‘Into’: Deep

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I think almost everyone, at one point in his or her life, suffered from a “London Calling.” Or, at the very least, a “Kerouac Attack.”

The authors Jack London and Jack Kerouac had both written of life that shirked modern shackles of society and the beauty of breaking free from the comforts of the daily grind.Christopher McCandless followed this primordial impulse and, despite his well-to-do upbringing and college education, decided to Theroux everything out the window and embark on an ambulatory adventure that would end – rather tragically – in the Alaskan wilderness.

“Outside” magazine writer and author Jon Krakauer exhaustively retraced the bootprints of this young man in his 1997 tome of the same name. A decade later, director Sean Penn has adapted it for the big screen and may be one of the those rare instances in which the film actually exceeds the  book.While a great admirer of the journalistic fortitude involved with Krakauer’s piece, I was always bugged about a two elements of McCandless’s story.

First, McCandless always came across like a bit of a dolt. As a lover of the outdoors, I can admire its beauty for extended stretches, so long as I am accompanied by my comfy thermal Columbia hiking boots, my North Face dual-door tent and my REI goose-down sleeping bag. I know to respect that it’s no playground. But the suburban-bred McCandless knew the wilderness only from the romanticized pages from his favorite authors.

It was surprising to me he lasted out there as long as he did.

His fate was quite similar to that of Timothy Treadwell, the numbskull who decided to lay down with a pack of wild ursine in the documentary “Grizzly Man.” With absolutely no scientific background, Treadwell set up camp amongst these ferocious beasts. In his home movies, he was seen speaking to them as if they were some unruly domesticated put that peed on the carpet. He was eventually mauled and eaten by them.

Penn made it a point in his film to highlight that McCandless’s backpack was filled with items given to him by friends he encountered on his travels. Were it not for the kindness of strangers, he would have perished much sooner than he did.It is a theme that is becomes the film’s thrust, as some of McCandliss’s final scribblings is that the natural beauty he encountered meant little if there is no one with which to share it. Just ask Ted Kaczynski.

The other aspect of the book that troubled me was the chapters devoted to Christopher’s solo exploits when he takes residence in an abandoned bus seemingly plopped down on an Alaskan mountainside. Much like the fishermen in Sebastian Junger’s “A Perfect Storm,” we really have no idea what those men said or did in their final days and hours. It’s all from the minds of the author. And as gifted a writer as Krakauer is, he was not there to document the proceedings – merely guess at them.

Penn wisely breaks this portion of the book up into fragments,  and parsing out his final days throughout the film. Narratively, it does a better job “suggesting” what his actions may have been based on his past encounters living off the grid.

Emile Hirsch is a choice candidate for the role, as his slightly puffy, unblemished facial features and thick Hollywood hair suggest a life of modest luxury that McCandless was afforded financially. His deterioration into a gaunt, ashen hermit by the film’s end is startling.

Of the characters encountered by McCandless throughout his journey, the most interesting on screen are leftover hippies Jan and Rainey (played Catherine Keener and Brian Dieker, a whitewater rafting guide with no acting experience who Penn met on vacation) and the grandfatherly Ron (played by Hal Holbrook), a repentant widower who desperately reaches out to Christopher and perhaps sees the lad as his last shot at redemption.

Do not be surprised to see Holbrook on many awards’ lists this season.

Penn does not romanticize McCandless or his choices. He’s merely along for the ride. Lucky for us, the ride is one in which Penn invests fully and captures with sincerity, integrity and perches us on the precipice with McCandless, letting us breathe in the beauty but witness its indiscriminate cruelty in equal measure. 

~ by usesoapfilm on December 10, 2007.

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