Archive | 11:10 pm

Not Wild Enough

25 Sep

I remember when I first heard the story of Chris McCandless. It was in 1997 on an episode of 20/20, where there was a segment about author John Krakauer’s book Into the Wild. Something about McCandless fascinated me and I went out soon after to buy Krakauer’s book. I read it, too. McCandless tapped into my young, idealistic sense of adventure and wanting more out of life. Ten years later, there’s still a part of me that yearns for such excitement.

All that is my way of saying I was pretty excited to see Sean Penn’s Into the Wild movie, especially because the reviews have generally been very good. So I’m happy to report that the movie is good. Mostly. True to McCandless, it doesn’t pander and takes its time telling the story of how, following his 1992 graduation from Emory, McCandless cut up his credit cards, donated his savings to Oxfam, changed his name to Alexander Supertramp, and headed out on the road to, as Thoreau said, “live deliberately.” There’s a natural, organic feel to the 2.5-hour movie, and Penn really wants to pay tribute to someone he considered a kindred spirit. To that end, the film was shot in many of the same locations that McCandless journeyed to, and rather than raise questions about McCandless’ motives and psyche — as Krakauer’s book did a lot of — Penn clearly takes McCandless’ side and makes you sympathetic to the character. Penn also knows the affinity people feel for the book, and there are all sorts of reveals that seem to make readers excited, starting with when McCandless first stumbles upon the abandoned bus. (Amazingly, the tragic site has become a morbid tourist attraction for McCandless fans.) It helps that as McCandless, Emile Hirsch is generally very good, capturing the alternately wide-eyed and yet fearful young man. In supporting roles, Catherine Keener and Vince Vaughn are also very good.

But where Penn stumbles, and where he lost me, was with some of the filmmaking choices. I didn’t love how McCandless would every now and then look right into the camera. That didn’t seem true to the character or the film. I also didn’t like the multiple points of view. Between McCandless’ letters, his voiceovers, his sister’s voiceovers, etc., you either didn’t always know who was actually telling the story or were distracted from it. Why the film is broken into four “chapters” is unclear. Also, there were a couple scenes that could have been cut. And there’s one scene late in the movie where Hirsch’s performance is so lame that it damn near threatens to derail the whole momentum of the film. In fact, it’s so bad that when McCandless does finally die (no spoiler there), I wasn’t sure if I still felt the sympathy for him that I felt earlier.

So I think I’m going to call Into the Wild a little bit of a letdown. It’s still generally, mostly, a good film, but I can’t really give it a stronger grade than a B.