Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 03/09/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Christopher McCandless, in becoming 'Alexander Supertramp', holds a mirror to us all, a meditation on what the ideal life completely in tune with nature, surviving only on ingenuity and adaptation skills, leaving the increasingly burdensome conflicts of society behind in order to become at one with the universe. Based on Jon Krakauer's reconstruction of McCandless' journey from his diary, from letters, and from notes found after his death at age 23, IN THE WILD has been transformed into a Waldenesque film by Sean Penn who provided both the screenplay and the direction. While some may argue the very loose technique of relating this story, few will come away form this film untouched by the sheer dreamy valor of a youth determined to find his own connection to the meaning of existence.
The bright McCandless (Emile Hirsch) graduates from Emory University and faces a celebratory dinner with his wealthy but dysfunctional parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and his adoring younger sister Carine (Jena Malone). During the stilted and revealing dinner Christopher declines his parents' gift of a new car and instructions on how to proceed with his life of success, instead electing to leave it all behind and secretly set off on a personal journey to live in the wild. Stripping himself of worldly possessions he begins his road trip with the ultimate destination being Alaska. Along the way he encounters various people: Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughan) who offers him work harvesting grain and camaraderie; Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), two middle-aged hippies who offer him a sense of family; Tracy (Kristen Stewart), a 16-year old who offers him physical love Christopher cannot condone; a Danish couple he encounters while rafting; and the elderly Frank (Hal Holbrook) who has no family and lives alone making leather trinkets, eager to 'belong' to the young man whom he sees as needy yet courageous.
Christopher's journey pretty much covers America and Mexico, from the plains and farms to the homeless streets of Los Angeles to the splendors and natural cruelties of nature in Alaska. His struggles survive are balanced by his inebriation with the wonders of the natural world untouched by society. Yet in the end he faces his own dissolution into the dust of nature alone.
Hirsch immerses himself in this physically demanding role and manages to hold onto our hearts all through his journey. The flow of the story is at times discordant with the over voice narration by Jena Malone and the insertion of bits and pieces of quotations that aren't pieced tightly together enough to avoid sounding superficial. Yet the supporting cast is very strong, including a brilliant little cameo by Cheryl Francis Harrington as a social worker with heart. The photography (Eric Gautier) is stunning and the musical score, courtesy of Michael Brook, Kaki King, and Eddie Vedder, fits the mood through the film. And throughout the film Sean Penn has the restraint and taste to keep the story vital without ever making it maudlin. A very fine film. Grady Harp, March 08"
A Wilderness of Adventure and Emotions--Sean Penn Crafts One
K. Harris | Las Vegas, NV | 12/31/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When I read Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" approximately ten years ago, I was mesmerized by the tragic real-life tale of Christopher McCandless. But as much as I loved the book, I never even thought about a film adaptation. Maybe that was shortsighted of me. Recounting McCandless's life and reconstructing it with minimal data and much introspection, "Into the Wild" succeeded as a cautionary adventure of idealism gone awry. Much of McCandless's life was lived alone and much of his story was pieced together though brief encounters or recovered writings. So what was a thoughtful portrait on the page never really seemed like it would translate to the screen--certainly not with the same impact. Luckily, though, Sean Penn thought otherwise. Adapting and directing Krakauer's fine book, Penn has fashioned a sad, funny and exciting film with tremendous emotional resonance.
An affluent and likable young man, McCandless graduated with honors from Emory University and then set a course to redefine his life. Abandoning his family, friends, and material possessions--McCandless assumed the pseudonym of Alexander Supertramp and set off to explore the world in its most innocent form. Living off the land and experiencing nature, fellow travelers, and much adventure--McCandless was looking for a modern day utopia and sought to discover his real self as he cast away the corruptions of modern life. Touring the country for two years, McCandless's exploration was to culminate in an Alaskan sojourn--where he would commune with "the wild." His aspirations can be viewed as both admirable and delusional--but that is part of the complexity of McCandless's life. As much as you want him to succeed, you realize there can be no happy ending with the expectations he has in place.
