The Beast Within

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Posted September 28, 2007 in Film

By Amy Nicholson On days when phones keep ringing and traffic chokes the route home, we dream of running off into the peaceful woods. Of course, we know that the woods aren’t really any more restful; instead of tiptoeing around your boss, you’re watching out for bears. But it’s a harmless fantasy–unless, like Christopher McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, you actually do run away to the Alaskan wilderness with a bag of rice and paperbacks by Tolstoy and Jack London. Chris graduated from Emory University in 1990 and promptly vanished into the wild. He tore up his IDs, burnt his money, ditched his car, and spent two years hoofing it everywhere from North Dakota to Mexico by train, thumb, and illegal kayak. After his story broke in Jon Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller, he became a legend to those who yearn to drop off the grid. (And the grid’s only gotten harder to squeeze through in the last 17 years.) And while writer-director Sean Penn’s moderate and overlong retelling of McCandless’ odyssey plays along with hippies who need a folk hero by layering his story with pontifications on independence and a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder, he smartly invites us cynics to see the selfishness and even mild sociopathy behind a 22-year-old kid who didn’t even bother saying goodbye to his family. Emile Hirsch (The Boy Next Door, Lords of Dogtown) makes an unlikely, but apt Chris. Slight with big brown eyes and a boyish beard, he looks like a dreamer who’s also really, really good at rock-climbing. While Penn gives him much to do physically–he skins a moose, leaps off trains, and nearly drowns in a river–the film seems stonewalled by Chris’ real motivations, leaving Hirsch to fumble for the interior life of a man in the prime of his life who couldn’t give a fig about girls. He’s a charismatic loner, too industrious to be a hippie, too pretentious to be a burnout, and too extremist for just about everyone. "You’re wrong if you think the joy of life comes from human companionship," he tells a kindly old man (Hal Holbrook) who asks to adopt him. Chris hates abstraction; he craves rivers he can swim, wheat he can thresh, apples he can pluck. Like all good angsty kids, he hates society, even though everyone he meets on his trip, including Brian Dierker and a fantastic Catherine Keener as two gentle hippies in a beat up camper, is giving and good. "People are evil," he insists to a farmer played by Vince Vaughn. Says Vaughn with a patronizing twinkle in his voice, "What people we talking about?" Above all, Chris can’t stomach his parents who he writes off as money-obsessed liars. He’s at once incredibly over-sensitive to his family’s common failings and insensitive to their needs, and as he lets the years tick by without a single phone call to say he’s alive, his sister Carine (Jena Malone) pours out her struggle to forgive him into diary entries that she reads as we watch Chris bushwhack his way through Northern California. Only as his folks are played with nuance and complexity by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, we see the love and pride that Chris refuses to acknowledge. When at their post-graduation meal, he rejects their gift of a new car and the tuition money for Harvard Law School, Hurt’s face struggles to stay stern, but we can see his helpless confusion with a son who resents his help. Of course, only the privileged can so cavalierly throw away a dream education, and that mindset most of all is what he wants to escape. Alaska promises to "kill the beast within." And while we see him eating squirrels and tightening his belt, Penn’s main idea about going native is making eye contact with a deer. There’s hubris in his hardship, and after two hours of running time we’re glad to see it. What Chris eventually learns–a little too late–is that for mankind, going back to your natural roots never involves being alone. Man is a communal species; without the group, we’d have died off long ago. Chris has earnest intentions to give back to the world, but one man alone in the woods can never improve anyone else’s lot until he eventually leaves the wild.


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