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Thread: Sean Penn: Into the Wild (2007)

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    Sean Penn: Into the Wild (2007)



    Sean Penn: Into the Wild

    One hell of a young man

    Sean Penn's Into the Wild is a passionate and faithful evocation of Jon Krakauer's book about Chris McCandless. It's the troubling and complex story of a young idealist and seeker who was also a rebellious child and beloved brother who gave away his $24,000 savings to Oxfam after college, went off in an old Datsun and left his family behind, and disappeared for two years wandering the country, only to be found by hunters dead of poisoning and starvation in an abandoned bus in the wilds of Alaska.

    It's been said as a criticism of Penn's movie that it isn't as neutral about MCcndless as Krakauers's book. It is true that Emile Hirsch as Chris, who called himself Alexander Supertramp on the road, is such a joyous and appealing character it's hard to focus on the arbitrariness and foolhardiness of the young man. Hirsch gives his all. He has shown his knack for playing bad good boys—particularly in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Lords of Dogtown—and for playing wild misfits—in the little seen The Mudge Boy. This is the first great role he's had, and he deserves it. His work is a wonderful melding of "negative capability" and generosity. It comes naturally to him to embody exuberance, boldness, and joy. If there was something off-putting or stern in the real-life McCandless, it's not very noticeable in Hirsch. But Hirsch's enthusiasm makes sense of the great adventure and self-discovery this story recounts. (Sadly, McCandless never seemed more ready to embrace life, and to overcome all his doubts about people and family, than right near his end.) All the faults and mistakes McCandless made are there in the story as Penn tells it; if he has altered facts (and necessarily left some out), he hasn't done so to make the young man's plans seem clearer or his choices wiser, and the movie is replete with specific detail.

    Into the Wild, true, is itself a little on the wild and loud side, with its occasionally obtrusive Eddie Vedder soundtrack, it's insanely vivid characters—like the young Danish couple on the banks of the Colorado, Vince Vaughan's intense, grinning grain farmer, Hal Holbrook's fabulously sad, shut-down old widower. There is another kind of overload in the occasional use of split screens. But it all unfolds very much as Jon Krakauer's book does, with interludes at the "magic bus" where Chris met his doom constantly intercut with episodes from his travels earlier during his two wander-years. And incredible episodes they are: roaming with a warm hippie couple; illegally and hair-raisingly running the Colorado rapids in a kayak; working in the big grain elevator and loving it; riding the rails and loving that too, till he's caught and beaten; escaping a flophouse in L.A.; staying with old Mr. Franz (Holbrook), learning from him how to engrave leather belts and persuading him to climb a mountain; and then off into the hostile snow country with a big back pack and sheer will. Many voiceovers from Chris's sister add more about the sibling relationship than was in the book; the family "fearlessly" cooperated in the film-making. McAndless's stern NASA honcho dad (William Hurt) and uptight mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are as unappealing as he saw them, but are not overdrawn—or underrepresented. Among other things Sean Penn's film is a remarkable balancing act.

    It's obvious this story had to be made into a movie, and it's hard to imagine how anyone could have done it better than Penn and his fine cast. All Penn's directorial efforts have been heartfelt and earnest, but this of his films thus far is his greatest artistic success and has the widest appeal. Into the Wild is a good balance of the emotionally wrenching and the thought-provoking. It contains so many themes and poses so many questions—about youth, about time, about responsibility. Chris isn't to be confused with Herzog's Grizzly Man. He's aware of the danger of nature. It's just that he has the hubris of daring to approach it with too little knowledge and experience, knowing the risk, and taking it. And indeed he might have made it and gotten back out, but for two or three terrible mistakes. Nature is unforgiving.

    Chris McAndless was unforgiving too. But if he read the romantic Bible of his own life lived in those intense two years and lived to tell of them, the film suggests, he would have learned to love and forgive. He was bright, talented, passionate about life, a seeker or rare moral fervor who read and thought and recorded all that happened in those last days. His death was sadly premature. But there are signs—they're clear in Krakauer's book—that he made an impact on the world he inhabited and the people he met. Vince Vaughan's character shouts, "You're one hell of a young man. You're one hell of a young man!" He died terribly alone. But maybe the tree that falls in the forest is heard after all. "Quant'e' bella giovanezza," goes an Italian renaissance verse, "Che si fugge tuttavia." How beautiful is youth, which flees straightaway. McCandless' story embodies those lines.

