Into the Wild (2007)

I suppose I should have a permanent place on the blog that explains my rating system, but there’s no reason I can’t explain it here. Films are ranked from 1 to 6, with 2-5 being pretty self-explanitory – bad, average, good, great. 6 is reserved for films that go beyond pure technical craft and really strike me emotionally, so it’s more a personal preference than anything else. 1 also functions the same way, but for films that step beyond indifference and actually inspire some genuine anger at them getting made. It’s rare that films are worth a 1 – not just in the list of great films but ever – because while many films are poorly-made not many of them are so bad as to be morally offensive.

But there are some.

Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), fed up with the cruelty people are able to inflict on each other, disappears off the grid, abandoning his belongings and burning the contents of his wallet, with the ultimate goal of living one with nature in the vein of Thoreau. The film is centered around his time living out of an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness, with flashbacks to the middle-class life he left behind and the people he met on his journey north. Now, were this an ordinary bad film – a 2, say – McCandless’ carefree wisdom imparted on fellow denizens of the road would be trite but vauge affirmations about simple living, and in the end of the film he might find some balance between the two extremes of The Wild and The Man that he could live with. But this is based on real events – the real McCandless starved to death, and Into the Wild tries to turn the self-important adolescent life-truths his on-screen counterpart comes up with into laudible values, glorifying a petulent child who, convinced they had it all figured out, died through lack of experience and perspective. What great hardship was McCandless escaping? What actrocities did his parents inflict upon him, other than the blandness of being raised in suburbia? What did his sister (the film’s narrator, for the most part) do to deserve being completely abandoned also? The worst part is that I agree with what this film wants to say – don’t follow the corporate agenda, maybe we should get closer to the land – but stomping your feet and saying, no, I won’t be a part of your society any more, mom and dad, and there’s nothing you can do about it! …that’s not the way to go about it. There is no beauty to be found in this film; there’s just an idiot who died in the woods.

Mystic River (2003)

So a couple of weeks ago, I got to watch two films in a row starring John Wayneone I liked, the other not so much. I thought it was a bit of an odd coincidence to have two films with the same lead placed together in the big list of films, but these things can happen. So now I get another coincidence, where I get two films both based on novels by Dennis Lehane. It’s an interesting exercise of compare and contrast, to find the common themes in the stories, what kind of tropes an author likes to use and how different directors interpret them. And, like the two John Wayne films, I had very different reactions to Shutter Island and Mystic River.

The story is about three men – Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), and Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) – childhood friends who have drifted apart, and how their lives reconnect after Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is murdered. Jimmy is an ex-criminal looking for revenge, Sean the police officer running the homocide investigation, and they (and the audience) are lead to believe Dave is the killer, possibly because of some mental instability from being abducted and molested as a child. The film travels at a pace that lingers on the agony of every character, driving the point home that life is a vast network of random terrible events with blow after blow after blow. We barely get a chance to know any of the characters – not Katie the innocent virginal victim, not Jimmy the grieving father, not even really Dave with his lifetime’s worth of tragedy – we’re just presented with the situation and we’re expected to have a reaction to it because, y’know, it’s sad that such awful things can happen. Everything is meticulously constructed in such a way to make the viewer feel as depressed as possible, with no real sense or moral or meaning at the end, and I don’t appreciate having my strings pulled on like that.

This isn’t a film. This isn’t a story. It’s pornography for people who like to feel sad. As well-acted as it all is, I didn’t connect with any of the characters because all I ever got was them being tortured by circumstances of the plot. It’s not emotionally moving just because a character cries and howls on screen – you have to believe that the characters are people first, with hopes and fears and personality, not just hollow shells for a writer to pour their misery into. Mystic River has all the emotional impact of seeing someone repeatedly kicking a puppy – harsh and raw, but crude and the furthest thing possible from artistic. Many critics might equate realism with quality, but I am not among them.