INTO THE WILD

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Overall Impression  — A beautiful movie experience which DELIBERATELY DEFIES NARRATIVE STORY STRUCTURE.

THE FOUR QUESTIONS 

Who’s your main character? — Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch).

What’s he trying to accomplish? — Go to Alaska and have an existential experience living in the wild.

Who’s trying to stop him? — Nature, resources, the amazing people that he meets along the way, and ultimately his own rules of individuality.

What happens if he fails? — Here’s where it gets complicated.  If he fails to get to Alaska it’s no big deal because his experiences along the way are so rich (principally because of the people he meets and the effect he has on their lives.)  Because of this, we’re not invested in his goal, but in his journey.  The stakes are also mitigated by the fact that going in, most people will know what the movie is about and that the successful achieving of his goal of  getting to Alaska will lead to Chris’s death.  We therefore, if we’ve achieved any empathy for Chris, are hoping that he doesn’t get to Alaska.  I told you it was complicated…

THE FOUR ARCHETYPES

Orphan — Chris gives away all of his money, cuts up his credit cards, and very early on hits the road.  The problem here is that narratively, this happens very early and with very little context.  For those who know TotallyWrite  story structure, this pulls the Central Question way, way up into what would be Act One, however since this film only loosely follows a traditional three act structure, what difference does it make?

Wanderer — Chris literally starts wandering early.  The film also cuts back and forth along Chris’s narrative time line.  The film starts with him arriving at the trailhead in Alaska, cuts back two years earlier to him  graduating, jumps forward, shifts into memory; it’s a true, rich movie experience, beautifully done and narratively compelling in it’s own way.  

Warrior — I’m not sure that there is actually a warrior moment.  Might it be when Chris starts getting himself in shape to go Alaska, somewhere around the “Slab City” section of the film?  I’d love to  hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Martyr — Chris never has to give up his goal of getting to Alaska or going into the wild, but he ends up martyring himself painfully and regretfully to his dream.

AND, IN THE END…

I believe that most aspiring (and even established) writers want to connect to the widest possible audience.   They want to write stories that get studios and producers excited.  They want their stories told faithfully and they want those stories to be seen by millions of people.  They want all of this because they know that if they are fortunate enough to get one of their scripts made and it dies at the box office, their chances of getting more work as a writer decrease.  A box office success, hopefully followed by one or two more, means that they’re a working screenwriter rather than a one-trick pony. 

INTO THE WILD is a very singular film, made through the sheer will and determination of a very singular talent — Sean Penn — who wrote and directed the movie.  One can understand why Mr. Penn would be attracted to the story of a young man, driven by his own personal beliefs to take chances others can’t appreciate.  In Chris McCandless, Mr. Penn has truly found a kindred spirit.

Its unconventional structure and lack of a clearly empathetic main character (why couldn’t Chris at some point in the two years he was gone call his parents or sister to tell them that he was okay?)  makes it clear why this film took Mr. Penn ten years to get made.  It also helps explain why it’s struggling at the box office.  It’s not because it’s a bad piece of filmmaking; in fact, it’s one of the most stunning directorial achievements of the year.  And if Hal Holbrook doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nomination, there is no justice.  No, the film is struggling because it was born to struggle.  Chris McCandless didn’t care what you thought of his journey, he was taking it regardless.  The same can be said for this film.

INTO THE WILD is a perfect movie for writers to watch.  It’s beautiful, it’s unconventional, and if you’re looking for a mainstream screenwriting career, it’s exactly the kind of movie you write AFTER you become as big as Sean Penn.

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3 Responses to “INTO THE WILD”

  1. Bryan December 2, 2007 at 6:45 pm #

    I agree with the analysis, but NOT with the effect. My hopes and expectations for this film were SMASHED by the non-linear, self-indulgent manner in which Sean Penn told this story.

    The story tension should all be based on whether of not he makes it to Alaska. But we discover in the first scene that he does. Why am I told then repeatedly that the big goal for the film is making it to Alaska? What am I given to root for?

    Another problem I had was with the confusion in narration. One minute we have on-screen postcards, another we get the sister in Voice Over. Huh?

    By scrambling the timeline, the film treats each stop on the journey like a vignette. I never know where we are supposed to be and where it fits into the trip. I’m in LA, I’m in Mexico, I’m being tossed on a train, I’m rafting down the Colorado River, I’m working on a farm — but no individual stop adds any new critical piece of information. Nothing builds. It’s just like, that was fun, now what?

    Lastly, the characters learn nothing. Nobody grows. There are no arcs, no payoff.

    I loved the story and I HATED HATED HATED this film!

  2. Bryan December 2, 2007 at 6:45 pm #

    I agree with the analysis, but NOT with the effect. My hopes and expectations for this film were SMASHED by the non-linear, self-indulgent manner in which Sean Penn told this story.

    The story tension should all be based on whether of not he makes it to Alaska. But we discover in the first scene that he does. Why am I told then repeatedly that the big goal for the film is making it to Alaska? What am I given to root for?

    Another problem I had was with the confusion in narration. One minute we have on-screen postcards, another we get the sister in Voice Over. Huh?

    By scrambling the timeline, the film treats each stop on the journey like a vignette. I never know where we are supposed to be and where it fits into the trip. I’m in LA, I’m in Mexico, I’m being tossed on a train, I’m rafting down the Colorado River, I’m working on a farm — but no individual stop adds any new critical piece of information. Nothing builds. It’s just like, that was fun, now what?

    Lastly, the characters learn nothing. Nobody grows. There are no arcs, no payoff.

    I loved the story and I HATED HATED HATED this film!

  3. William July 30, 2008 at 5:17 am #

    I think this movie is sort of a “Columbo” combined in an odd way with a Romeo and Juliet. We know who the murderer is, and we want to see Columbo catch him. We see in Romeo and Juliet that great love defies even death. Likewise, we know Chris makes it to Alaska, and yet we watch to see how me makes it, and in the end we see that his dream defies even death. The audience wants to see a person so driven by his dream that he is willing to die for it. It’s how Chris’s death comes about that we want to see. Whether or not Chris’s dream was “worthwhile” is perhaps a theme the story explores. The movie started out annoying for me, because I didn’t particularily like the views I thought Sean Pean was trying to endorse. Yet by the time the movie was well underway I began to see that there were deeper levels to the story. In the end I thought the movie deeply satisfying. Did Chris arc? Not sure. But perhaps the people around him did, in the sense they had to define or redefine commitments to their life views.

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