This is the third in my case studies of Kristen Stewart roles in independent films. In this she was 16/17 and only makes a 12 minute appearance. I’ll come to that later. In the meantime I have this long and highly-praised film to deal with. It’s written and directed by Sean Penn – who in her comments on my ‘Thoughts on Acting‘, Rona picks out as an actor with whom Stewart has some things in common. That’s an interesting observation but it creates a problem for me since, though I know something about Penn’s ‘status’ as an actor/director, I was amazed to discover that I’d only previously seen one of his films as actor or director. I can only conclude that he chooses projects that don’t usually attract me since I’ve nothing against the guy. At least it means that I approach Into the Wild without preconceptions.
This is a very well-known story but if you don’t want to know what happens, be warned, there is a major SPOILER in what follows.
We know that the film is a form of ‘independent’ since it was financed by the now defunct ‘indy brand’ Paramount Vantage. But this means that it has studio backing and a budget large enough to allow shooting in several widely scattered locations (IMDb suggests $15 million). In genre terms this is a road movie, a form of ‘coming of age’ story and a ‘spiritual adventure’ that eventually becomes a ‘survival film’. It is based on a 1996 book by Jon Krakauer that documents the true story of a young graduate who decided to abandon his expected career path and to seek to ‘find himself’. Cutting himself off completely from his parents and sister Christopher McCandless travels West from his graduation party in Atlanta in 1990 and spends two years on the road and in various temporary jobs/communities before he heads ‘North to Alaska’ where he intends to spend several months alone ‘in the wild’. He never made it out of the wilderness and died in 1992. In 2006 Penn’s film was joined in production by Ron Lamothe’s documentary The Call of the Wild in which the filmmaker repeats many of the journeys made by McCandless and in doing so refutes some of the claims made in Krakauer’s book and Penn’s film. But it is the book and the Hollywood feature that have attracted readers/viewers and critical acclaim.
Even from this brief description of the story it’s clear that Into the Wild is an American story. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) follows in the steps of real and imaginary American characters driven towards the frontier/the wilderness/the ‘new world’. It’s a story of individualism and in cinematic terms it uses ‘American genres’. It isn’t surprising then that it has received both critical and popular support. I suspect some of that support is focused on the young man’s story and some on its philosophical and cultural underpinnings. Personally, while I responded to the film’s technical and artistic achievements in cinematography, music (at least most of it) and performances, I didn’t feel fully engaged because I had problems with McCandless as a ‘character’. I’m wary here since I don’t want to offend the real McCandless family and also because it appears that Sean Penn may in any case have changed aspects of the story. I’ve read suggestions that McCandless (who changed his name to ‘Alexander Supertramp’) is a representative of Generation X in the US – born in the late 1960s and ‘coming of age’ in the early 1990s. We are all allowed to be a bit daft in our early 20s but this is a disturbed young man who draws on the work of a variety of writers such as Byron, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London – and seems to have little common sense when it comes to survival in the wild.
Penn tells the story through a flashback structure, opening with the arrival in Alaska and then going back to Emory University and graduation day. The narrative then shifts between Alaska and a series of episodes broken into ‘Chapters’ detailing the central character’s adventures and relationships with characters he meets. Kristen Stewart’s appearance comes in the Chapter titled ‘Family’ in the later stage of his journeys through California. McCandless refused to contact his parents when he left Georgia and Penn reveals their anguish. Also ‘cut out’ was his sister (played by Jena Malone) and it is through her voiceover that we learn of the reasons why Chris wanted to part from his parents. His treatment of his sister, however, remains a mystery. When he arrives in Slab City, California (which Wikipedia tells me is the meeting place for ‘snowbirds’ in their camper vans looking for a desert retreat in Winter) Chris meets up with an older couple he has encountered before. It’s an emotional reunion with Rainy (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) as ageing hippies who now run a travelling book stall. Jan has a son she hasn’t seen for many years and she asks Chris about his parents. Rainey pushes Chris towards a meeting with Tracy Tatro a young woman who they have seen performing a song at the evening community concert. This is the Kristen Stewart character and she joins the trio for a meal. Since this is the Christmas holiday period the image of ‘family celebrations’ hangs over the proceedings. Chris/Alex is resolved not to ‘weaken’ and he leaves a few days later after turning down Tracy’s invitation to her trailer while her parents are away for the day. But before he leaves, he joins Tracy to sing a duet at the next concert.
Kirsten Stewart sings two songs but I don’t know if she plays the guitar on the soundtrack. It’s difficult to analyse the performance of the songs. The first, ‘Tracy’s Song’, is credited as written by Stewart and David Baerwald (a well-known singer and composer of songs for films). The second is one of my favourite songs, ‘Angel from Montgomery‘ written by John Prine. Whereas ‘Tracy’s Song’ sounded merely pleasant and Stewart’s singing lacked confidence, ‘Angel from Montgomery’ was truly affecting and Stewart and Hirsch together sound accomplished – Hirsch sings harmony and plays an electronic keyboard of some kind. The duet refers back to a live Bonnie Raitt track in which she sings with John Prine. My problem/query is: does Kristen Stewart deliberately sing the first song in a less accomplished way so that the duet becomes more of a revelation? Or is it that I’m reacting to a song that I’m very emotionally attuned to? Did Penn and his musical advisers choose ‘Angel from Montgomery’ deliberately for its impact in terms of music and lyrics – which could be seen as particularly relevant here. This is a potentially optimistic chapter in the film about family and a possible future that is rejected as Chris/Alex is determined to still go to Alaska. Stewart plays a performer in several of her roles, most obviously in The Runaways but also as an aspiring actress in Still Alice where she is seen in a ‘summer stock’ production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. These ‘performances’ within a film narrative attract the attention of both Stewart’s fans and her detractors. Kristen Stewart has referred to her approach as ‘mostly playing myself’. To perform ‘badly’ – i.e. as an amateur/novice – is presumably quite difficult for a young actor with plenty of experience but who still feels that she needs to prove herself.
Judge for yourself how well she sings ‘Angel from Montgomery’:
Kristen Stewart’s 12 minute cameo works very well in the film and this must have been a very useful role for her. A few years later she would find herself working again with the French cinematographer Eric Gautier whose work on The Motorcycle Diaries had impressed Sean Penn. That film was directed by Walter Salles who would direct Stewart in On the Road (2012). Kristen Stewart picks her films very well since she has worked with not just excellent acting talent but also top directors and crews.
I must confess that the more I studied Into the Wild, the more impressive it became – but I couldn’t get away from my irritation with the character. I’m very puzzled though by the box office figures for foreign markets published by Box Office Mojo. I’ve argued that this is a quintessentially American narrative. Yet the foreign total is in line with the norm – the international take is twice the size of North America. But the real interest in the breakdown into individual markets which shows fairly modest returns for traditionally strong markets such as the UK and Scandinavia but high figures for France and Italy (which together are bigger here than the US and Canada. Perhaps Rona is right and Sean Penn’s reputation in France is a contributing factor. Into the Wild took less than $2 million in the UK and over $13.5 million in France (roughly the same size of market).