The title of this entry does not refer to my own confession, but Leo Tolstoy's. I recently watched Sean Penn's Into the Wild, based on the eponymous best-seller by Jon Krakauer, about Chris McCandless, a young man who "dropped out," as they used to say in the sixties, only without then "tuning in" to any movement or "turning on" with any known drug.

What McCandless did do was abandon family, friends, future prospects, and affluent lifestyle, to embark on a quest without definition that, to judge by the film (I have not read the book), acquired definition as it went along. After two years of living as a voluntary hobo (he renamed himself "Alexander Supertramp"), hippie (he bonded with a counter-cultural tribe living in RVs), and latter-day alms-seeking monk, he trekked alone into the Alaskan wilderness, where after 112 days of foraging for food and living in an abandoned bus, he died of starvation.

In the wrong hands, this story could be unbearable, especially in today's acrimonious social and cultural atmosphere. And ... let me put it this way: I am not enlightened by Sean Penn's politics, and I don't much like him. But he is one of the major talents in Hollywood, if not THE major talent. This film is a masterpiece. I'm not even talking about its visual beauty, which is all the more stunning for not having been generated by a computer. Nor, really, am I talking about Emile Hirsch, whose only flaw in the lead role is that he is more lovable than the real McCandless seems to have been.

No, I'm talking about that rarest of qualities in Hollywood films these days, the story-telling. No one but Penn could have handled this as deftly, even to the point of using McCandless's favorite books in a way that skips the usual self-consciousness ("aren't we smart to be quoting a real book in a movie?") and cuts to the heart of Jack London, Henry Thoreau, and Tolstoy.

I seriously doubted whether this film would make room for Tolstoy, despite putting his books in McCandless's backpack. But if you stay with it, all the way to the end, you will see that it does capture him. Not the big shot author of War and Peace, but the restless soul of Confession, who rejects everything in his society, only to find God in a dream fraught with existential angst.

You can interpret the ending of Into the Wild any way you like, but for me, it completes the trajectory of this strange young man's life in a way very similar to Tolstoy's in Confession: doubt; disillusionment; cynicism; flight; heartache; yearning for human re-connection coupled with the realization (on the bank of a swollen river) that it's too late, there is no going back; terror in the face of death; and finally, transcendence that may or may not last beyond this life.

Quite a lot for one movie. And they gave the Oscar to No Country for Old Men, a plotless mess gagging on its own blood. It's enough to make a real movie lover drop out.

March 18, 2008 8:44 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on March 18, 2008 8:44 AM.

The Dark Side was the previous entry in this blog.

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