Penn's "Into the Wild," thus, depends on evoking a McCandless that you will care about--either because you commend his pursuit or because you want him to come to his senses. And it really works in combination. In a dynamic performance, Emile Hirsch transcends his previous work and becomes a full-fledged leading man. Hitting all the right notes, Hirsch creates a character who evokes our sympathy, our frustration, and even our laughter. McCandless meets a lot of companions on the road, and Hirsch makes it easy to see why he was so accepted. A great role--Hirsch meets all the emotional challenges and also makes a physical transformation that is a both startling and powerful. His great work is matched by a roster of big names including Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, Jena Malone, and Marcia Gay Hardin (among many others). But Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook are real stand-outs--their adoptive relationships with Hirsch both challenge him and make him understand (eventually) that life is not meant to be lived alone.
If there is any flaw in the film, it exists in the book as well. We can only know so much about McCandless from the resources available. He had a heightened sense of injustice particularly when it came to the "untruths" or perceived wrongs perpetuated by his family. Nothing presented, however, can explain how his relatively normal dysfunction blossomed into such an extreme world view. This secret is in McCandless's mind alone.
"Into the Wild" works as a character study and a gritty drama, but also as an adventure. The scenery and photography are breathtaking and the action sequences are well executed. There is much genuine warmth and humor in the film as well. It was a fully satisfying film experience, to me, and has many quiet moments that have stayed with me. Highly recommended for serious adult audiences. KGHarris, 11/07"
Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective
Catherine S. Todd | Oxford NC, USA | 03/05/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Excerpted quotes from Ranger Peter Christian are from a document available at George Mason University (pasted below):
Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective by Peter Christian Both Chris McCandless and I arrived in Alaska in 1992. We both came to Alaska from the area around Washington, D.C. We were both about the same age and had a similar idea in mind; to live a free life in the Alaska wild. Fourteen years later Chris McCandless is dead and I am living the dream I set out to win for myself. What made the difference in these two outcomes? There was nothing heroic or even mysterious about what Chris McCandless did in April 1992. Like many Alaskans, I read Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild" when it first came out and finished it thinking, "why does this guy rate an entire book?" The fact that Krakauer is a great outdoor writer and philosopher is the bright spot and it makes a great read, but McCandless was not something special. As a park ranger both at Denali National Park, very near where McCandless died, and now at Gates of the Arctic National Park, even more remote and wild than Denali, I am exposed continually to what I will call the "McCandless Phenomenon." People, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent. I know the personality type because I was one of those young men. In fact, Alaska is populated with people who are either running away from something or seeking themselves in America's last frontier. It is a place very much like the frontier of the Old West where you can come to and reinvent yourself. In reality, most people who make it as far as Alaska never get past the cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage because access is so difficult and expensive (usually by airplane), travel is so hard, the terrain is challenging, the bears are real, and so on. A very few competent and skillful people make a successful go at living a free life in the wild, build a home in the mountains, raise their children there and eventually come back with good stories and happy endings. A greater number give it a try, realize it is neither easy nor romantic, just damn hard work, and quickly give up and return to town with their tails between their legs, but alive and the wiser for it. Some like McCandless, show up in Alaska, unprepared, unskilled and unwilling to take the time to learn the skills they need to be successful. These quickly get in trouble and either die by bears, by drowning, by freezing or they are rescued by park rangers or other rescue personnel-but often, not before risking their lives and/or spending a lot of government money on helicopters and overtime. When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament using one of several routes that could have been successful. Consider where he died. An abandoned bus. How did it get there? On a trail. If the bus could get into the place where it died, why couldn't McCandless get out of the place where he died? The fact that he had to live in an old bus in the first place tells you a lot. Why