    Into the Wild
    seems more moving and thought-provoking than any other recent film, and may be destined to become some kind of classic—an Easy Rider, as Scott Foundas of the Voice and others have said, for our times. It's about society and nature, about family, about idealism and aloneness; most of all it's about the dangerous, heartbreakingly brief and beautiful romanticism of youth. In those two years, Chris McCandless lived a whole, remarkable, life. And Sean Penn has captured those two years for us.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-14-2013 at 11:52 AM.

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    INTO THE WILD (2007)

    Sean Penn reaches artistic maturity with Into the Wild his fourth film as writer/director. It's based partly on Jon Krakauer's book about Chris McCandless' 2 year continental odyssey. Upon graduating from Emory University in 1990, the 22 year-old McCandless gave away his educational fund to charity, destroyed his credit cards, and drove west in search of adventure and self-realization. He ditched his old Datsun after it was damaged by a flash flood and made his way across the plains of South Dakota, the canyons of Arizona and the Northern California woods before heading for Alaska.

    McCandless had dreamed for years of the opportunities for solitary contemplation and survivalist adventure available in the Alaskan wilderness. Whereas the book starts at the very end of the journey, Penn wisely manufactures some mystery by opening the film a few months earlier, with McCandless' discovery of an abandoned bus near Denali National Park. Into the Wild then cuts to the young man's last dinner with his middle-class parents and sister Clarice. Penn builds the narrative along these two temporal tracks, dismisses the novel's autobiographical passages (which include Krakauer's detailed telling of his attempt to climb Devil's Thumb in Alaska) and, in a bold stroke, turns Clarice into a second narrator. The strategy allows Penn to provide a backstory for McCandless and shed light into his family. The young woman's observations about how the sudden and secretive departure of the young man affected his family, who attempted and failed to make contact with him, are particularly effective. What emeges is a polemic about McCandless' decision not to contact his family and a more rounded portrait of the protagonist than Krakauer's.

    Penn has also chosen to partition McCandless' voyage into chapters, with titles that coincide with the life stages of a person. Or in this case, a "persona", as McCandless renamed himself Alexander Supertramp to signify the new identity he was creating after breaking away from the empty materialism and hypocrisy of middle-class society. His encounters with a number of people on the road provide a variety of new experiences richly detailed in the film_Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook shine among a stellar cast of secondary characters. But the film is perched on the shoulders of young Emile Hirsch, in a career-making performance characterized by total commitment and complete immersion into the challenging role.

    Into the Wild features original songs by Eddie Vedder used not solely to highlight certain emotions, but to provide texture and to move the narrative along. The arresting visuals come courtesy of Eric Gautier, among the most accomplished cinematographers in contemporary cinema. Gautier has lensed some of the most impressive French films in recent years (Gabrielle, Kings and Queen, etc.) but it was probably his landscape work in The Motorcycle Diaries that prompted Sean Penn to request his services. What Penn and crew have realized is that rare movie that manages to lavishly feed the senses, the mind and the soul of the viewer.

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    Good that you emphasized Gautier, whom I neglected to credit. I'm also glad you liked Hirsch, whom I"ve been following and hoped would get such a good role. I would not have said "partly based" on the book, just "based." They feel pretty close to each other, to me.

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    I thought I had done a decent job describing the crucial differences between book and script... It's my understanding that the material about McCandless' parents and sister, which is highly significant, is not on the book. Penn practically makes Clarice the second most important character in the film because certain portions are seen entirely from her point of view. Penn also deviates from the book in crucial ways, particularly in the way the narrative is structured.

    Have you heard about the new documentary about McCandless' directed by Ron Lamothe and titled The Call of the Wild? It apparently provides evidence challenging some statements and conclusions in Krakauer's book. It screened recently at the SF Documentary Film Fest. I hope to get a chance to watch it someday.

    I think you are in the majority among reviewers of the film who perhaps felt that knowledge of McCandless' fate is so widespread that to reveal it would not constitute a spoiler. Scott Foundas actually opens his review by providing this information!, which Penn chose to keep from viewers until the very end.

    I thought your third paragraph does an excellent job describing the people he meets along the way so I chose not to dwell on them.

    It'd be interesting to have mouton expand on his peculiarly negative take on the film (Toronto thread) but perhaps he's not inclined to do so.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 10-08-2007 at 09:11 PM.

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    You are right about Candice. And you can certainly argue that the movie makes a lot of changes. Nonetheless given the credits, I'd say "based on" rather than "partly based on" initially, and then make my qualifications later.

