Young man’s tragic quest

2008-02-11 00:00

SEAN Penn is underscoring as a director what has long been understood of him as an actor: he understands characters. Into The Wild is his fourth effort as a director — based on the book by Jon Krakauer — the intriguing story of a college graduate who gave his savings of $24 000 to charity, packed up his rucksack and hit the road, leaving his family behind.

The graduate’s name was Chris McCandless, portrayed by an impressive Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown, Alpha Dog). McCandless, a promising college graduate and natural athlete, was simply a disgruntled son who held a grudge against his bickering parents (although it is guised far more poetically in the film). His brilliant father (William Hurt), a Nasa recruit with extensive knowledge, and his resourceful mother (Marcia Gay Harden), left wounds too deep for the introspective Chris to fully confront. It is only with his sister (Jena Malone) that he feels he is not alone in his pain. Driven by the ideology of authors like Jack London and Thoreau, Chris — fed up with materialism and civilisation — began his hitchhiking road trip across the U.S. that brought him into contact with a colourful kaleidoscope of characters, each of whom he inspired and learned from.

After two years, McCandless was found in an abandoned bus in the wilderness of Alaska, where he had made his lodgings.

The film opens with his expedition into the wild terrain of Alaska, where he finds the bus and from there the movie plays out in flashbacks to the previous two years where he worked odd jobs, blowing like a tumbleweed from town to town with ageing hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), working briefly with a farmer (Vince Vaughan, for once not annoying) and befriending a widowed leather worker (Hal Holbrook).

In each scenario, Penn demonstrates an acute and fundamental understanding in his casting of these characters and in his screenplay of their interactions with the roaming Chris, who renames himself Alexander Supertramp. (I did chuckle out loud at that.)

When analysed, the film seems structurally incoherent and is pretty bum-numbing at 147 minutes. As a story, it’s pretty limp: rich kid burns his inheritance, ditches his folks and goes it alone in the wilderness of America. But the film has an elegant flavour in its look and in its feel — it is substantially poetic and is driven by the characters in the stories, with their various insights into life, the universe and everything. It’s an art film, one worth a big-screen viewing. ****

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