Into The Wild

Greeted unenthusiastically by a lot of critics when it came out, which is why I never bothered to see it. But it is a friend of mine's favourite film, in part inspiring his own Alaskan adventure. Which just goes to show that the film is not a failure. Its Malik-style epic meandering can work aesthetically and emotionally. It is important to acknowledge this point.

That point noted, I confess I'm no outdoorsy type (surprised?). By my reckoning Sean Penn's debut as a director is no masterpiece. Like many biopics, Into The Wild is just waaaay to reverential towards its subject. There are subtle discordant notes. Chris makes his family suffer (although that is partly excused by the way his actions moralize them). More importantly, at the end of the film, he realizes that solitude does not lead to happiness. But I needed more on this. The film needed to say that running away is not an adequate response to the world's problems. Flight is actually easier than confrontation, struggle, compromise. You could say that Chris is almost being selfish by not engaging. He could have used his genius and his energy to try to change the world, but he didn't.

Instead of going there, the film largely treats him as some kind of prophet converting people on his travels. For me, this just makes him less human, less flawed, and less interesting. Of particular note here is the fact that Chris has no romantic impulse. Penn's film is an incredibly male fim. I swear Kristen Stewart has about four actual lines of dialogue. Chris discusses philosophy and his plans only with men, the ladies just swoon in his (admittedly hunky) presence. And it is only the ladies who swoon, Chris seems to be above such trifling concerns. Why would he care about Kristen Stewart's age if he thinks society is stupid? The excuse doesn't wash. It strikes me that there is something about romance (and women?) that is beneath Chris. He is a pure virginal prophet. Relationships, on the other hand, are messy, difficult, human.

There is just one hint at some deeper explanation. In a conversation with Rainey about his marriage (his wife is busy cavorting with the waves in the distance), Chris comes out with the idea that some people feel they do not deserve love. The film suggests this is an insight into Rainey's character, although it is much more interesting as an insight into Chris himself. Why does he run away from everything? Is it because, underneath the cheery exterior, he harbours an inferiority complex? He feels he does not deserve love? He is not strong enough to deal with the world?

But no. The film prefers to give us his sister's voiceover fawning over Chris's extraordinary self-sacrifice. Call me crazy, but I almost wish the film was about that sister -- that instead of being a passive observer of her brother doing 'great works', she was the active one, the brave one, in staying behind and dealing with her car-crash family situation. That, for me, would have been a beautiful and moving piece of cinema.

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