    It will be interesting to see the documentary. Since nothing was known about McCandless's last years initially, the information is partly controversial, for sure. I had not seen mouton's comments on the film--which I personally loved. However this statement I think is sufficient to explain his negative reaction:
    As McCandless, Hirsch is strong and mature but his character, as noble as he is for pursuing greater meanings in life, is not likable for the emotional pain he caused, especially when it is apparent that he is only running away from his own truths.
    The same bias against young McCandless dominates David Denby's unfavorably judgment of the film in The New Yorker . I would tend to judge a man of 21-23 less harshly, especially one of such high ideals who impressed so many of the people he met. Anyway in both cases I think the reviewer is confusing the merits of the subject with the merits of the film; and I don't see much justification for finding the film "pretentious" and "overly dramatic" or to think that the imagery overbalances the content.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-14-2013 at 11:46 AM.

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    I think you're absolutely correct. I see the reviewers basing their opinion of the film on their dislike of the protagonist. You obviously meant to write: "I would tend to judge a man of 21-23 less harshly". I would too. But I ask, what did McCandless do to deserve such animosity from the reviewers? As far as I'm concerned all he did wrong was overestimate his ability to survive alone in remote Alaska (a park ranger said that if he had a map of the area he could have easily gotten help) and refusing to contact his family (a callous, perhaps cruel, decision which Penn exposes by having Clarice explain its detrimental effect on her and the parents). Penn is clearly not letting McCandless off the hook for that, is he? He even includes a scene in which a pained William Hurt kneels in the middle of the street and crumbles to the ground!!! How comes these same reviewers don't raise the same objections about films in which the protagonist is a serial killer or a vigilante?

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    Indeed. When you say "It's my understanding" about the differences between the book and the film,
    It's my understanding that the material about McCandless' parents and sister, which is highly significant, is not on the book. Penn practically makes Clarice the second most important character in the film. . .
    Valid point, but are you implying you haven't read the book? It's not important. Clearly you have well researched the differences between book and movie. But the only thing is that you can't say how the book made you feel vs. how the film does. It my case, having read the book, I would say the film gives me the same general feelings of the complexity of the relationships and the moral issues. The book gave me a feeling of the coldness of relations between Chris and his parents, even if there are more details about them in the movie. What is really new is the further input from the family especially his sister. I admire Denby's writing, which is assured,clear and elegant, but he does adopt a grumpy old man posture at times, and he can even be mean. I consider his praise of CRASH and excusing the faults of IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH a sign of his unreliability. Of course it's all a matter of taste, but I like good arguments to back up taste. To finally dismiss IN THE THE WILD because of unkind judgments of the young man is questionable.

    You're right that probably if McCandless hadn't died up there he coudlnt'be judged so harshly--of course we wouldn't even know anything about him. The book shows (the mnovie doesn't) that McCandless might have gottenh out, he just went in the wrong directionj, to a place where the water was impassable. It was also a small stroke of terrible luck that he mistook a poisonous plant for an edible one that looks almost exactly the same. Otherwise he'd have survived.

    His rejection of his family was temporary. It was cruel, but it was not untypical of many young men. Most get a chance to reconcile later. Chris didn't.

    mouton, ou es-tu?

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    Indeed, I'm implying I haven't read the book, only an excerpt or two and a description of its contents. But then again, I haven't compared how the book and film made me feel, just the differences in content and how Penn gives Clarice a direct "voice" to address us.

    There's considerable debate about what exactly caused McCandless to die. Krakauer himself amended his original text in this regard and, apparently, the new Lamothe documentary presents new evidence based on an analysis of what he ate in Alaska (which was painstakingly documented by him in his journal), his body weight at the time of death, etc.

    I agree with your comments about a young man's rejection of family being age-appropiate and often temporary.

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    Didn't he die of poisoning and then starvation? The poisoning made him so ill he couldn't eat, and the herbal/plant guide he used said the plant he ate caused death from starvation after poisoning, as shown in the film. He because too weak to forage and unable to eat? Or is there some other possibility?

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    Not So Sold On This Movie

    I'm only going to state my ambivalence about this movie's overall qualitative achievement and leave the rest of my still reeling mind for a future commentary. I have just recently come back from seeing this emotionally, overwrought movie that supposedly tugs at one's heartstrings and calls for the imperative that it must be great because of the themes, the sad melancholy reflection, and gorgeous photography, yet when I get around to it, I found a lot wanting in this movie.