didn't he have an adequate shelter from the beginning? What would he have done if he hadn't found the bus? A bag of rice and a sleeping bag do not constitute adequate gear and provisions for a long stay in the wilderness. No experienced backcountry person would travel during the month of April. It is a time of transition from winter's frozen rivers and hard packed snow with good traveling conditions into spring's quagmire of mud and raging waters where even small creeks become impassible. Hungry bears come out of their dens with just one thing in mind-- eating. Furthermore, Chris McCandless poached a moose and then wasted it. He killed a magnificent animal superbly conditioned to survive the rigors of the Alaskan wild then, inexperienced in how to preserve meat without refrigeration (the Eskimos and Indians do it to this day), he watched 1500 pounds of meat rot away in front of him. He's lucky the stench didn't bring a grizzly bear to end his suffering earlier. And in the end, the moose died for nothing. So what made the difference between McCandless and I fourteen years ago? Why am I alive and he is dead? Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide while I apprenticed myself to a career and a life that I wanted more badly than I can possibly describe in so short an essay. In the end I believe that the difference between us was that I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die (whether he realized it or not). The fact that he died in a compelling way doesn't change that outcome. He might have made it work if he had respected the wilderness he was purported to have loved. But it is my belief that surviving in the wilderness is not what he had in mind. I did not start this essay to trash poor Chris McCandless. Not intentionally. It is sad that the boy had to die. The tragedy is that McCandless more than likely was suffering from mental illness and didn't have to end his life the way he did. The fact that he chose Alaska's wildlands to do it in speaks more to the fact that it makes a good story than to the fact that McCandless was heroic or somehow extraordinary. In the end, he was sadly ordinary in his disrespect for the land, the animals, the history, and the self-sufficiency ethos of Alaska, the Last Frontier.
6.13.08: Comment by Catherine Todd on the comments:
I just now saw all these comments from where I had originally posted this in the "review" section. I had no idea posting an actual letter from an Alaskan Park Ranger would elicit such a overwhelming response. I agree wholeheartedly with the ranger, having had some wilderness experience but not enough to ever attempt to "go it alone" in Alaska or elsewhere.
Being a Girl Scout and in the Boy Scouts too (when they would let me!) showed me how much I "didn't know." Living up in the mountains in Colorado for a winter's season when I was 18 years old, and being lucky enough to hike out in the snow by myself - when I ran out of food & firewood - and find my way to town - showed me how much experience is really required. I could have died up there and wouldn't have been found until the Spring thaw. Just like in the old-time books and Western movies.
There is nothing "romantic" about the "Jeremiah Johnson" life, no matter how good it looks on film. This film showed that, to me. I'm going to post the Ranger's letter in a discussion area here on Amazon, where it probably belonged in the first place. Thanks for all the comments. Boy, am I surprised! But I absolutely LOVED reading the Alaskan Ranger's Letter (written by Ranger Peter Christian). He knows what he is talking about, "North South East & West, forward backwards over & under." I hope I never have to "get rescued," but if I do, let it be by him!
Update April 14, 2010 Two years later: more comments on the comments:
Reading all the comments about this review makes me wish, in part, that I hadn't posted the ranger's letter, no matter how on target it is. I am amazed that anyone could find fault with someone who is writing from EXPERIENCE. Here's my final comment I posted today, at the bottom of 6 pages of comments. I hope that Ranger Peter Christian knows how much I admire the work that he and countless others are doing to protect both our last remaining wildernesses, and our lives when we do go out there.
People who seem to like criticizing the ranger who wrote the commentary, written from EXPERIENCE, might change their tune if they get trapped in the wilderness and have to be bailed out by guys like him. I for one am grateful that people like this are prepared, and do their job; what would we do without them?
The ranger is saying that people need to BE PREPARED before they go out into the wilderness, as they endanger other people's lives when rescue teams have to go in to save them. It's no different than people who start forest fires inadvertently or through inattention; look at the damage they cause. These kind of people are dangerous, whether they mean to or not. TRAINING COUNTS. Doesn't anyone remember Boy Scout and Girl Scouts, where we learned a bit about how to survive in the wilderness before taking off on a trek?
