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Into the Wild

Into the Wild(2007)

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teaser Into the Wild (2007)

The death of Christopher McCandless in 1992, alone and without food in the Alaskan wilderness, is a stark reminder that nature is indifferent. McCandless did not ask for his fate and nature did not work against him. It simply worked. It worked how it always has, with no regard for McCandless. After he set out from his home two years earlier to live a life free of obligations, removed from society, he found himself in an abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan frontier realizing that being a part of that society is what gave him happiness and meaning. Of course, by that moment, it was too late. He was found dead by hunters a couple of weeks after he died and his story quickly became a cautionary tale for the freedom-seeking rebel fleeing from the system. From article, to book, to documentary, to feature film, his story has been told many times but no better, or more emotionally satisfying, than in the 2007 film < b>Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn.

The film does not tell its story from beginning to end in the form of a standard biopic. It weaves its way in and out of McCandless' life, from graduation to leaving home to death. It takes us in and out of his adventures and misadventures as we see him wandering slowly and unknowingly to his death. We know what will happen, of course, and perhaps that's why Penn chooses to make McCandless' story a patchwork. Taking us from beginning to end in an attempt to build suspense would be unnecessary and cheapen the story and the person.

Playing Christopher McCandless was relative newcomer at the time, Emile Hirsch, who is quite simply superb, taking McCandless from a cocky, smug youth ready to abandon the world to a weary and wise man alone and abandoned by nature. He grows old in those two years alone because the indifference of nature won't let him take any of this frivolously. Hirsch brings all of that to the role and Penn is probably the best director he could have had because while watching it, one cannot help but think that the only person better at playing McCandless would have been a young Sean Penn. Indeed, I would wager that Penn saw himself in Hirsch and both knew exactly what the other wanted from one day on the set to the next.

Speaking of the set, the scenes of McCandless' now famous bus lodging were done only 50 miles from the actual location of his death. Actually filming at the bus was not restricted, just too difficult. The bus itself is still there, visited by curiosity seekers every year.

Of course, since McCandless died alone we have only his diary entries to piece together his story and, as a result, much of the movie is only loosely based on what may have actually happened in the two years that led from McCandless leaving home to ending up in Alaska. Filling in these spaces is an assortment of some of the best talent Penn could assemble, from William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as McCandless's parents to Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart and Catherine Keener as people that he encounters along the way. Perhaps the most impactful, both in terms of character and performance, is Ron Franz, played to perfection by Hal Holbrook, who earned an Oscar nomination as a result.

Ron Franz is a retired man that meets up with McCandless and takes him in for a couple of months before McCandless heads off to the Alaskan wilderness. Franz teaches him the basics of leather work and McCandless makes his own belt, complete with an "N" for "North." Franz grows quite fond of him and in their final scene together before McCandless heads off, Franz relates to him how his parents were both only children and he himself was there only child. When he dies, the line is dead. He wants McCandless to become his grandson and offers to adopt him. Hal Holbrook plays the scene with heartbreaking power and when it ends, you feel his love for McCandless.

Penn also brought on Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder to do some of the musical work on the film and his song for the film, "Guaranteed," earned Vedder a Golden Globe as well as a Grammy nomination.

Penn's reputation as an actor is cemented in Hollywood history but his status as a writer and director has never gotten the same amount of attention, despite solid work pointing to real talent and skill behind the camera. His directorial feature film efforts have been few but they have all been confident, tight and effective. Despite this, he has never been Oscar-nominated for his directing efforts and a good nine-year gap filled the space between Into the Wild and his next feature film effort, The Last Face. Into the Wild takes a heartbreaking story but doesn't play it for cheap and easy sentiment, nor get preachy about the mistakes McCandless made. It observes, not indifferently, but cautiously and sharply. It's one of the best films of 2007.

Director: Sean Penn
Writer: Sean Penn (based on the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer)
Producers: Sean Penn, David Blocker, Frank Hildebrand, John J. Kelly, Art Linson, Bill Pohlad
Music: Michael Brook, Kaki King, Eddie Vedder
Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Film Editing: Jay Cassidy
Production Design: Derek R. Hill
Art Direction: John Richardson, Domenic Silvestri
Set Decoration: Danielle Berman, Christopher Neely
Costume Design: Mary Claire Hannan
Cast: Emile Hirsch (Chris McCandless), Marcia Gay Harden (Billie McCandless), William Hurt (Walt McCandless), Jena Malone (Carine McCandless), Catherine Keener (Jan Burres), Hal Holbrook (Ron Franz), Brian H. Dierker (Rainey), Kristen Stewart (Tracy Tatro), Vince Vaughn (Wayne Westerberg), Zach Galifianakis (Kevin), Thure Lindhardt (Mads), Signe Egholm Olsen (Sonja), Merritt Wever (Lori)

By Greg Ferrara

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