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Protagonist makes 'Wild' hard to like

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, November 22, 2007

"Into the Wild"

Paramount Vantage

2 hours, 27 minutes

Before my wife and I moved up here in 1999, she had the chance to attend an education job fair in Fairbanks. She moved from booth to booth and then happened upon a kindly interviewer who asked her a very important question: Do you want "city Alaska," or "real Alaska?"

It turned out to be the most important question she was asked at the entire event because the answer determined that we would end up living here on the peninsula instead of someplace like Shaktoolik which, while having an abundance of opportunities to hunt your own food and build your own cabin, has very little in the way of movie theaters. In this week's feature, "Into the Wild," wandering soul-searcher Christopher McCandless is asked the very same question when he announces plans for a "Great Alaskan Adventure." Unfortunately, he chose poorly.

"Into the Wild" is the true story made famous in Jon Krakauer's best-selling non-fiction novel of the same name. It documents the tale of McCandless, a young man who, out of anger at his parents and disgust at the shallow materialism he sees all around him, decides to shrug off the trappings of society and live life in the raw. He burns all his money and identification and sets out with only the pack on his back to see where life takes him. The road leads from Arizona to South Dakota to California and back again.

Eventually, Chris, traveling under the name Alexander Supertramp, makes it to Alaska where, nearly three months after trooping off into the wilderness, he's found dead of starvation, having spent the winter living in an abandoned bus just outside Denali National Park. Not to spoil it, but this all took place in 1992, and between the book and news reports, McCandless' fate is pretty well documented. It also goes to the heart of my criticism, both of him and of the film.

Directed by Sean Penn, "Into the Wild" is a beautiful-looking film. It is very well acted, and aside from a few trippy, seventies-style camera effects, is pretty well directed too. My problem is with the tone which gives a little too much credit to a character that I was irritated with from the very beginning. McCandless, though I hate to speak ill of the dead, comes off in the film as smug, selfish, and entirely self-absorbed. Penn and Co., though faithful in showing the folly of trying to winter in Alaska with almost no provisions, do seem to want to give him credit for trying.

In fact, they want to give him credit for much his journey of self-discovery, most of which seemed to me to consist of little more than a spoiled brat living off the kindnesses of others. Alex burns his money, insisting he doesn't need it, but then has to depend on strangers to feed him. He ends up getting a job at a fast food restaurant to help fund his adventure. He lives with others, and off others, all the while blissfully certain that he's really living free. His anger at his parents is justified to an extent, but the pain he puts them through, as well as the sister that always tried to stick up for him, is disgusting.

Mr. Franz, a beautiful performance by Hal Holbrook as a sad old man who befriends Alex, has lived the second half of his life grieving for a lost wife and son. Sadder, for me however, than hearing his tale of woe, was listening to this blithely ignorant boy tell him that personal relationships aren't particularly important in life and that he ought to get out and experience nature. It just makes you want to slap him.

I was reminded of a child who, after learning one interesting fact about a subject, presents himself as an expert. Alex loved nature, and even bought a book on edible plants, but other than a regimen of calisthenics, does very little to prepare for his trek into the wild. This suggests a lack of respect for nature, a sin far worse than the indifference that he accuses the rest of us of.

Eventually, after having been trapped in his self-imposed isolation by a raging river, swollen with spring melt, McCandless does come around, realizing that happiness needs to be shared and that a worthy life involves giving as well as taking, but by then it's too late, both for our hero and for the audience.

I can appreciate this movie, but I think in order to like it, you should like its protagonist, at least a little, and I found that very difficult. Ultimately he is guilty of a fatal arrogance that, like Timothy Treadwell, led him to assume that just because he loved the wild, it would love him back.

Grade: B-

"Into the Wild" is rated R for language, adult themes, and nudity.

Chris Jenness is a movie buff who lives in Nikiski.



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