Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Into the Wild

"Happiness, only real when shared."

Those were the last words of Christopher McCandless as he scrawled them between random lines in a book as he prepared to die somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. Christopher is played with quiet efficiency by Emile Hirsch who decides to set out on a journey away from his dysfunctional parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden). Most of Chris's trip is narrated by his sister Carol (Jena Malone) from his journal and interviews with the people he encountered that was compiled into Jon Krakauer's book of the same name.

Chris's homelife was difficult growing up with him always looking after his sister while his parents fought. He sets out a smaller trip after he graduates from high school. The audience is left to wonder if maybe that was what put the idea in him later on to try it again. And that is what he does after he spends four years at Emory University to appease his parents. Life seems to going great with Chris planning on attending Harvard Law. A disagreement with his folks over a graduation gift pushes him further out the door.

After driving all the way across the country, Chris decides that he doesn't need all the trappings of the city. He leaves his car and burns the non-essential items. Chris sets out completely alone hitching here and there. Throughout the film he encounters many different people. McCandless has subscribed to the theory that relationships aren't what life is about, but rather it is what you do. This will sharply contrast what he finds out later the hard way.

Some the key people Chris encounters are Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), who are hippies out on the road getting by on selling books second hand. Jan gave her son up a long time ago and feels very drawn to Chris. By the times their paths cross again, Chris is determined to go to Alaska. This worries Jan as she feels like she might be losing a second son.

The most important character along the way is the last... Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). Ron has too lost his family along the way and finds a second chance at it when he meets Chris. You can see that Ron's plee to stay and he'll try to adopt him as a grandson to replace the love both of them never had is genuine. I think this moment is what makes Chris decide later on that he had enough of Alaska and set out, presumably to Ron's place.

All of the acting is quite good here. Director Sean Penn has cast not necessarily the best actors, but the best ones for the roles. Holbrook Oscar nominated performance is brilliant, but so are the rest here. Even Vince Vaughn provides a comic charge as a farmer who hire Chris to work his spread awhile. Each actor doesn't try to do too much with the role especially Emile Hirsch. I think he quietly turned in maybe the second best performance of the year behind Daniel Day-Lewis. The physical demands of the role hit Christian Bale-like proportions towards the end with intense shots of the weight loss Hersh went through for the role. On a side note, the Eddie Vedder songs that make up most of the soundtrack, although much talked about, were fine... but nothing special.


The more I think about Into the Wild, I am reminded of my favorite film of 2006, Down in the Valley. In that film, Edward Norton plays a mentally disturbed young man who goes off his meds named Harlan. Harlan is trying to live the life he watched in movies... a simpler life. He too cannot live in the city any longer and tries to escape it like Christopher McCandless. I mention this only as an observation about my taste in films. Into the Wild would currently be my favorite of '07, but I still have a few left to watch:

Things We Lost in the Fire
In the Valley of Elah
No Country for Old Men
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
American Gangster
The Savages
Before the Devil Knows You Are Dead
The Darjeeling Limited
Charlie Wilson's War
Maybe Sweeney Todd, but I am less excited about that one.

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