08 March 2009

Make It Better #1 (Into the Wild)

Since I am first and foremost a reformer, I've decided to start a recurring column in which I make suggestions on how we might fix flawed films and make them great. Or, if they are bad, how to make them tolerable.

The first film to benefit from WTT largess is another recent West Coast American "freedom" film, Into the Wild. And here I can only hope to raise an awful film to a slightly above average level. Wild is nearly twice as long as Wendy and the Dog that Doesn't Really Matter, and probably more painful to sit through.

Luckily, many of the film's issues can be quickly solved. The most important (and satisfying) step will be eliminating Jena Malone (playing star Carine McCandless, sister of Emile Hirsch's Chris McCandless/Alexander Supertramp) from the movie, if not the planet. I challenge a viewer to listen closely to her persistent narration and not taste vomit. It's like Sissy Spacek's narration in Badlands, except the exact opposite. Both the insipid content and insufferable tone of Malone's "diaries" are repulsive to the point of hilarity. If we chop off every scene involving Malone we save a half hour of our lives we desperately need back. And I haven't even gotten to a discussion of her haircut (somehow sensing the awfulness of it, a Google image search turns up only a single image, reproduced below, where you have to strain to see the cascading embarrassment amidst Hirsch's gown fabric).

Moving from one blech to another, I would suggest we replace Eddie Vedder's trying-to-hard yowling with a score composed by, say, Philip Glass or any other talented person that might stay in the background as Hirsch's McCandless raises his arms triumphantly. Many scenes in Wild are borderline overwrought anyway without Vedder egging them on.

Of course, it's hard for Hirsch not to appear overwrought, as he is essentially playing Jesus. I'd like to note that, as usual, he looks excellent. I love his flannel gauntness in Wild and his curly enthusiasm in Milk, even if both are easily overtaken by the cholo-chic in Lords of Dogtown.

Rawrr. The rest of the acolyte cast is uneven. In a contest of couples, Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker are far better than William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden (and not only because of their slow motion sweat sex scene). I wanted more Vince Vaughan since he brought the film's only non-nudity-based humor. Kirsten Stewart was wasted as the jailbait proof of McCandless' righteousness. I suppose Hal Holbrook was alright as a walking cliche.

Which brings me to the chronology of the film. I find the double flashback narration unnecessarily complicated. Even besides the bottomless inanity of sister Carine's noodlings, we have a clunky "chapter" flashback frame intercut with McCandless meeting his end in Alaska. To my mind, there's far more power if the film is told in precise chronological order. Then the last 45 minutes are an unflinching suite on joy and death alone--isn't that what's really captivating about McCandless' story, the inescapable trap of total freedom? Even Cast Away didn't suck with Hanks on the island (pre-film length FedEx commercial).

I think almost all of the above suggested changes would have been enacted by a stronger director than Sean Penn (and I don't mean Robert Zemeckis). The Pledge and Crossing Guard are decent films and it's somewhat strange that Penn would stray from their more straightforward presentation. How many shots of Hirsch washing his face in water did we really need? Billy Bob Thornton springs to mind as a director that might have been more successful with Wild. I appreciate his atmospheric treatment of Sling Blade and All the Pretty Horses--all his actors were natural and nature was magnificent enough without swooping helicopter shots. But more than Thornton even, this movie cries out for Werner Herzog (the lesson, as always, is that one should just watch Grizzly Man again--I wanted to just switch out DVDs when the grizzly wandered through McCandless' camp).

Herzog would have come to the central quandary of McCandless' journey: the young man is simply not prepared to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness. He doesn't know healthful potato root from poisonous sweet pea and is not patient enough to read the section of his book on the difference (this is true despite Penn's attempt to obscure it with amateurish, fast-motion camera work, the visual equivalent to run on sentences as a sign of madness in all those manic depressive memoirs). Ignorance does not make McCandless bad, or unworthy of attention--it makes him more fascinating as a subject. I want to know why he didn't look for a natural ford or bridge across the river and out of the wild when he seemed ready to reemerge into society. Did he have a fatalistic impulse to stick it out? I want more of McCandless' writing--why the hell do we get so much of his sister when his struggle is actually interesting? I mean some words beyond the platitudes carved into wood. I mean the portrait of the artist as a young man (or at least Thoreau wannabe) that Herzog could bring out.


If anyone has a film they'd like to see made better, leave a comment and I'll get right on it. Unless you put Redbelt. Then there is always an escape.