Tag Archives: Brian Dieker

The tragedy of Christopher McCandless

What a beautiful and perplexing movie this is. I’d call it an uplifting tragedy, or a movie of inspirational sadness. It did not take long for me to decide it was made with incredible artistry and sensitivity, it took me longer to decide whether or not I liked it.

I think, in just about all the ways that matter, Into the Wild reflects the conundrum of its subject, which is a credit to writer/director Sean Penn. Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was the brilliant son of wealthy parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, their faces pinned into the heartbreaking masks of upper-society denial) who, having graduated from Emory University with straight “A”’s and law school on the horizon, suddenly donated his life savings, destroyed his identifying papers, and set out to wander America with a backpack and a water jug. His travels, culminating in an exile in the Alaskan wilderness and pieced together from his journals and interviews with people he encountered by adventurer/author Jon Krakauer, certainly have the beguiling romance of that drop-out impulse in so many of us.

But the keenness of Penn’s observation stops this from being a trite cinematic folk song about anti-societal hoofing. “Freedom” is a tantalizing chimera in this film, because dependence has many forms, and so does happiness; and McCandless, for all his wit and willpower, for all his commitment to his vision and his ability to drop high-minded literary quotations into any circumstance, carries a doom about him because of a lesson he refuses to learn. That is what elevates this film from pastoral preachiness to a profound mix of frustrating and mesmerizing.

Hirsch’s performance is a wonder, not just because of the physical transformation he must undergo as the journey wears on him, but because he is playing a person who defies nearly all our normal standards, and I didn’t doubt him for a moment. His McCandless, who abandons his name for the cheeky nom de hitchhike “Alexander Supertramp”, is a young man with a ravening appetite for “truth”. He loves books and nature (biting into a freshly-picked apple, he launches into a giddy recitation about its flavor), and despises his parents for their anger and lies. And yet as far as he wanders, we see what he cannot – that there is still part of him that is prisoner to this anger.

And as he meets people along the road, many of whom clearly want to pour love into him, we see that he doesn’t know how to let them. Behind his dark eyes and charmingly total enthusiasm, does he have contempt for them, the ones who fall even one inch short of his ruthlessly self-imposed standards for freedom? Watch the way he deflects every effort to reach deeper within him – after awhile you realize it’s not them he’s protecting.

Chris mccandless and Wayne Westerberg

Chris mccandless and Wayne Westerberg

This film is a spectacle of people and places. Spanning dozens of locations, captured with impeccable grace by French cinematographer Eric Gautier, it is an ode to the vastness and variety of America, its fields and woods and deserts and canyons. Enhancing the effect is a moody collection of original songs by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, that never reach the grunge howl that made his fame but strum along in a meditative ache. To watch the film is to remember that there is still space out there for wanderers, and more of them than we often realize – a happy interlude is spent at “Slab City”, a desert refuge in California where hippies and squatters live off the grid on the remains of an abandoned Marine base.


Some of the people McCandless encounters are their real-life equivalents, while others are actors dropping in for brief essays of performance under Penn’s deft directorial care. The ever-excellent Catherine Keener and non-actor Brian Dierker (earthy and authentic, he was the movie’s kayaking supervisor before he got drafted in front of the camera) play a couple of “rubber tramps” who share their Winnebago with the Supertramp for awhile, and project him into a long-denied hole in their family unit. Vince Vaughn plays a grain harvester with a side business in unauthorized cable boxes, who relishes his life of beers, friends, and hard work, and tries earnestly to convince McCandless that he can’t spend his life “juggling blood and fire”. And in perhaps the sweetest and most devastating of these roving cameos, Hal Halbrook plays a lonely retiree who becomes, in a way, McCandless’s last chance to accept a life in the world of man.

Christopher johnson mccandless

Christopher johnson mccandless

I think people will bring a lot into Into the Wild, and that is largely what they will take out of it. Some will see McCandless as a hero, others an icon, others a naïve squanderer of potential. I personally found him bedeviling, a disappointment of great ideas. He doesn’t seem to see just how much he is surviving off of providence and the charity of others. I think there are more people than we realize who set off on these quixotic walkabouts and we just never hear about them because they wind up starved in a ditch. People selflessly provide McCandless money, food, shelter, affection, work, entertainment, they give him advice on how to use certain tools, and hunt and preserve meat; this is knowledge they attained from hard experience, and he scribbles it down in his notebook as if that’s all the substitute he needs, just more literature to live by.

And what does he give them in return but to swoop through like a self-made prophet, taking and then abandoning, leaving behind only their fantasies of what his appearance in their lives must have meant? I think this defiance of love and contact – his sister (Jena Malone) suffers at home, wondering what she did to deserve being as cut off from knowledge of him as their parents – is as destructive as anything he does. By the end, when his once-athletic physique is almost skeletal, I think it’s that without love, his body had to eat itself. But then there is the end, and a transcendent change that stirred even my skeptical analysis.

