Saturday 5 June 2021

Movie Review: Into The Wild (2007)

A survival drama, Into The Wild is one young man's journey of self-discovery, existential peril emerging as the price of absolute freedom.

23-year-old Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) hitchhikes into Alaska, then sets off into the wilderness on foot with minimal supplies, determined to live free and survive off the land. After crossing a river he stumbles upon an abandoned old bus and makes it his base. In various flashbacks, his story is revealed.

Chris is from an upper middle class Virginia family and a graduate of prestigious Emory College. His excellent academic record qualifies him to enter law school. But tension is high between him and his parents Walt and Billie (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), who are cold, materialistic, argumentative, and secretive. In contrast Chris and his sister Carine (Jena Malone) are close.

After graduating Chris donates his remaining college fund to charity, destroys his identification cards, and embarks on a cross-country trip, cutting off contact with his family. He assumes the name Alex Supertramp and sets Alaska as a target. Along the way he meets an aging hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker), a combine operator (Vince Vaughn), a young couple from Denmark, a budding folk musician (Kristen Stewart), and a lonely old man (Hal Holbrook). His journey includes a Mexican detour before he makes it to Alaska, where survival will be both exhilarating and difficult.

Based on a true story as documented in the book by Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild recreates an audacious escape from imposed social structures. Writer and director Sean Penn goes big to represent an ambitious vision unconstrained by rules, with grand landscapes filling the screen, nature an often imposing presence dwarfing humans. A running time of 148 minutes underlines the operatic themes of Chris' quest for freedom.

The scale does threaten to overwhelm the content. Stripping away the romanticism and literary quotes, this is also the small story of one young man abandoning his privilege, imposing despair on his family, and chasing an ill-advised definition of freedom in a naive and anti-social interpretation of happiness. Various levels of mystique can be layered upon the cross-country journey, but the uneasy sense that Chris was a troubled young man prevails.

Emile Hirsch's portrayal of a determined traveler combines intensity with swagger, while Hal Holbrook adds lonely poignancy. The individual chapters and various en route encounters break down the journey into manageable morsels, but the collective is stronger than the individual. Despite some attempts to inject profundity, precious little is genuinely memorable or meaningful in Chris' interactions with assorted hippies, tourists, geezers and lost souls.

Carine's narration and childhood flashbacks reveal the home environment despised by Chris. Walt and Billie are professionals providing every opportunity for their children, although their marriage is always one argument away from rupturing. A family revelation could have been perceived as a sordid scandal by a son in his formative years. Frequent family meetings are the worst atrocity imposed upon Chris and Carine, and by most measures the McCandless household as portrayed is typically troubled but far from a hellhole.

Into The Wild is left with impressive grandeur overwhelming foundational issues. The journey is scenic, the survival ordeal harrowing, the ending fateful, but the origins are underdeveloped.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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