Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Film review - Into the Wild

Sean Penn is still best known for being one of USAs best actors, however in recent years he's made mark for himself as a director with films like Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Pledge (2001). His latest accomplishment is Into the Wild (2007).

It's based on the true story of Chris McCandless, who after graduating from college with top level marks, left everything behind and travelled across US. After experiencing incredible things, he headed for the Alaska'n wilderness, where he was found dead August 1992.

Sean Penn has in addition to being the director, also written the script, based on John Krakuers book with the same title.

The film cuts between Chris's (Emile Hirsch) arrival in the wilderness, where he sets up camp in an abandon bus (The Magic Bus) and his travels across US. The reason for his sudden farewell to civilisation and “proper career” is related to the dysfunctional marriage of his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), which is overflowing with lies and denials. Chris donates his entire trust fund to charity, destroys all identity papers and leaves with a bag filled with books of Thoreau, Tolstoj and Jack London; all of which are known to have (or had) a critical view of civilisation and more favourable view of the nature.

A self portrait of and by Chris McCandless, found un-developed in his camera.

In true American spirit, he heads west seeking a better life. Underway he meets a series of people that, to him, seem to be living a more authentic life than the one he left behind in Virgina with his parents. You have the hippie-couple in their camper, the farmer (Vince Vaughn), a couple of Danish backpackers and old veteran Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). But also these people, that to Chris seem to be living a more authentic life, have got sceletons in the closests. And every time these arise, Chris moves on. His goal: Alaska and the wilderness, where he can live without human contact.

This a film which has clear routes. The title gives assosiations to Jack Kerousacs On the Road, the novel that the depicts the story of catching a random train, get off at the final stop and start a life there. However, the probably biggest associations is that of Grizzly Man. Sean Penn seams to share Werner Herzogs view of civilisation and nature. We are presented with stunning scenery, which seems to paint a peaceful picture, but at the same time of the brute force of Mother nature. Chris McCandless is a typical Herzog-hero; a dreamer who follows his own dream instantly, but that also has far-fetched ideas that if he turns his back on civilisation that nature will welcome him with open arms. There's a reason why the film starts of with quoting Lord Byron : I love not man the less, but Nature more”. The romanisation of nature. This is underlined in one of the final scenes of the film where Chris stands face-to-face with a grizzly bear. The bear sniffs around, but slowly moves on.

Sean Penn makes it clear why Chris McCandless wishes to leave civilisation, but he neither romanticises nor pity him. Chris is a dreamer. He calls himself Alexander Supertramp and has unrealistic ideas and expectations to both himself and to nature as a whole, and the civilisations role in the whole. One can understand the appeal of the nature when one is presented with shots of cities, societies and civilisation in general; where people are simply floating around, many without purpose. But Chris's escape into the wild is never depicted as a viable alternative. He meets a lot of people on his journey, all of whom grows attached to Chris, but that he simply leaves behind in order to pursue his dream. Only at the end, when he realises when nature will not let him go, does he realise it “Happiness is not real, unless it's shared with others”.

Into the Wild is a touching and breathtaking film, but at the same time quite blunt in its approach to civilisation and the romanticising of the “more authentic lifestyle”. One of the first scenes, when Chris has just started his journey, he looks directly into the camera and start laughing. This one moment, ensures that the viewer stays personally connected to the main character.  As a viewer you might not necessarily agree with everything he does, but the personal connection is definitely there.

Personally, I think the idea and basic philosophy of the film is good. Though I would never consider going as far as Chris did by moving out into the wilderness, I agree with him that it's healthy to follow ones dreams and live a more authentic life. To live a more minimalistic life. This might to some be an acquired taste, but to many this is what appeals more than a conventional “A4” lifestyle.

Do I recommend you watch this? Yes, most definitely! Everyone who calls themselves a backpacker, traveller, gypsy or adventurer should absolutely watch this. Though Chris took it to an extreme and I personally would never go that far, this basic idea is still great.