Friday, October 26, 2007

London Film Fest Day 10 - INTO THE WILD

I always think of Sean Penn as making angry films about disaffected, lonely men: movies that feature alienated members of society but also movies that alienate the audience with their chilly, depressing picture of humanity. I often admire Penn’s performances and directorial efforts. I rarely find myself moved by them. So it came as quite a surprise to find that INTO THE WILD was an incredibly warm and touching movie.

It tells the real-life story of an American kid called Chris McCandless. At the turn of the 1990s, Chris McCandless was a bright college graduate with a fondness for poetry. He was destined for Harvard Law and a solid middle-class life. But he abandoned his car, gave his college fund to charity and burned his petty cash and headed for the open road. He deliberately kept his parents in the dark. With their abusive marriage built upon a tissue of lies, and their typically middle-class fondness for nice “things”, they represented everything he was escaping from. More cruelly, he also kept his little sister in the dark, and we hear her understanding turn to hurt in Jena Malone’s touching voice-over throughout the film.

Before the film, I was prejudiced about McCandless. I thought his decision not to get in touch with his parents was callous. But the film shows him to be a warm-hearted, generous man, capable of empathising with people and of really listening to them. He was a good friend and often transformed the lives of people he lived with. In turn, the world seems to have shown him a smiling face. From the wonderfully caring hippies called Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener) to a an old lonely man called Ron (Hal Holbrook) who actually offers to adopt him. Even when Chris kayaks into Mexico, loses his boat, and then turns up at the border crossing without ID, the immigration guard seems faintly amused and let him through. Throughout his two years of travels McCandless picks up survival skills and starts training for his Big Alaskan Adventure. The loneliness of the Yukon proves the ultimate test of his mission to live a pure life in all of nature’s beauty. But, despite being infinitely less irresponsible than Timothy Treadwell, he falls foul of mighty nature in the end.

Emile Hirsch gives a wonderful portrayal of McCandless. He fills the screen with warmth and a sense of adventure and has genuine chemistry with all the people he meets along his journey. We can see that McCandless is foolhardy in his determination to follow an extreme course, but we are never allowed to judge him for it. But most of all, I think that Sean Penn deserves special praise here. As screen-writer and director, he discreetly shows the audience the home-life that Chris was escaping from and the wonderful beauty of the American landscape that lured Chris on. The visuals are absolutely stunning and are perfectly complemented by Eddie Vedder’s songs. I left the movie theatre grateful to have spent time with McCandless and all the people he had met on his travels. I was deeply moved by his epiphany and the journey’s end.

INTO THE WILD played Toronto 2007 and has already been on release in the USA, Canada and the Czech Republic. It goes on release in the UK today. It opens in Russia, Iceland, Australia and Denmark later in November and in Turkey and Brazil in December 2007. It opens in Romania, Japan and Spain in January 2008 and in Germany and Norway in February. It opens in Sweden in March.

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