What are we to take from all this? Into the Wild is not going to presume to spell it out to you, but if you see this movie, you’re going to feel something big. That the feeling is likely to be different in color but equally strong for so many, makes this a film to note for this year.

McCandless and his journey into the wild

Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch, “The Girl Next Door,” “Alpha Dog”) was a star student and athlete who followed his parental game plan through college graduation before chafing against their materialism and tempestuous home life. Without a word, he gave his $24,000 grad school fund to Oxfam and set off across the country with $500 and a desire to disappear “Into the Wild.”

Writer/director Sean Penn isn’t tinkering around in intellectual indie land anymore. In adapting Jon Krakauer’s novel, Penn’s maturation as a filmmaker is stunningly complete. “Into the Wild” is a riveting, spiritual revelation – one young man’s journey to find himself that ends in folly unmourned.

Beginning at the beginning, Penn lays the McCandless family groundwork on Christopher’s graduation day. Dad Walt (William Hurt, “A History of Violence,” “Mr. Brooks”) turns spiteful when his gift is rebuffed, mom Billie (Marcia Gay Harden, “Pollock,” “Mystic River”) is conciliatory while exhibiting the same behavior her son is condemning. Sister Carine (Jena Malone, “Donnie Darko,” “Pride & Prejudice”) is quiet observer and thoughtful narrative guide.

Christopher covers his tracks as he sets off in his old junker. By the time he’s been forced to abandon it in the mud and set off on foot, redubbing himself Alexander Supertramp, his folks are just beginning to realize he may have slipped their sphere of influence. Parental guidance now comes from the more liberally attuned Rainey (the film’s marine coordinator Brian Dierker in a knockout debut performance) and Jan (Catherine Keener, “Capote,” “Friends with Money”), ‘rubber’ tramps of free spirit yet wise advise and cautious concern.

Into the wild and Chris Mccandless photographs

Into the wild and Chris Mccandless photographs

After a few days, he slips away from them too, and shows their influence when he takes up hard labor with hard drinking wheat farmer Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn, “The Wedding Crashers”) in North Dakota. That idyll is cut short by the FBI, who arrest the farmer (one of the film’s only failings is that the ‘why’ of this is unclear at best) as Christopher slips back onto the road where he will break the law himself by white water canoeing down the Colorado River without a permit.


A violent dispatch from a train freight car finds him in a downtown LA homeless shelter, but the city has been bred out and so Christopher delights Jan by showing up in Slab City where he has a brief romantic dalliance with underage songstress Tracy (Kristen Stewart, “Panic Room,” “Zathura,” “The Messengers”) (and where Dierker gets the film’s flat out funniest line). One last stop finds him mentoring senior citizen Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook, 1967′s “Mark Twain Tonight!,” “All the President’s Men”) who takes him as an apprentice to his leather working business. Then, with what he believes to be enough supplies to last the winter, Christopher makes his way to his final destination – the great Alaskan wilderness.

Penn weaves his story using a flashback structure so that we experience Christopher’s journey in parallel with his final adventure, giving us insights into the significance past events play further along in his story. Poetry and original music by Michael Brook, Kaki King and Eddie Vedder comment on Christopher’s interior world while Hirsch, who dieted down to 115 lbs. for the film’s end, provides the physicality.

Chris Mccandless

Chris Mccandless

Penn and his cinematographer Eric Gautier (“Gabrielle,” “Private Fears in Public Places”) also make effective use of close-ups to bring us into the characters’ states of mind while medium and long shots capture the grit of life on the road and the severe beauty of the wilderness. Penn uses all his components to create the ultimate road movie – one whose interior is at least as weighty as its environs. Most significant of all is how he has envisioned the final leg, the step off this mortal coil that is presented as a horrific mistake morphing into a new level of discovery.

Hirsch grounds the film with his solid performance, but it is in support that the true gems are to be found, first and foremost nonprofessional actor Dierker whose warm and humorous understanding of human nature are enveloping in their charm. Keener, too, is terrific as the flip side to Harden – a wounded mother aching with maternal need. Holbrook is a gem as an old man set in his ways who lets a young man’s idealism nudge him out of his comfort zone. In one quick scene, Thure Lindhardt and Signe Egholm Olsen provide a humorous interlude as less spiritually motivated Danish backpackers.

Krakauer’s take on McCandless’s state of mind has been debated and Penn does nothing to question it, but in going on the same presumptions Penn has created a road movie of poetic vision. Just when you think the film is getting a little lengthy, it pulls you in again, enthralling through its cathartic climax.