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    Ben Affleck Contrasted With Sean Penn

    Recently I went to see Ben Affleck's directorial effort in Gone Baby Gone. When contrasting Mr. Affleck's effort with Mr. Penn's I had the distinct feeling that Mr. Penn had aquired all sort of fun and interesting cinematic approaches during his years of filmmaking. Yet when I watched Gone Baby Gone I was struck by the primary focus on storytelling not impression-making that Mr. Penn's Into the Wild contained. I don't think Mr. Penn has yet learned to craft his skills and abilities into a more reasonable package of filmmaking processes that allows the story be to experienced for itself, not for the breathtaking artsy and dazzling array of pretty scenes and techniques - split screens. Into the Wild seemed to be as much about Sean Penn's abilities as the story itself as opposed to Gone Baby Gone in which the terrific script co-written by Ben Affleck ultimately resulted in one of the most powerful, unsettling scripts of the year and its presentation on the screen is in many ways more powerful than Into the Wild and becomes even more haunting and memorable.

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    I absolutely do not think that Eric Gautier's gorgeous images detract in any way from story and characterization; these are the landscapes that beckon McCandless and they need to seduce the viewer in order to replicate their effect on the tragic protagonist.
    Having said that, I'm replying because of your comments about Gone, Baby, Gone, which flew under my radar. There's a single theater here still showing it, and only twice a day. I'll do my best to check it out, based on your comments. Perhaps you should open a new thread and post a review, as to call attention to it.

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    Great Photography But...

    Oscar Jubis:

    I absolutely do not think that Eric Gautier's gorgeous images detract in any way from story and characterization; these are the landscapes that beckon McCandless and they need to seduce the viewer in order to replicate their effect on the tragic protagonist.
    Sean Penn has used the camera in INTO THE WILD to reproduce some amazing photographic scenes that could easily win still life awards. Yet, the best filmmakers are about simplicity and story, and discretion. When I see scene after scene after scene of great photography I lose track of the story. If, however, the intent of the great, mesmerizing scenes were to somewhat communicate to the audience how McCandless was seduced by these images, it was lost on me. The gorgeous scenes and McCandless scenes were disconnected and such lack of interaction between the seductive landscapes and McCandless only suggests that Sean Penn perhaps was seduced by his own creative photography and loss sight of the story itself. Personally, I would have preferred to see how the gorgeous images seduced McCandless not us the viewer. The story is not about us as an audience, but about the experience of the main character with his environment that Sean Penn has placed the character, and while there was a significant amount of that, the additional scenes were more for artistic benefit that did not necessarily contribute to the movie.

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    i have not been able to see Gone, Baby Gone on my ovedrsea sojourn but want to, for several readons. I would like to see what Affleck can do as a director, and I was impressed by Casey's work in The Assassination of Jesse James and would like to see how he does in a second outing that features him.

    Not everybody likes Into the Wild, but i am incluned to go with my gut feeling and say it looks like one of the year's best US films to me. / i see it has a Metacritic rating of 73. It's funny how many great films wind up with a socre in the seventies there. IT sometimes just comes down to a p;opularity rating. Weerasathakul's Synndromes and a Century, not my huge choice but a favorite of film buffs, gets a Metacritic 71. . .Jesse James 68. I won't draw any conclusions. . .

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    Re: Gone Baby Gone

    If there's one thing I expected from a Ben Affleck movie set in Boston is a realistic depiction of the environs; a specific and compelling sense of place. I wasn't disappointed. The use of non-actor locals and shooting in real locations are obvious assets. You can almost smell the spilled beer during a couple of bar scenes.

    The plot, based on a book by Dennis Lehane, involves the abduction of a neglected little girl. It's hard not to care. The narrative, structured as a mystery-thriller, gets increasingly more convoluted and intriguing. Lamentably, every twist during the second half of the film is more illogical than the preceding one. There are some serious lapses here. The next paragraph contains SPOILERS.

    Two of the most obvious ones: a private dick (Casey Affleck) not even being arrested for shooting an unarmed, kneeling bad guy in the back of the head. Another involves a cop going into a crowded bar with a funny mask to kill someone about to give information to Affleck. There are others but perhaps you won't notice until you think about it later, when you're not focused on keeping up with the narrative. The movie is being praised partly because of an inherent moral dilemma posed when Affleck must choose between two divergent options. However, this happens at the very end of the film. It would have been infinitely more compelling from an ethical and moral viewpoint to make the cop played by Morgan Freeman a more central character, perhaps a protagonist. Albeit difficult for any filmmaker, it also would have been interesting to witness some of the exceedlingly difficult (and unseen) adaptation any child would experience in this scenario. (END of spoilers)

    From the point of view of characterization, Affleck's partner and sidekick Angie is totally wasted; she's given little to do. Nice cast all around though, with Ed Harris, Amy Ryan (as the kid's druggie mom) and Amy Madigan (as her aunt Bea) most memorable.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 11-17-2007 at 07:58 PM.

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