Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Movie Review: Into the Wild.

If you go to a movie theater early enough, you will see a blank screen. After some time, however, images will appear on that screen projected by someone else. While you can interpret the images and messages flashing on the screen, you cannot alter them (absent throwing paint) or even project your own images onto the screen (absent using your own projector).

Immortalized by Jon Krakauer's superb book, Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless has become much like a blank screen for people to project their own portraits of him. To many, McCandless was a hero who rejected society's conventions (e.g., he donated his law school tuition fund) and lived simply in nature much like the Transcendentalists before him, such as Thoreau and Emerson. To others, McCandless was a self-absorbed hermit who pained his family through his selfish aloofness.

Sean Penn's filmic adaptation of Into the Wild manages to marry both images. On the one hand, the movie celebrates McCandless' free-spiritness. You can almost feel the filmmakers' desire to hop into McCandless' kayak as he (illegally) floated down the Colorado River to Mexico. On the other hand, the movie constantly reminds the viewer what anguish he put his parents (well played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) through as he tramped across North America for two years without bothering to tell them what he was doing.

In tying these themes or dimensions of McCandless together, Penn deviates somewhat from the book. The film makes McCandless more relational than I remember Krakauer's textual portrayal. In the movie, characters are invented for dramatic purposes that project McCandless' uncanny ability to connect with humanity. In Penn's work, McCandless dispenses wisdom beyond his years like an enlightened guru.

More than I can remember in recent years, this movie's soundtrack was special. Eddie Vedder penned and performed songs for the movie that managed to capture perfectly its aesthetic and to advance it. Unlike some movies where the soundtrack intrudes, these musical interludes were welcome atmospheric augmentations.

In the tragedy of McCandless' lonely demise, his powerful epiphany that "joy must be shared" will resonate long after leaving the movie theater.

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