CHRIS McCandless was an American college graduate who abandoned his middle- class Atlanta family and the prospect of a glittering legal career to live alone in the wild, surviving with little more than a knife, a shotgun and a guide to the edible properties of native plants. That was in 1990. Two years later rangers found his body somewhere in the snowy wastes of Alaska, lying in an abandoned bus where he had taken shelter. He was 24.
No one really knows what happened to McCandless, how he spent his time as a selfimposed outcast from civilisation or exactly how he died. His sketchy diary inspired a best- selling book by Jon Krakauer, published in 1998, which drew on interviews with McCandless’s family and people he met on his travels.
Sean Penn has adapted Krakauer’s book for the screenplay of Into the Wild , an epic account of McCandless’s story, directed by Penn with an almost mystical reverence for the life of the young adventurer and the lure of the great outdoors.
The Greens would have loved McCandless. If he’d lived in Australia they would have eagerly endorsed him as a Senate candidate. He was a convert to the nature worship of Henry Thoreau and the poet Lord Byron, whose lines he carved into bits of wood and tree trunks during his sojourn in the wild.
He disliked money because it made people cautious. Before embarking on his travels he destroyed his credit cards and took care of his life savings by sending Oxfam a cheque.
For him the rejection of material comfort and the soul- poisoning effects of industrial civilisation were part of a necessary spiritual revolution. As he explains to one acquaintance in the film, he longs for a life free of the people he most despises: ‘‘ parents, hypocrites, politicians and pricks’’.
As Emile Hirsch plays him in Into the Wild , he has an air of beguiling innocence and amiability that won him many friends. He also had a sense of humour ( adopting the name Alexander Supertramp for his journeying) and a disarming courtesy. Even the brutal railway guard who bashes him and throws him from a freight train ( if we can believe the story) is politely addressed as ‘‘ sir’’.
So why do I find McCandless hard to like and even harder to admire? It’s not so much that his philosophy seems sentimental and incoherent, or that by refusing to communicate with his parents he caused them acute and needless suffering. He was cruel to others as well. His sister Carine ( Jena Malone) was especially devastated by his disappearance and Chris ignored her. In the film she’s a haunted, wraithlike presence. More touching is the sad, deluded Tracy ( Kristen Stewart), the aspiring folk singer whom he loved and abandoned.
Shot on authentic locations with a painter’s eye for the surreal possibilities of the landscape and the grandeur of the natural world, Into the Wild is a wonderfully spectacular film, the most ambitious Penn has directed. The narrative, in its disjointed way, takes us from the wheatfields of South Dakota, where Chris worked as a tractor driver ( he was not above taking odd jobs to buy food and provisions) to the rapids of the Colorado River, to Mexico and such exotic places as Slab City, in the Californian desert, where the concrete foundations of old defence installations are preserved near an artists colony.
The film is like an uneasy mixture of Easy Rider , Deliverance and the Tom Hanks desert island adventure Cast Away, in which the characters either reject the values of civilisation or are forced to confront a world without them.
I’d call McCandless a misguided idealist: vain, eccentric, quite possibly unbalanced, whose embrace of the wilderness was driven more by contempt for his father than any quest for transcendental understanding. Walt McCandless ( William Hurt), a former NASA aerospace engineer, treated his family harshly. But Chris’s character seems too feckless and naive to carry the weight of the story and his physical exploits were so intrepid that we may well remember them longer than the man himself.
As a result, the film’s secondary characters all seem richer and more interesting than Chris: Brian Dierker, the whitewater expert whom Penn cast as Rainey, the hippie; Rainey’s partner Jan ( Catherine Keener); and the ageing widower Ron Franz ( Hal Holbrook), who gives Chris some late, unheeded lessons on the importance of family and the getting of wisdom. It’s an absorbing story, and it troubles me that a film as ambitious, strange and beautiful as this should have left me largely unmoved.
* * * DIRECTED by Peter Carstairs, September is a delicate, touching and deceptively modest film about friendship and racial tensions in a remote West Australian community in the 1960s. We know it’s the ’ 60s because the Americans are about to launch their Apollo moon shot. But for Ed ( Xavier Samuel) and his Aboriginal mate Paddy ( Clarence John Ryan), it’s more important that Lionel Rose has just won the world bantamweight boxing title and become the boys’ instant hero.
Each day Ed catches a bus to school and on most afternoons, when the bus drops him off on the main road, Paddy is there to meet him. Paddy doesn’t go to school, but with Ed’s help he’s teaching himself to read ( their favourite reading being stories about Rose).
One day they watch a newsreel of their idol in the local cinema, and when posters go up announcing that Jimmy Sharman’s boxing troupe is heading to town, they decide to get some practice, staking out a boxing ring on a bare stretch of ground and engaging in some friendly sparring.
It’s a warm and rapidly deepening friendship, though one scarcely acknowledged by the boys themselves, let alone by the wider community, where Aborigines are still second- class citizens. Ed’s father Rick ( Keiran Darcy- Smith) wants his son to break the friendship off and give up this boxing nonsense. Times are tough, and now that the law requires Aboriginal farm labourers to be paid the same as whites, Ed’s father can’t afford to pay Paddy’s dad.
The boys’ friendship, already under strain, is fatally compromised when they make a surreptitious visit to a neighbouring farm and Paddy is thumped by the father of the girl they are spying on. Ed abandons his mate and flees into the night.
I was reminded of Paul Goldman’s Australian Rules , in which a white boy falls for an Aboriginal girl in a little fishing town in South Australia. One of the strengths of Australian Rules was Lisa Flanagan’s performance as the girl, and it says much for her versatility that she can be cast, five years later, as Paddy’s mother. But whereas Goldman’s film was strident and theatrical, September is a beautifully restrained and gentle work, and for me more powerful and convincing.
It is little more than an hour long, and the screenplay ( by Carstairs and Ant Hern) delivers dialogue both spare and heartfelt. That such intensity of emotion, and so much of our social history, can be conveyed with such slender resources says much for the maturity of the cast and the director’s feeling for mood and detail.
The bleak, sun- burnished landscapes are wonderfully rendered in Jules O’Loughlin’s camerawork. I might have wished for a little more animation from Ed, and wonder how many farm bosses in the ’ 60s would have dared sport a beard as trimly tailored as Rick’s.
But the final scenes are greatly moving and we are left to draw our own conclusions from Ed’s groping words of contrition. The message isn’t hard to grasp.
Misguided idealist: Kristen Stewart and Emile Hirsch star in Sean Penn’s