’re real people with hopes, fears and strong opinions about life. Each of these actors, no matter how much screen time they’re given, flesh them out completely. We don’t want his time or our time with them to ever end. Vince Vaughn’s role as a farmer who briefly employs Chris is miniscule but it represents the most restrained work of his entire career. It’s the only time I’ve seen him not playing a goofier version of himself and mocking every line he delivers. He’s a real working-class person you care about and a voice of reason you hope can get through to this kid who clearly isn’t listening.

Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker play middle-aged hippies with relationship problems of their own and help center the story with their homey, down-to-Earth charm. They respect Chris’ free spirit, but like Vaughn’s character, see through him and can’t completely condone the direction he’s chosen to take his life. Kristen Stewart’s role as a teen singer who’s the ultimate temptation for Chris is smaller, but she’s unforgettable in it.

Hal Holbrook’s Academy Award nominated supporting performance comes late in the film but in just only 10 minutes he truly becomes Ron Franz, a lonely aging man who’s let time slip him by and becomes almost a surrogate grandfather to Chris. Something is awakened in both of them and when it’s time for Chris to move on to the final, inevitable leg of the journey his reaction becomes the beating pulse of the picture. I’ve always been a fan of Holbrook’s work in underrated gems like Capricorn One and Creepshow, but he never got the mainstream recognition he always richly deserved as being one of our most reliable supporting actors. I was so thrilled for him at age 83 to be given a role this meaningful that I felt like cheering. Sean Penn gave him the ball, but he ran with it. Regardless of what the Academy’s intentions may have been, this won’t be remembered as a one of those lifetime career sympathy nominations. He earned it as it’s the best role of his long, impressive career. And as tough as it was for me to keep it together during various points of the picture, I may have had the toughest time during Holbrook’s portion.

Emile Hirsch has slowly been building toward this for a while and it’s is an extremely difficult part to pull off well, not just because of the required physical demands (evident by his frightening skeletal deterioration at the end), but of the responsibility that comes with portraying a real person, especially one as complicated and potentially unlikable as Chris. This pushes the boundaries of what great acting can be. It’s a transformation, and it’s unfathomable that the Academy didn’t deem it worthy of recognition because this is usually the kind of immersive and self-sacrificing performance they shower with praise. 2007 may have been a strong year for films but it wasn’t THAT strong and I could name stronger ones off the top of my head (’94 and ’99 come to mind immediately). There’s no excuse for this.

Even worse are the oversights in other key Oscar categories. This isn’t a dialogue-heavy film and there are many scenes where it’s up to Eddie Vedder’s music and Eric Gautier’s gorgeous cinematography to tell the story. So many times I wanted to just hit PAUSE on my DVD player and take in the scenery. Every shot is like a love letter to nature. And who would have thought Vedder’s music could fit this so story so perfectly? There were about three or four songs in the picture that were so far superior to anything the Academy chose to nominate this year, or even in the past few years. It’s rare when music compliments a film this well.

There’s a point of no return for Chris and it comes in a scene where he gets a glimpse where his life would have been had he followed the road map his parents laid out. It just wasn’t for him and he wasn’t up to faking it anymore. After that moment he’s filled with a renewed sense of purpose in reaching Alaska and we realize then that there’s nothing anyone can do to try to stop him anymore. The most impressive aspect of Hirsch’s performance is how he hints that a small part of him does really want to forgive his parents badly. He just can’t bring himself to do it. I braced myself for what was inevitably coming (not that it made it any easier) but what really took me by surprise was HOW it ended, which I later found out differs from the account in Krakauer’s book. In the film’s beautiful final moments Chris’ and our eyes are opened, awakening us to the world as if we’re seeing it clearly for the very first time.

You could almost view this film as a warning to families everywhere who let issues fester and keep things bottled up inside. This is the worst possible result of that. Anyone harboring grudges and carrying anger will want to think twice about whether that’s really worth it after viewing this film. When it ended I was overcome with mixed emotions and wasn’t sure whether I should be angry at him for emotionally torturing his family or be happy that he stuck with his convictions until the very end living the life he chose for himself.

There was great potential in Chris that was both wasted and completely fulfilled at the same time, as strange as that seems. But I think the part that got to me the most was that he’ll never see those people he befriended on his journey again and there was never a chance to say goodbye. The movie perfectly captures that moment when someone special walks into your life and an important bond is formed, whether or not either party is consciously aware of it at the time. But as deep as those bonds were, there was nothing they could do to prevent this. Only Chris could save himself, and he didn’t want to. Or if he wanted to, he couldn’t.

It’s so ironic that a film like this came from Sean Penn. While a brilliant actor, he’s always come off as an independent minded individual who’s been difficult to get behind and root for, not unlike the protagonist. Maybe that’s partially what drew him to the material. Chris McCandliss may have been out for himself, but Penn wasn’t this time. He’s had a career full of cinematic contributions, but this stands as his greatest…and most important.

It’s been a year of strong films that were exercises in technical expertise, but they also left you cold and depressed when they were over. This is a tragedy, but it isn’t depressing. It’s life affirming. Maybe it’s for the best that it was overlooked at the Oscars because the Academy doesn’t deserve to own any of this film. It’s ours. It contains that extra ingredient that separates four-star movies from masterpieces. That feeling when you’re done watching it that you’ve seen something substantial that will always stay with you. Into The Wild really is about the journey.

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