Saturday, November 20, 2010

INTO THE WILD: Somewhat Refreshing

There is a remarkable difference between naiveté and innocence.  However, that’s still different than saying you cannot have one without the other.  Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), alias Alexander Supertramp, in the movie Into the Wild, contains ample amounts of naiveté and innocence.  He graduates from Emery University, has different ideas as to how to live his life than his overbearing father, Walt McCandless (William Hurt), and even his seemingly alcoholic mother, Billie McCandless (Marcia Gay Harden).  Yet even his sister, Carine (Jena Malone), is unaware just how far Chris plans on going to escape what he feels is a superficial existence.  Chris drives west without telling anyone where he is going, abandons his car and burns his money, and eventually takes on the name of Alexander Supertramp.
Along the way of his Odyssey, Chris meets a couple “rubber tramping” hippies by the name of Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) in Arizona.  Chris also charms an underage girl by the name of Tracy (Kristen Stewart), for whom he has the good sense to keep his hands off of her.  Chris eventually makes his way to North Dakota where he works for a freethinking farmer by the name of Wayne (Vince Vaughn).  Wayne, by the way, is eventually arrested for hijacking the cable network broadcasts through the installation of an unauthorized antenna.  The last significant character he meets in his life is a retired widower by the name of Ron (Hal Holbrook), who Chris meets in the state of Washington.  But though all of these characters are charmed by Chris and would do anything to help him along (Ron even wants to adopt him), Chris insists on leaving them all to head up to the wild in Alaska to “commune with nature.”  While first in Alaska, Chris does a wonderful job in surviving the winter while living in an abandoned bus.  Eventually, however, his inexperience results in his making some major blunders.  He eats the roots of plants that sicken him and lay him up for weeks.  And he falls into the glacially fed river close to the bus where he is staying and badly injures himself.  Eventually, he starves to death and is found some 15 days later by hunters.
Chris is not as idealized as might be imagined when reviewing the preview clips.  Despite some reviewers getting all hung-up in the differences between the movie and the book, we see a fairly complete picture of his character in the film.  Though he quotes Tolstoy and Jack London and Pasternak, he does not absorb wisdom like a sponge.  In fact, most of the characters he meets along the way learn more from him and the world around him than he has actually learned.  Ron, for example, eventually finds a great deal of contentment that it seems Chris was only to finally experience while dying and looking up at the sky.  Ron learned to believe in a bigger purpose, a greater understanding, in “God” for lack of a better word.  The conception that Chris had of the meaning of life was more ephemeral and less concrete.  Chris could never quite believe that human beings could help each other.  Chris had a sense of wonder about nature, yet at the same time he could not quite appreciate the fact that great danger was a part of nature’s beauty.  It was this lack of appreciation that eventually killed him.
Remarkably, director Sean Penn has been criticized by some critics for not being more cynical concerning the central character.  It seems that the outspoken and brash middle-aged man who was once married to Madonna is now being criticized for being a hopeless romantic.  The best selling book of the same name by Jon Krakauer supposedly treats Chris with more depth of analysis.  Actually, it is those that make comparisons between a book and a movie that often come across as the most foolish.  We’re speaking of two different mediums.  If we can get deeper into the thoughts of Chris through the written word, we still may be able to perceive the beauty of what he experienced better through film.
I agree that some of the individuals portrayed in the movie take to the charms of Chris a bit too easily without seeing all of his flaws.  I’m wary of characters like Chris because individuals like him often tend to be extremely self-righteous.  They are quick to judge other people for not living up to their own standards, yet lack all perceptiveness concerning their own shortcomings.  And perhaps Penn was blind to the flaws of Chris as well.  Sean Penn probably identified with a character like Chris because Penn, himself, is heavily saddled with such attributes. Still, unlike fifteen or twenty thousand other movies that have been produced, the flaws of the lead character do result in consequences.
Chris is a fool, and I believe that any perceptive viewer could see that while watching the film, Into the Wild.  That he would burn his money, money that for whatever reason was gifted to him by his parents, in the belief that this would provide him with more freedom is only the beginning of the foolishness.  Probably, only one who was provided for during his entire life would ever come to such a conception of freedom.  That he believed that he could so easily enter into and exit from the lives of those who cared for him was indicative of his selfishness.  He was not appreciative of those who would do anything to support him.  And though he had the resources to discover how difficult it truly would be to live in the wild, he did a poor job of absorbing this knowledge.  Yet foolish though he was, he’s not the first fool to ever be romanticized within a movie.  Almost every anti-establishment hero in cinema history took foolish chances and risked their lives in search of some quasi-ideal.
I liked Into the Wild, though I wouldn’t use a trite term like classic to describe it. In the end, when it is already too late, Chris understands that happiness needs to be shared to truly be experienced.  This is probably not completely discernible from the movie considering the consequences of what actually did occur, but Emile Hirsh as Chris McCandless does bring this sentiment out in his interaction with the various characters we meet.  And just because Chris did often act foolishly does not mean that he had little of consequence to say.  There is nothing wrong with wanting more than a life of quiet resignation.  Chris did cram a great deal more experience into his short twenty-three years of life than most people do during very long lives.  Like the rest of us, he simply failed in his ability to comprehend everything.
November 5, 2007 
 © Robert S. Miller 2007

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