Into the Wild

New Statesman, 8 November 2007

On a list of people and places to which I would turn for advice, Hollywood ranks even lower than the careers officer at college, who assessed my questionnaire (likes: the arts, dislikes: confrontation) and decided I was ideal prison warder material. Most of my classmates received the same suggestion. It must have been a slow year for HM Prison Service.

I’ve never met anyone whose path was altered by lessons learned from a Hollywood film, but still the industry persists in offering unsolicited counsel. Overworked studio executives are forever green-lighting pictures that tell us to spend more time with our families; for many of the sons and daughters of LA studio brass, the only evidence that daddy or mommy loves them is the release of another guilt-ridden film in which Jim Carrey or Tim Allen learns to play catch in the backyard.

Coming a close second in the “To do” list foisted on us by Hollywood is the insistence that we should shake off our cloistered, complacent lives – presumably while still spending more time at home – and march off into the great unknown. (I tried that once. I ordered a mochaccino instead of a latte. It didn’t work out.)

This hypocrisy has resulted in some preachy film-making (American Beauty, Regarding Henry), and I was fully expecting to add Into the Wild to the inventory of self-righteousness. The raw material is certainly there for a full-blown lecture on how we’ve lost touch with what really matters: university graduate Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) responds to his icy, affluent parents’ offer of a new car by donating his $24,000 of savings to Oxfam and trekking off toward the Alaskan wilderness. On his travels, he meets a pair of plaintive hippies and an uninhibited Danish couple, among others, and is propositioned by a teenage waif with an acoustic guitar. Typical – you venture into the middle of nowhere and you still can’t escape sensitive singer-songwriters who want to be Tori Amos.

Happily, the film soft-pedals the life-improving subtext. It has been adapted by its director, Sean Penn, from Jon Krakauer’s book, which turned the real Chris McCandless into a folk hero among young males with non-conformist leanings. Others are of the view that he was a narcissistic twit. What’s encouraging about Into the Wild is that it accommodates both readings. There is romanticism galore in the photography, which is eye-catching without transcending the level of travelogue. On the other hand, Penn knows how to pull us up sharp: “King of the Road” plays on the soundtrack right before Chris experiences the disadvantages of being a boxcar hobo. But if I had to put money on where Penn’s own sympathies lie, it would be with the idea of Chris as a gap-year messiah. “You’re not Jesus, are you?” someone asks the lad, before Penn tips his hand by filming him on a mountaintop in a crucifixion pose.

There’s more idolatry to contend with in the frequent glimpses of people gazing fondly at Chris, in case we’d forgotten how adorable he is. Admittedly, there are worse ways to spend a few hours than staring at Emile Hirsch. His feral good looks – he’s like a boy-band cutie in the throes of a lycanthropic episode – hint that the “wild” of the title applies not merely to the landscape. He’s also adept at mining Chris’s ambiguities, and underlining his youthful arrogance. It’s unusual for a US film to feature a lead character who is virtually unknowable, even borderline dislikeable. But Into the Wild largely succeeds in telling Chris’s story without advising us too explicitly how to feel about him, or how his experiences are applicable to our own lives, which is fairly wild in itself.

Penn’s last film, The Pledge, showed him to be a film-maker of immense grace and control. Into the Wild is a more skittish piece, as befits its subject; with its abbreviated scenes and jumbled chronology, it is as disrespectful of convention – and, occasionally, as indulgent – as its hero. But I couldn’t help thinking that Chris would have reached Alaska more quickly if he wasn’t afflicted by that widespread condition known as slow-motionitis, where the sufferer becomes unable to go for a stroll or take a shower without life slipping into lyrical half-speed.


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