Saturday, October 13, 2007


A quick recommendation here to catch Sean Penn’s magnificent Into the Wild while it’s still in the theaters unless you already have one of those new humongous screens at home. Some of the visuals – not just of the Alaskan wilderness, but of the Anza Borrego desert in California & wheat fields in the Dakotas – are breath taking. This is not a film that is going to do big box office, but I personally will be surprised if, come December, it doesn’t get redistributed, this time with a fat handful of Oscar nominations – for Penn both as director and writer, for Emile Hirsch as best actor, for Catherine Keener & Hal Holbrook as supporting actors. Just for starters.

A film made from a popular book based on real events, in this case Jon Krakauer’s account of the transformation of Emory University graduate Christopher McCandless into Alexander Supertramp, sort of the ultimate post-hippy Thoreau wannabe who hitches all around the west before heading to Alaska, his great dream, to get away from it all, and who does – so well in fact that when he decides to head south again, he finds himself trapped, the game he’s lived off of for months having itself fled, then poisons himself by misidentifying the wrong potato root, and as a result starves to death at the age of 24 – Into the Wild’s challenge is to make Supertramp’s solitary ways interesting as narrative. Penn does this by making it two stories: the first that of his surprisingly brief time, less than four full months, in the Alaskan wilderness, camping out for the most part in an abandoned bus; the second the tale of the journey that took McCandless from graduation in Atlanta to the road north on his final venture. It is the second tale, which is that of human relationships, that holds up this film. We witness McCandless’ gradual transformation into Supertramp, told in terms that don’t make him seem at all the extremophile it would be easy enough to dismiss him as, while at the same time setting up a final transformation at the end of the other tale in Alaska that serves as the film’s true denouement. A third story – that of McCandless’ family – is principally a backdrop, suggesting why & how somebody could grow up so distrustful of all human interaction.

His parents, played by William Hurt & Marcia Gay Harden, undergo a transformation of their own in losing their son, who simply disappears after graduation, sending all of his savings to Oxfam, abandoning his car in New Mexico after stripping it of plates. Their presence principally serves to set up both Keener, as the “wheel tramp” hippy who gives Christopher/Alexander a ride & bonds with him in ways that are more motherly than anything else. She and her “old man” (played by the film’s marine coordinator, Brian Dierker, not a professional actor) take the kid to the coast, give him some life clues & tell him about fabled hippy hangouts like Slab City (which Supertramp eventually reaches, complete with a visit to Leonard Knight’s nearby Salvation Mountain, a fabulous little set piece within the film).

If Keener proves to be a surrogate mother to Alexander Supertramp, Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of Ron Franz, a retired military man making a modest living as a leather worker in the Imperial Valley, functions as an even more explicit surrogate father. Not having read Krakauer’s book, it’s not clear how much of this portion is fiction, how much these characters might be predicated on actual people. Both Keener & Holbrook’s characters have good reasons to see this bookish outdoorsman as a child, and their relationships with him are the actual heart of the film, followed in turn by a friendship with his boss on the wheat farm in the Dakotas (played by Vince Vaughan) who gets hauled off by the feds as a 1990s phone phreak, selling illegal black boxes (a terrific tiny detail in this film), and by Kristen Stewart as a teenage girl being raised by parents who live in a tiny trailer at the Slabs who tries unsuccessfully to seduce Alexander – he’s too committed to commitment for that.

This is a world off the grid – sort of upper limit Burning Man, lower limit the gypsy audiences of the Grateful Dead. It’s radically different from, say, the life of the urban homeless, as Alexander learns when he tries to spend a night at a mission in Los Angeles – he has nothing in common with urban squatters, save perhaps his sense of resourcefulness. This is a tale of a man who never even wants to see a city. More than once, Alexander is off in the wilderness, whether Alaska, the Salton Sea or the Pacific Crest Trail in the California Sierras, only to look up and see jet trails threading the sky.

Penn does a great job handling this material without judgment. Unlike, say, Motorcycle Diaries, where you can see the rigidities in its lead character, a college-age Che Guevara, that will lead him to become Castro’s Trotsky, I don’t think you can come out of Into the Wild with any sense of diagnosis beyond the notion that kids in violently dysfunctional families are apt to react strongly to the emotional abuse. Penn is much more interested in the books Supertramp reads: Jack London, Tolstoy, Dr. Zhivago. An even more delicate proposition is giving a sense of Alexander’s inexperience as an outdoorsman – the driver of his last ride in gives him his boots and tells the kid to call him “if you survive” – without making him look like a fool who could have found emergency supplies and a way out within a quarter mile of the bus where he died. Penn shows Alexander hunting for edible plants with his guide book in hand. He manages to kill a moose, but since all he knows about what to do with game that size comes from notes he took back on the wheat farm, he has to go back & read them, which takes too long so that flies lay eggs in the carcass.

McCandless/Supertramp has become something of a folk hero since his death, the abandoned bus turning into the closest thing Alaska has to Jim Morrison’s gravestone. According to an interview I heard of Krakauer talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air last week, much of McCandless’ stuff is still on the bus. Still, the world is encroaching. He burned his i.d. and the money in his wallet, changed his name, never contacted his family. Now he’s a major motion picture. Those boots he was given as he hiked in through the snow were briefly available on Ebay last fall.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?