Care­less in­no­cence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.