Will Call: Wild and free
Society is flawed. In fact, civilization in general has proven downright mess of violence, inequity and waste. But is it as bad as the alternative?
That question has been posed, in one form or another, in several recent films. Perhaps it’s just the human propensity to see patterns whether they’re there or not, but it seems like the movie industry gets on kicks that way. I remember a couple years ago when every other movie at the Crystal Theatre seemed to deal with coming of age.
The current trend occurred to me about halfway through the most recent flick, “Captain Fantastic.” That’s probably because it’s the most overt in exploring the theme of civilization and wilderness. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” seems more about overcoming our differences, and “The Lobster” is well, weird. In the middle of that lineup at the Crystal was “Maggie’s Plan,” but that strikes me as an outlier. Despite its setting, I’m not sure the “The Jungle Book” really fits the theme with it’s civilized wilderness nor, despite its title and its popularity last year, would “Wild”.
Anyway, the remaining triptych are as interesting in their differences as their similarities.
“The Lobster” is, I think, an interesting concept poorly marketed. From the trailer, you’d almost think it was directed by Wes Anderson, but it actually has more than a little “Clockwork Orange” to it. It depicts a literally dehumanizing dystopian society in which people who are unable to find love are turned into another animal of their choice. The “singles” who refuse to cooperate with this rather odd rule (is it an overpopulation thing?) hide out in the forest. The rules are just as strict in the other direction there, though, and no one seems to consider that surviving in the wild alone might actually be easier if they just let themselves be transformed. The ambiguous ending leaves the viewer to decide how far they would go to be part of the group.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is over the top funny in the spirit of “The Blues Brothers.” The central character, a disaffected orphan, makes it less than a mile in his first attempt to run away into the New Zealand bush. By the end, he’s got the nerve to stand up to a charging boar and shoot it dead. His outdoor skills probably won’t prove all that useful in the long run, but he learns some lessons about self reliance and loyalty in the end. We’ll throw this one in the category of wilderness as a character builder.
That brings us back to “Captain Fantastic,” which lies somewhere between the two extremes. There are some lighthearted moments and some disturbing ones. I heard it humorously described as a cross between “Into the Wild” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” and there’s something apt about that. It inverts the standard arc by moving from wilderness to civilization. We’re invited to consider a family raised hunting their own food and honing their physical and mental abilities. It’s so easy to sympathize with the father, whose philosophy of keeping the bar high and being brutally honest has produced a group of intelligent and strong charactered children. Even the youngest can quote the constitution and give an opinion on Citizens United, though the eldest is way out of his depth talking to girls.
We’re entirely hooked by the time the filmmakers reveal their trap surreptitiously in a section of dialogue about the unreliable narrator of “Lolita.” From there, they begun to unravel the trap they’ve built. We see their aunt’s incredulity at the idea that wilderness survival skills are obvious and essential. Their grandfather, though cast as the antagonist, makes good points when he reels off the danger and poor judgement we just witnessed.
In the end, there’s room for compromise. That’s pretty much the conclusion most people who live here have already reached. Society, with all its faults, is a lot easier to take when you can escape it for a while. The outdoors are a lot more inviting when you know there’s a meal and a hot shower waiting at home. Being able to fend for yourself remains a valuable skill, but being able to coexist with others is even more essential in an ever more crowded world.
Will Grandbois has mostly overcome his childhood fantasy of living in a tree with a peregrine falcon. He can be reached at 384-9105 /firstname.lastname@example.org.
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