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Into The Wild (15)

A young man's search for meaning in Alaska leaves Nicola Mostyn strangely cold

Published on November 20th 2007.

Into The Wild (15)

Directed by Sean Penn, Into the Wild is adapted from the novel by Jon Krakauer and tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a middle class college graduate who decided to leave his family, donate his life savings to Oxfam and embark upon a journey to Alaska to live in the wilderness where he eventually died.

In the book, Jon Krakauer pieces together the actions and motivations of this well-bred, well-off. athletic and popular young man who abandons his society in search of solitude and transcendence amongst nature.

So the film shows McCandless’ arrival in Alaska (by which time he has re-christened himself the snazzy ‘Alexander Supertramp’) before flashing back to details about his parents oppressive and volatile relationship, as told by his sister, and showing scenes recounting the people that he met on his way to his big adventure.

There are lots of angles Penn could have taken in this film: Is it an expose of capitalist society? A candid look at a romantic but ultimately foolish dream? A tragedy of a philosophical realisation which comes too late? A celebration of figures such as Thoroux, whose rejections of modern life and investigations of the interior form part of the great American tradition?

Into The Wild touches on all these things but the film lacks something because Penn can’t seem to decide what he is trying to say.

McCandless was clearly out of his depth. When he arrives in Alaska he finds a camper van equipped with supplies and tools and settles in, which only begs the question: What the hell was he planning to do if this “magic bus” hadn’t been there? There is a scene in which he howls like a wolf and he seems self-conscious, displaying an element of play-acting which belies his passionate, confident conviction. The words he says are quotes from the books he carries around by Jack London, Tolstoy, Thoreau – meaningful but shop-worn, borrowed ideas, not yet his own.

This was all very interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more made of it, but while the film does admit McCandless’ naivety, it stops short of the sort of candid criticism which would have made this a much more interesting film. Instead, as it follows his journey around the US before arriving in Alaska, it makes McCandless out to be some sort of littlest hobo in human form, inspiring everyone he meets to make some sort of positive life change or offer to adopt him, making the whole thing feel as hokey as a made for TV, movie or, with its deep and meaningful dialogue, like an over-long and over-worthy episode of Dawson's Creek.

The heavy handedness doesn’t help. Whether Penn feels he is aiming this film at an audience so wedged into the shallow trappings of contemporary life that they need the poignant bits pointed out in large print is not clear but there are a couple of wince-inducing occasions where the audience is spoon-fed the poignancy in a way that is pretentious and patronising.

Since the story of McCandless ‘adventure’ has been pieced together from testimony from the people he met and his own journals, the latter in which he inevitably casts himself as the heroic, enlightened visionary, perhaps it is inevitable that it holds a rosy a view of his last years, but taking this blanket approach to the film means that, while it might allow the audience to draw their own conclusions, it loses the impact of its many powerful elements. Into the Wild has a strong cast, including Catherine Keener, William Hurt and Vince Vaughn and taking the lead role, Emile Hirsch is warm and likeable with very expressive eyes (a good thing when all you are acting to is snow.) Speaking of snow, while there were initially some wonderful shots of Alaska which showed it to be both soothing and imposing too much of the films hefty two and a half hours are taken up with McCandless making his way to his destination, meeting hippies and farmers and friendly old men and so there isn’t not quite of the transcendental, meditative environment that Alaska must have provided, nor indeed McCandless’ impressions of it.

Despite the film’s numerous problems, much of this is swept away by its powerful conclusion, the basic facts of which hold their own tragic potency; a young man who wanted to escape the poisons of society and who was eventually trapped in his own hard-sought paradise. But it seems to be a missed opportunity to make a film with such subject matter which is really not all that profound.

Rating: 6/10

Into The Wild is showing at FACT until Thursday (22 November) .

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