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Christopher McCandless – Into the wild

Director: Sean Penn

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian H. Dierker, Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart, Vince Vaughn

All of the promotion and buzz about “Into the Wild” speaks of a true story – involving a free spirit, living that romanticized life on the road, not worrying about gaining material wealth but concerned with enriching the spirit and finding peace of mind in the natural world around him.

However, the flip side of Christopher McCandless’ tale is that he was a smart young man, angry at his parents and looking for a way to channel that anger. So he donates his college savings to charity, burns his money and disappears – telling no one of his plans. For years, he lives off the land, with odd jobs and through new acquaintances.

Sure, there’s something liberating about this life. But to completely drop off the face of the planet is a bit much. I can even cut him some slack in not wanting to speak to his parents, from whom all of his frustration seems to sprout. His sister is another story, considering he was essentially abandoning and relegating her to deal with the family neither felt would win any parents of the year awards.

That’s where the film completely fails. Emile Hirsch’s portrayal of Christopher McCandless is unsympathetic. I couldn’t care less what happened to him. Combine that with his fascination with a great Alaskan adventure and the first thing that comes to my mind is Timothy Treadwell from the documentary, “Grizzly Man“.

In both cases, each person was capable of changing their lives and coping in more constructive ways. Heck, Treadwell’s far more sympathetic because he appeared to be bi-polar and therefore in less control of his faculties. There doesn’t appear to be any psychological or medical reason why Christopher McCandless would be quite so selfish and reckless.

We’re all prone to bouts of those destructive emotions but spending months on the road with nothing but the clothes on your back should allow enough time to come to your senses. We’re not talking about a weekend bender.

Into the wild - Christopher McCandless

Into the wild – Christopher McCandless

Now, on the plus side for the film, the supporting cast paint the kind of glamorous picture of hitching across America that many of us have daydreamed about here or there. While Hirsch does a good job, it is these other characters, floating in and out of his life that create an enjoyable framework for the story.

Hal Holbrook especially is amazing. I now see why he earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and while I’d still have given the award to Javier Bardem, Holbrook comes close to catching him.

The much-ballyhooed Eddie Vedder soundtrack meshes well with the tone and subject material of the film. The picturesque locations all speak to the beauty of this great nation many of us pay taxes to (including myself, don’t get any ideas IRS). And I can’t say that a part of me doesn’t envy McCandless for having the stones to disappear into a new existence, exploring the little known byways and crevices between the cement Interstate freeways.

However, while I can on one hand admire some of his spirit, I can’t ignore the carelessness he used in regards to the feelings of the people who knew and loved him. Furthermore, I think part of the charm people find in his tale is one of anti-establishment. A person who went the other way and channeled his anger into making money and cutting deals would be branded a greedy bastard. A bit of a double standard, I would say.

So, while Penn maneuvered the time line of events very well and gleaned good performances from his actors, it’s just too hard for me to feel any of the sympathy that the script and film are looking for. I’m giving “Into the Wild” a 3 out of 5. The events that befall Christopher McCandless are sad but he led his life in a manner that involved risks. One can’t be too surprised at how things turn out when caution isn’t heeded.

McCandless goes into the wild

It’s hard to know what to make of Christopher McCandless – and that’s what makes it hard to stop thinking about “Into the Wild,” Sean Penn’s new film about McCandless’ life. Newly out of college with the world before him, McCandless chucked it all for the life of a drifter. From an upper-middle-class family in the Northeast, he burned his money (literally) and went west, meeting people, communing with nature and doing odd jobs, on his way to his ultimate destination, Alaska. He wanted to go into the wild – into the wildest of the wild – in search of enlightenment and true experience.

If McCandless’ quest were merely magnificent, it would be easy to digest and forget. If it were merely idiotic, it would be easy to dismiss. Instead, his adventure seems to have been a little of both – grand and profound, pointless and wasteful. You could look at him as a spoiled rich kid motivated by a desire to punish his parents. Yet, his tenacity and gallantry in the face of disaster indicate genuine character, and his commitment to his dream was so outsize as to seem metaphorical.

Artistically, the challenge for Sean Penn was to take this true story, based on Jon Krakauer’s book, and give it the requisite sprawl without making it overlong or tiresome; to take a saga that could have been a dead slog through the woods and give it dramatic shape; and to film the story with an eye for its elusive shades of meaning.

Christopher johnson mccandless

Christopher johnson mccandless

Penn does it all. His screenplay is a meticulous construction, which presents us with McCandless’ Alaskan adventure up front, and then keeps cutting from it to show the adventures and stages that led him there, the people he met, the lives he touched.

Even more impressive is the intuitive rightness with which Penn tells the story visually, because that’s not really something that can be worked out fully in advance, on paper. It’s hard to describe what Penn does exactly. Throughout he gives close-ups of odd details or unexpectedly pulls back to watch the action at a remote distance. However he does it, his approach feels right and creates a singular psychological effect – a sense that this story, playing out before us, has already happened.

Penn emphasizes this strange and arresting sense of inevitability by twice having Emile Hirsch, who plays McCandless, break the fourth wall: He has Hirsch look directly into the camera, at the audience. These close-ups are complicated moments, in that we’re meant to understand that it’s both Hirsch and McCandless looking at us, simultaneously. And the meaning of these moments only deepens when we realize later that the shots were intended to evoke the movie’s final shot, in which we see the real McCandless in a photo, looking at us with precisely that same mix of good humor and existential challenge.

Penn takes an audience full of people – who’d complain if a theater’s air conditioning were on too high – and persuades them that a young man who went into Alaska with just a backpack and a gun was something other than crazy. He does it by tapping into some inner sense or impulse within individuals that craves the ultimate test and that believes that making terms with the wilderness is somehow more soul-revealing than, say, figuring out how to survive in a big city. This is where the audience meets McCandless, on that gut level.

Into the wild & Chris Mccandless

Into the wild & Chris Mccandless

Newly out of college, the young man wants to pursue something real, but he sees only falsehood and anger in his parents (played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and their way of life, so he takes off on the road. What follows are episodes that play out with just enough languor that they feel lived in, with Catherine Keener and a terrific newcomer, Brian Dierker, showing up as a hippie couple, and with Vince Vaughn vivid as some kind of farm foreman. Best of all, the movie provides an extraordinary showcase for 82-year-old Hal Holbrook, as a widower whose life opens up when he meets McCandless, and then closes down again.

For all the movie’s virtues, something holds me back from conferring the final laurel on “Into the Wild.” Eddie Vedder’s original songs, which are heard a lot on the soundtrack, are too defining, taking the poetry of Penn’s visuals and turning them into prose. And there’s something about the joy bordering on awe with which everyone reacts to Chris on his travels that seems not quite true. Hirsch is magnetic and sensitive, but McCandless couldn’t really have been the happy prophet that Hirsch plays here. He had to be more of a young pain in the neck.

Still, this is one of those movies I can imagine deciding is a masterpiece in a month’s time. And by any measure, “Into the Wild” is a big leap forward for Penn as a director and deserves to be one of the most talked about films of the season.