It’s been well documented that road movies are fundamentally about the social impermanence of their protagonists. In that regards, Into the Wild doesn’t offer anything resembling a corrective, but a simple addition: our protagonist isn’t even socially impermanent, he’s socially intolerant. While this isn’t necessarily the movie’s problem per se, (it’s more a problem of mimetic verisimilitude) it’s certainly problematic for the movie. The protagonist is completely unrelatable in his extremism. I don’t think there’s a single american male who doesn’t have some sense of wanderlust. The idea of travel is a mythic part of our American culture; it’s our manifest destiny. In Into the Wild, the protagonist’s quest for the wild is beyond finding himself within our society (experiencing the road and various types of peoplehood), it’s about completely escaping human society. Our protagonist’s belief that his selfhood is to be found in complete isolation is the movie’s biggest detriment. Not only is his supposition wrong, it makes for a frustrating movie.

The protagonist, ably played by Emile Hirsch, is a young radical, coc9af1363ada08faebaedf010_aa240_l.jpgmpletely disillusioned with the falsehoods of society. Or, SOCIETY! as it’s expressed in the movie’s most memorable scene. Hirsch’s McCandless is a bright young Emory graduate. From what we know, he is an A student with a proclivity towards late 80s social-conscious-intellectual trends (legal implications of Nelson Mandela, colonialism in Africa, et. al). He’s also incredibly well-versed in American literature, and he frequently intersperses his dialogue with quotes from his favorite authors. Not surprisingly, they include Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and Henry David Thoreau. And therein lies the rub: as we all know, Thoreau was a cheat [sic]. He sent his laundry home to his mother, and he frequently entertained company at Walden. Our protagonist should have known that he would need contact with others and that he couldn’t rely solely on his devices. Also, as an educated young man, he should have learned that man is a social animal. Relating to the other is in our blood, even if you don’t buy into the lord-bondsman dialectic.

Oddly, in removing society from the equation Into the Wild loses the sense of travelogue. Places become meaningless. Only the destination, Alaska, has any real meaning for McCandless; everything else is prelude. This is the antithesis of Kerouac’s dictum: it’s not the journey but the destination. And in removing the place we lose everything so interesting about the road: the discovery of the self through our encounter of the unexpected. The bizarre richness of America, the, “zoo in Indiana where a large troop of monkeys lived on concrete replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship. Billions of dead, or halfdead, fish-smelling May flies in every window of every eating place all along a dreary sandy shore.” Lolita really is the best American road novel.

The movie is, not surprisingly, most interesting when McCandless interacts with other people. Vince Vaughn does a yeoman’s job playing a subdued version of Vince Vaughn, and in so doing indicates that the filmmakers might have recognized the absurdity of a film where the main character spends so much time alone, a challenge at times handled better than other. All of the supporting characters are very good, especially Catherine Keener and the aforementioned Vaughn. The landscape is beautiful and at times stirring–especially when accompanied by Eddie Vedder. Sean Penn certainly knows how to handle his actors. Read the rest of this entry »