In many countries in the world, no one would even try to help; you just die in the wilderness and someone might one day find your bones.
Hats off to the men and women who work in the field and save our skins and get little thanks for it. They deserve a medal, for sure. Forest Rangers are another group I call "hero" in my book."
A fine adaptation--with weaknesses--of a superb book
Timothy P. Scanlon | Hyattsville, MDUSA | 05/09/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Just about the time Sean Penn was reading the book "Into the Wild," so was I. The book reminded me, first, of a good friend whom I've known since the mid-1960s. He's always fancied himself as somewhat of a wild man. He barely made it through high school, lived a kind of offbeat lifestyle for a long time--even turned me onto some music I might not otherwise have heard. He always wanted to relocate to Alaska. Thus far, he hasn't made it.
Then, after seeing the movie, I spent a few days with a group of students and their teachers from Alaska. They were delightful people, yet when I brought up Chris McCandless, they referred to him as, essentially, nuts. That didn't surprise me much. Indeed, it's an irony: We live in a country that proclaims individualism, yet when one pursues his own path--look at even the well-known like Thoreau--they're condemned for it. "Conventional thinking" is that one is to pursue a lifestyle of comfort and consumption. That's why we go to school, right?
Anyway, when I finished the book, I envied first the author. He's one of the best writers of today. But I also envied McCandless. What? Envying a dead man? Well, we're all going to die some day. Some will do it without having lived--to paraphrase Thoreau. Chris lived before he died. Maybe a little naively, but he lived. That's truly enviable.
It was so long ago that I read the book that I need to read it again, or listen to the recorded version. Frankly, I recall that the author did a little speculation in the book. How much, for example, did Chris's parents' relationship have to do with his behavior? I repeat, the author speculated. In the film, Penn had Chris's sister self-reflecting a lot, and that's where the speculation took place. (And Chris's relationship with his sister in the film seemed a little peculiar. But I'll let you watch and see if you agree or not.) And in the film, it came across as assertion rather than speculation. That's the only weakness of the film.
The film, other than that, was quite accurate to the book. McCandless took off on his own, essentially cut all ties to his "past," including getting rid of a lot of money that could have made his pursuit less valid. Emile Hirsch looks uncannily like McCandless. And the over 100 lbs. that he lost for the role--incredible!
I thought the rest of the casting of the film was superb. Some of the roles were chanced into, but that made the film all the more realistic. And I thought William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden were spectacular as Chris's parents, their own self doubts and passions exposed in both expressions and behavior.
What motivated McCandless? We can only speculate. Did he make some mistakes? Yes, as would any of us.
Might we learn something from him? Most definitely! Like in the book, Chris's notes were an integral part of the film's script. I'm so tempted to list them here, but that would give away an important element of the film.
The additional disk in this version of the DVD also gives you a little to think about, on the characters, the production. And it's not a self-aggrandizing extravanza as many of the "bonus materials" are.
Anyway, my thanks to Sean Penn for making a fine film out of one of the better books I've ever read, about a "great American." No, Chris McCandless didn't write declarations. He didn't write bestsellers. He didn't make long speeches about himself. But he pursued something he was compelled to do. I wish more of us had the guts to do so.
Rest in peace, Chris."
Superb Film about Looking so Far for Something that is So Cl
Kendra | 04/29/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Into the Wild is one of those movies whose images stay with you after the screen goes dark. This is a tribute to the subject-- a tragic and confused young pseudo idealist, Christopher McCandless-- and Sean Penn and his crew.
McCandless has just graduated from Emory University. He's bright, well-liked, talented, the world is his for the taking-- it seems. Then he chucks it all, burns his money, abandons his vehicle, donates his graduate school fund to charity and hits the road. He's a leatherfoot, hoofing all across the country from Atlanta to South Dakota, on to California and finally to his goal of the utopian loner's dream world of "Alaska". Alaska is quoted here because it represents far more for McCandless than just a remote place full of emptiness and nature. It represents the "wild" - that gorgeous and challenging place where he can find himself, or so he thinks.
