typing is not activism….

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Film Review: Into the Wild

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The film project which Sean Penn has pulled together – Into The Wild – is a labor of love with preparation and background efforts reputed to have lasted over a decade. For the audience, the production staff, actors, and the real people whose stories make this film what it is, Into The Wild is – on many levels – a fittingly personal experience. However hard the film companies may try to promote it as a feelgood adventure flick, it certainly isn’t anything so readily categorized. It is likely the most astonishing piece of storytelling on which Sean Penn has yet worked behind-the-scenes.

Adapted by Penn from the Jon Krakauer book of the same name, Into The Wild is the true story of Christopher McCandless: a young man with all the seeming benefits of a wealthy family, solid education, and straight-A opportunities. But rather than the road so obvious, he embarks on a road rarely so sincerely travelled – donating his entire college fund to OxFam, destroying all his i.d., and disappearing into the still wild frontiers that live in the midst of, and beyond, American civilization.

It’s the beginning of a two-year journey of utterly unpredictable adventure, and although the story is astounding it is not in the detail of the plot that this story’s magic lies. The plot, like the perfectly ordered structure of this film, is just a vehicle. Not by accident, the story is full of vehicles. Whether they’re mobile or stationary – worlds are moving within them as surely as they are taking part in this world. Reinventing himself as Alexander Supertramp McCandless rides the edge of chaos; crucially the clear structure of Into The Wild lets both audience and filmmakers right inside the characters – into the detail of their stories, into their insights, fears, conflicts, and most importantly their transformations.

More than the tale of a twenty-something boy with eyes as big as the sky and burning questions similarly fed and answered by a swag of literary heavyweights, making his way from Dakota to Mexico, from fringe-dweller commune to snowy solitude – it is transformation that drives the movie and pulls us deeper inside its sometimes harsh embrace.

There is a deliberate naivety in the movie’s beginning. There is an understatedness that lies somewhere between the feeling of documentary and an awareness that the actors are acting, without quite being either. There is almost a feeling of a rawness that has been overdone.

The role that this early approach plays in the total effect of the film is undeniable. Penn and his cast initially play with us; there is room to play back. There is the kind of light and easy idealism one might expect from an adventurer who has just burnt his last pocketful of dollar bills. This is as much to put as in the moment as it is to leave us unprepared, no doubt in much the same way true adventurers are.

Ultimately the film blossoms and explodes in unexpected directions. As a viewer, I found myself asking questions of the character and his development which would soon be more than answered. Insights from McCandless’ sister throughout play a large part in enriching our understanding of who he was but, in a manner so atypical of American cinema, we are never bludgeoned into a viewpoint, understanding or conclusion. As with the first news reports surrounding the discovery of McCandless’ body one cold Alaskan day and, later, the critical response to his story as retold by Krakauer, there will be mixed responses to his story in film.

And that is a beautiful thing. If anything, in that achievement Penn and his obviously committed cast have brought a truth to the screen which is too frequently lacking.

The style in which we are fluidly immersed in tales of greatness, the literature of Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and others carried by McCandless, stories no doubt restored by people who became part of his journey and were in turn transformed by the short time they had with him, his back-story, and the internal dialogue building inside as he discovers that beauty and horror live much closer to each other than we let ourselves believe; this style is essential to the film’s impact, its multilayered texture, and it seamless richness.

The soundtrack, worked on largely by Eddie Vedder, plays no small part in helping this film work its seemingly easygoing magic. Hard Sun has to be the song of the year but more importantly the musical feel is organic, subtle, and happy to be taken or left. There is no sonic cheapening of the moment with obvious emotional or responsive cues. The story is so beautifully told that Vedder only has to add to what is already a great accomplishment, rather than accomplish what hasn’t been done. Similarly the cinematography is subtly stunning but never overbearing. While the camera captures and conveys zen-like moments of motion and stillness, its ultimate achievement is delivering an almost objective truth that allows the viewer to respond in their own personal way.

In an age of bombastic film anthems, mega-million-dollar actors, far-out plot twists and massive special effects capture but do not ultimately satisfy ‘the consumer’ – for that is the target of many such productions – Into The Wild feels like a film that will endure as a classic of both American and global cinema for years to come, in much the same way that films such as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Deer Hunter, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest have before it.

It is a film of characters, not actors. It could not be that way were it not for an accomplished, credible, and adventurously selected cast. Special mention should be made of the additional layers of intrigue added to the movie by cameos of characters from McCandless’ actual journey, and Emile Hirsch who plays McCandless/ Supertramp. Given that Supertramp went through periods of starvation in his great Alaskan solitude, Hirsch actually lost over 40 pounds – apparently getting down to 115 pound, or a near-anorexic 51 kilos for the role. To mention any more would mean to mention all.

Apparently this film has been rated ‘R’ in the U.S. for reasons of language and nudity. This is preposterous and hopefully it will not be similarly misrepresented in Australia.

There are harsh realities in this movie, but there is nothing lascivious or gratuitous. It is a wonder that people of all ages can be exposed at any time to the consumer-porn which McCandless was in part railing against, yet be denied the near-unique wonderment of this film until they are of an age where they themselves are already going through personal dilemmas similar to McCandless, or are too far gone in the land of suits and C.V.s to wake up as he so forcefully seemed to.

Into the Wild is a richly beautiful, well-humoured and at times literally stunning piece of cinema. It has the feel of a film certain to still be delivering unexpected gems of insight on a third or fourth sitting. And although it necessarily invalidates this review to say so, it is a beautifully told tale as much experiential as it is transformative. However it moves you, Into the Wild will surely move you.

Although thoroughly different – not just in that it is a story which has already happened – it has the capacity to move audiences as profoundly as recent European films like Pan’s Labyrinth, Dancer in the Dark, and Children Of Men. Their preference for a very real and chaotic mixture of light and dark over Hollywood sensationalism is perhaps the most immediately apparent thread that binds such a group of works.

Into The Wild has an aura of ‘essential viewing’ which I think has become incredibly rare in Western film. It is a breathtaking achievement.

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Written by typingisnotactivism

October 20, 2007 at 2:52 pm

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  1. […] presents Film Review: Into the Wild posted at typing is not activism…., saying, ” this is a review of the latest film to be […]

  2. […] Xavier Forrest reviews Into the Wild. Learn more about Sean Penn’s latest film over at TYPING IS NOT ACTIVISM…. […]


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