Letting your Heart Stay on your Sleeve

     December 16, 2008

Written by Andre Dellamorte

My father passed away in 2007. My father had been sick for a very long time, almost ten years. My father’s passing was both a relief and a pain. I found out via E-mail. My mother called me in the morning, but I didn’t get her message until I woke up fully and because I have an iPhone, checking e-mail generally happens moments before messages. Death – like that – is a weird thing. I spent the day at home baffled, drank, and took a nap after some time. When you’re faced with death, when it becomes real but isn’t, you don’t exactly know what to do. When I woke up from my nap I went to see Into the Wild, which had opened recently.

Emile Hirsch plays Christopher McCandless. Chris was a college graduate with parents of a smothering nature. His father Walt (William Hurt) has been stoic and his mother Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) has been fussy, and while Chris grew up their divorce was always nearby but enacted upon. His only family ally is his sister Carine (Jena Malone). As the film sets up in the opening sequence Chris goes to Alaska looking to be absolutely alone, though this eventually kills him. The film then essays the details in between. He decides to rechristen himself Alexander Supertramp. He meets people who are helpful (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughn, Zack Mutherfuckin’ Galifinakis), and the people who upset him. One is Tracy (Kristen Stewart), who presents the option of settling down – or at least the possibilities of sex – the other Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), who offers to be a parent. Alexander refuses both.

Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer, and directed by Sean Penn, 2007’s Into the Wild presents a boy who decides to go west, young man. Or at least as west as a civilized man can go. With American sprawl having robbed us of the true sense of “nature” that people like Thoreau and Whitman wrote about, Alaska – which still seems primitive and remote in comparison – may be the last vestige of that America. It’s the only place to go. Funnily, Chris’ real-life decision mimics that of Nicholson’s Bobby DuPea in Five Easy Pieces. It’s a place to run away to that’s clean. That’s wholly removed from the continental United States. In the interim, Sarah Palin has likely changed the way the world looks at our 49th State. Alaska is a scarier place now, a stranger, more backwards place then had ever been made public before.

But that may not have been entirely what McCandless was looking for. The desire to be alone, to be “in the wild” masks what is also Penn’s version of the man, in that he sees Chris as someone who never got over his childhood traumas. Penn has some theories, and presents them in the film. Alexander Supertramp is pre-sexual. He’s a monk, and he has rejected the ways of his parents. Not in the ways erring towards homosexuality, but one of the things that spurs him on his journeys, away from others is coming in direct contact with sexuality. It’s as if he can’t handle it.

On first pass this is a film about a journey to Alaska, to self-discovery, and it is that, but on second pass, the elements of the family disconnect become all the more palpable. As much as the film is about the journey, it is also very much about the truth that this discoverer is fleeing his childhood, which is filled with emotional scars that cut to the bone. In his way, Penn’s McCandless is not all that different from a stripper who faced sexual trauma in youth. McCandless can’t handle his parents’ inability to be honest with him, or the weight they put on the value of things. His journey is a response to their petty bourgeois beliefs that he rejects through literature and surviving by means of self.

Penn and Emile Hirsch work wonders together. This is not quite a one-man show, but Hirsch gives a performance that is fully naked and fully engaged. It’s the sort of performance that actors savor, and though Hirsch looks to have a long career ahead of him, this will likely be the role that people love him for. It’s a special thing, for sure. Penn also ups his game, this is a pure work, something of a passion project, and it – like McCandless – is not interested in perfection but some form of truth. But Penn has also refined his filmmaking, or found material that comes in synch with him. Whatever modest moments or things that feel awkward become a part of the text, brilliantly.

Watching the film the first time as I did, I walked out of the theater fairly wrecked. The greatest fault of home video is that the moment something is done you can move on to the next thing, whereas filmgoing not only allows the viewer the credits, but the drive home to mull thoughts, to stew. I would be lying if I said I could start the car right away. I would be lying if I didn’t suggest the film provided some sort of catharsis, like a tickle that can create a sneeze. The film gave me the relief, the ability to open the floodgates of emotions that simply reading an email or talking to my mother could not. I didn’t know that it would or could do that, but it did. I don’t dare draw parallels to the action of the film and my father, but I definitely understand Chris’s desire to get the fuck away from his parents, wanting to recreate one’s self, but the lesson Chris learned is something I’ve always understood. To deny one’s self is folly, and… other things that are best left to the film, and the viewer to interpret.

Now that I’ve seen the film a number of times, I’ve come to realize the film is meaningful to me beyond that. And that is a great film, one of the best films of a very great year of film. I thought Penn created something special on first pass, but I was in an emotional state. He really did get it. But for me, the film has become something of a part of me. So there you go.

Paramount’s Blu-ray offers presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 TruHD, but other than the picture quality, there’s nothing all that different from the two disc set. The featurettes “The Story, The Characters” (22 min.) and “The Experience” (17 min.), and the theatrical trailer are all repeated here. But the picture quality and sound is excellent, and I love this film enough to want to see it in the best presentation. Sadly, the featurettes are fairly standardized, so I can’t say it’s worth the upgrade if that shit don’t float your boat. But I love the movie something fierce, and I love this disc.

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