He's on a wild goose chase with himself but doesn't quite understand or realize it. He thinks he's stuffing life and experience and learning into all the time that he has-- he's abandoned everything including his sister and parents. In fact, he refuses to communicate with them at all. Their heartbreak, worry, fears, and frustrations are with us the viewer at all times and we wonder (as do a few characters in the film) silently, "how can he do this to them"?
Chris hits the road hard. He takes odd jobs, and goes from frustrated relationship to the next one. But they always are frustrating because he simply will not give of himself. They aren't frustrating for him, but for those who want to befriend him. His search for personal meaning is truly little more than an avoidance of his own personal demons, mostly from his parents' history and rocky marriage. He is surrounded by love, people who want him, his company, his brilliance and soft, caring approach to the world. He is attractive to others, but he loathes himself somehow. In the wilds of the Alaskan wilderness he thinks he will find what he is looking for and he does, but not in the way that he expected.
Again and again, people that Chris meets offer their friendship to him and sometimes their love. But he cannot accept it. Something in him prevents him from accepting love or truly giving it. Perhaps it would be contrary to the loner path that he'd chosen?
This is a sad story, so beautifully filmed. The acting is spot on, too.
Hal Holbrook plays an old man with a painful secret of his own. He knows that Chris and he are two of a kind and need each other. We in the audience also know this. Holbrook is Chris' chance for stability and a home, the true path to insight for someone whose core issues are built upon a perceived betrayal and lack of love from others, mainly his parents. It's a hard moment for the viewer when Chris walks away from Holbrook abandoning another fortunate opportunity for healing and happiness, but it is not so hard for Chris whose focus is solely on getting to his personal nirvana that he understands and expects Alaska to be.
Alaska is a beautiful but challenging place. Superbly filmed, it is easy to see how Chris would want to be there, challenge himself and try to find himself, alone-- try to find a way to fit in with others which is truly the issue-- alone.
The exact cause of Chris' death is not fully known. The book's author and Penn both make the case the McCandless accidentally poisoned himself. But later tests on the suspected plant material recovered from his camp site cast serious doubt on this theory as no poison was found. According to the diaries that he left behind he had decided to return to civilization but a raging river full of spring melt prevented him from doing so. He stayed in his camp, wasting away. But only a mile away was a perfectly usable crossing, and less than half a mile away was a still part of the river where he could have fished to his heart's content with only his hands as the fish were so plentiful there. But he did neither and apparently chose to stay and face his demons and his new understandings alone.
It is not clear if Chris is a hero-- the lone introvert heading into the wilderness akin to Thoreau to find the "truth", or rather a spoiled city boy with only ignorance and dreams and personal pain and perhaps some mental illness driving him on.
The locals in the wilds of Alaska often speak of such people who come to Alaska to find themselves, swollen with pride like the rivers full of melting snows. And they have little respect for them, as they tempt fate and the extreme wilderness and usually lose.
McCandless affected everyone he met in a positive way. His writings are those of a young man still trying to understand but so deeply haunted by something he could only identify at the very end that was at the heart of his troubles. The tears of his parents, his friends, and even his own at the end are palatable in this beautiful film by Sean Penn.
This is a deeply troubling story of someone who so needed help, was offered it-- but would not or could not accept it.
The world is full of Chris McCandlesses going about their daily routines. And perhaps this is why his story has such resonance for so many. He chose to break out of the life he was living, a life that gave him no comfort or solace-- and stride into the unknown to find one that worked for him. It may be a loner's story or a vagabond's tale, but there is a universality about the demons that haunted Chris, and his single-minded yet unfortunate response to them.
There is no glory here, and little to reflect upon but the pain of someone who is unable to stop, unable to find another path-- until his dream of Alaska and the wilderness with all its perils was met and its lessons pulled from it at whatever the cost. This is a superb film.