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Into the Wild
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Rebel Film Without A Clue"
1 stars

If the late Christopher McCandless were somehow able to read “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer’s best-selling investigation into his short life and bizarre death in the wilds of Alaska, and then watch writer-director Sean Penn’s screen adaptation of the book, I suspect that he would probably hate the former and love the latter. That, in a nutshell, pretty much sums up what is wrong with the film–it takes a provocative look at the life and death of a complex character, someone who was both an admirable idealist and a clueless, self-absorbed idiot whose death who managed to put himself in the position of dying a slow and agonizing death through his own stupidity, and strips away all the complexity to leave us with little more than a hagiography to a character who, based on the evidence depicted on-screen, seems hardly deserving of such treatment.

In the film, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is a cocky idealist and recent college graduate who, inflamed by the romantic visions of authors like Jack London and what he sees as the hypocrisy of his materialistic parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), decides to give away all of his money to Oxfam and hit the road for parts unknown without letting anyone–not even his beloved sister (Jena Malone)–have even a clue as to his whereabouts. His dream is to one day make it to the wilds of Alaska and live a life that will free him of the pressure of having to conform to a society that he finds to be inherently rotten and corrupt. After a long and winding journey, during which he meets and befriends such diverse people as an amiable hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a young girl with an obvious crush on him (Kristen Stewart), a guy who offers him both a job and unheeded advice about nature (Vince Vaughn) and an old man (Hal Holbrook) who thinks he has seen it all until he sees Chris, he finally makes it to his promised land and while everything seems perfect for a while, a combination of bad luck and McCandless’s unwillingness to fully grasp just how savage and unrelenting Mother Nature can be to those who aren’t fully prepared to deal with it eventually lead to his slow and painful death in the back of an abandoned bus from a combination of starvation and exposure.

One of the brilliant things about Krakauer’s book was the way in which it refused to offer readers a single and conclusive portrait of its subject–some people came away from it thinking that McCandless was an idealist whose willingness to break from the constraints of society and follow his own path was something to admire and emulate while others felt that he was a self-absorbed twerp who cared for no one but himself and whose death was the direct result of his own stupidity and lack of respect for the very forces of nature that he claimed to respect. You would think that anyone attempting to adapt the book into a movie would want to try to strike that same balance but it is precisely that crucial element that has mysteriously eluded writer-director Sean Penn in his efforts to bring “Into the Wild” to the screen. It quickly becomes evident that Penn was one of those readers who came away from the book with nothing but admiration for McCandless and wanted to make sure that his film would create the same impression. The difference is that Krakauer’s book allowed people to come away with that impression without insisting on it while Penn pretty much rams it down our throats with one adoring close-up after another set to the pseudo-inspirational caterwaulings of Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack contributions. What is really upsetting about this approach is that Penn, based on his previous directorial efforts (“The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard” and the brilliant and powerful “The Pledge,” a film containing what may be Jack Nicholson’s single greatest performance), is the kind of director who could have effortlessly given us a more ambiguous portrayal of McCandless that would have had viewers reacting in the same way that people did to the book. Instead, he disappointingly seems content to give us nothing more than a pictorially ravishing and dramatically inert would-be epic that plays like what a Terrence Malick film must feel like to people who hate Terrence Malick films.

In portraying McCandless, Emile Hirsch does a more-than-credible job of physically embodying the character–even though the gimmick of an actor losing dangerous amounts of weight for a role is old hat by this point, his transformation towards the end is legitimately startling. The problem is that he never quite figures out a way to emotionally embody him as well–his performance is little more than a serious of self-serious poses and proclamations that are more irritating than endearing. Although too old to play the role himself, I can’t help but think that Penn himself would have been brilliant in the role–I can easily see him sparking to the character’s blend of idealism, self-righteousness and stubbornness in order to present him as a fully-formed character instead of the one-note caricature seen here. As for the rest of the cast, they have little to do except to smile beatifically at everything McCandless says or does while trying vainly to make us believe that they believe in him.

The only performance in “Into the Wild” that breaks through this nonsense and reaches some kind of honest truth is the late inning turn from Hal Holbrook as a man who has basically shut himself off from the world until encountering this strange young man. He only has a few minutes of screen time but in them, Holbrook manages to carve out a fully-formed and absolutely haunting character study that when he drops off McCandless by the side of the road at the end of their time together, you’ll want to stay with him instead of going off with the film’s nominal hero.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16433&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/28/07 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/08/20 Malcolm Burns A wonderful moving, but ultimately sad film. I was transfixed for the whole 150 minutes. 5 stars
2/08/20 GLR sean penn's usual heavy-handed, pretentious shit, of what humans should be. FUCK HIM!!!!! 1 stars
11/27/10 millersxing Not perfect, but at least it wasn't a hackneyed Catcher in the Rye portrait of an anti-hero 4 stars
10/29/09 mr.mike I found it not bad at all. 4 stars
6/19/09 Justin Great Movie 5 stars
12/03/08 Shaun Wallner Interesting Movie! 4 stars
11/26/08 Kyle Hirsch outstanding in this entertaining and sad film. A+ music from Eddie Vedder. 5 stars
10/17/08 R.W. Welch The moderately interesting travels of a lost soul. C+ 3 stars
9/25/08 Charles Tatum Very close to the book, but we will never know what was in McCandless' head 4 stars
6/08/08 Simon Really provocative at times, i'll give it that. Otherwise, Peter S's got it... 3 stars
5/25/08 Danny Pretty good - worth seeing. I don't think I'll be purchasing it though. Hirsch good. 3 stars
5/24/08 ladavies Wanted to love it, but didn't. Too long, boring. Hirsch was pretty good. 3 stars
4/26/08 Simeon Briggs I hated it, this McCandless guy is a moron. A film about an idiot? Dude Where's My Car solo 1 stars
3/23/08 saul when the root family goes so the son loses his center 4 stars
3/20/08 Hulk Hoffman This film really hit me. Suprised Hirsch didn't at least get nominated for an Oscar. 5 stars
3/01/08 matthew One of the best films of the decade 5 stars
12/17/07 damalc very good, with excellent range shown by hirsch 4 stars
12/05/07 pauline frank ( from Manchester ) This film had a huge impact on me,you did a great job Sean! 5 stars
11/25/07 cyank Incorrect Conclusion that Penn didnt get that McCandless was utterly selfish and reckless 2 stars
11/24/07 j mo I agree wholeheartedly with this review. This film was a slo-mo snore. 2 stars
11/21/07 caiphn I enjoyed this. Worth watching, at least once. 3 stars
11/20/07 movielover I LOVED THIS MOVIE - igore this critic's view. This is an academy winning movie!! 5 stars
11/03/07 innis_mor Penn did masterful work of Krakauer book and McCandless' journey. Critics love it. Peter S? 5 stars
10/19/07 jcjs Don't read Peter Sobczynski idiotic, spoiler bashings..great, entertaining, could be longer 5 stars
10/16/07 Private Masterpiece. 5 stars
10/08/07 Ole Man Bourbon I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation. One heck of a story. 5 stars
9/28/07 Jim The Movie Freak One of the year's best. 5 stars
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  21-Sep-2007 (R)
  DVD: 04-Mar-2008



Directed by
  Sean Penn

Written by
  Sean Penn

  Emile Hirsch
  Vince Vaughn
  Kristen Stewart
  Jena Malone
  William Hurt
  Catherine Keener

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