Friday, September 5, 2008

Into the Wild (2007) A Film by Sean Penn

Somewhere within the 148 minute film roll of Sean Penn's Into the Wild is the groundwork for a sharper, more realized film, perhaps even a documentary. Given that the story is a true one told largely in narration of a college graduate seeking freedom from systematic life, it already has the feel of a documentary. Where the filmmaker is way off target is in his mish-mashed, underdeveloped presentation of the story. In reality, the film is part enlightening narrative, part retelling of life lessons, part modernized On the Road, and part L.L. Bean commercial.

Emile Hirsch plays with a touch of staggering realism and a touch of exaggerated ideological views the 23-year old main character Chris McCandless, who disappears from the life he has grown up with around his sister and parents to embark on a journey in search of freedom and peace among man's primordial habitats. Unfortunately, we never develop too much of an affinity with Chris, for the story is told less in real-time events and more in montages accompanied by the narrating voice of Chris's sister. She speaks of her worried state due to his disappearance, but validates that with anecdotal stories of the family's past, one which supposedly caged up the venturesome Chris. She reveals her beliefs on his intentions in the wild while also stating blatantly a couple of times the basic messages of the film. This is one of the problems of the film; it can't seem to avoid obviousness and sentimentality.

Another main fault is the confused stylistic choices of the visual presentation. At times there is a purposely shaky cam, attempting to portray reality, a useless split screen effect that has worked well in some films but was too clunky here, and a quick bout into jump cuts and frenetic freeze frames. Without these shallow attempts at dramatizing the film, it had the potential of being something more meditative and magical, which it did show it could be in a few scenes. That brings me to the advantageous choices and successes of Into the Wild. Without a doubt, Eddie Vedder's soundtrack was suited perfectly; it meshed into the film to become one with it, as necessary an element as the free-spirits Chris forms a bond with towards the beginning. There is also an unflinching approach to some of the drama, to the point of getting up close and personal with the grisly slaughter of a large moose.

All boldness aside, the film couldn't get away without one typical shot of the protagonist with his arms extended up to the vast windy landscape while Vedder croons in a sort of African-esque acoustic ballad. So in truth I believe that the film would work marvelously as a documentary, perhaps directed by Herzog or the Discovery Channel, more so than it did as a drawn-out narrative that could have spent boundless extra time in the cutting room. This is not to say that the film is not reasonably touching; it builds a cumulative enchantment that presents itself for the better part of about 45 minutes from a scene where Chris reunites with his early friends at a trailer park to the end. And although I saw its ending from a mile away, I was nonetheless fairly moved by it.

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