Director Sean Penn faced delays in bringing Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s 1996 best-seller, to the screen, and it may seem appropriate that those delays led the movie to be released when so many are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. On the surface of it, Christopher McCandless, a young man who deliberately went missing after graduating from Emory in 1990, crisscrossing the country, dying emaciated and alone at 24 after living for nearly four months in a remote region of Alaska, would seem to share the spiritual DNA of Sal Paradise and his crew. But as Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker, Kerouac was “quite explicit about it: the trips in ‘On the Road’ were made for the purpose of writing ‘On the Road.’ The motive was not tourism or escape: it was literature.” Despite his pinballing around the U.S., McCandless — who adopted the name Alexander Supertramp during his journey — had aspirations that connected him more closely to Thoreau than the Beats. However naive it may have been, he appears to have been seeking something even more elusive than fame — an essential self.
Soon after graduation, McCandless sent a check for his entire savings, nearly $25,000, to Oxfam. He then let his parents, Billie and Walt (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt), believe he was returning to Atlanta, but instead set out for the west. Like many people at that age, McCandless felt disillusioned by his parents’ WASP-y, materialistic lifestyle, and initially we’re given to believe that this was the impetus for his breaking off ties so completely (in the two years he was gone, he never even communicated with his sister, with whom he was very close). But even when we learn of a deeper anger — stemming from his discovery that Walt had kept secret a previous marriage and child — it doesn’t explain the severity of his reaction, and Penn doesn’t pretend that it can. Millions of people have problematic relationships with their parents — to deal with those problems by heading deep into no-man’s-land with only a bag of rice and a few paperbacks to read is as common as hiking across the Sahara without water or sunscreen because you were annoyed by a slow line at the DMV. No, while many reacted to Krakauer’s work by complaining that McCandless was simply a spoiled, unprepared brat who got what he deserved, it seems truer to say he was a genuine pilgrim destined to meet the world on his own peculiar, unyielding terms.
A photographic self-portrait of McCandless opens the book and closes the movie. He’s sitting and leaning against the abandoned bus that served as his home in the harsh but gorgeous environment where he died. In it, he’s thin, but smiling, thick-bearded, and mature, looking closer to his early 30s than 24. The 22-year-old Emile Hirsch, cast as McCandless, looks closer to 16, even when scraggly and weathered, but this, among other things, makes him perfect for the part. What McCandless did was earnest, foolhardy, selfish and, in its way, big-hearted. In other words, it was young. Because Hirsch looks so boyish and has an effortless wide-eyed wonder about him, he makes it easy (enough) to pardon McCandless’ eventual disregard for those closest to him and sympathize with his desire to discover and stress his limits.
Having read the source material a couple of times, it’s notable how much life Penn has drawn from essentially a twelve-page stretch of the book that describes Chris’ stops along the way to Alaska, which he steadfastly held in mind as his Oz. After Chris, now “Alex,” set out, he met several people willing to help him. Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn) gave him work at a grain elevator in South Dakota. Jan Burres (Catherine Keener) and her boyfriend, Rainey (Brian Dierker, terrific and endearing in his first movie), were fellow roamers who acted as surrogate parents on the two separate occasions when Alex spent time with them. Tracy (Kristen Stewart) was an enamored teenage girl who had her heart broken when Alex abruptly left the desert commune where they met. Most affecting of all, Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook, who has statues in his future for this one) was a retired Army man, a widower who took a shine to Chris and made the strongest effort of anyone to re-tether the young man to civilization. These people helped Chris, but they also liked him. Their assistance was inspired by an enjoyment of his company, not pity.
Penn is widely regarded as one of our very best acting talents, but based on his previous work behind the camera — particularly in The Crossing Guard — his directorial style could best be described as lugubrious to the point of inert. Given the austere, ultimately tragic facts of Into the Wild, there was every reason to fear that his rendition would consist of one three-hour tracking shot of a stand of frozen pine trees set to Mozart’s Requiem on a loop. Instead, the finished product represents a forceful step forward for him. Even the soundtrack of original songs by Eddie Vedder is not the distraction it might have been — Penn calls on Vedder’s baritone judiciously.
The movie is not flawless. Like most stories about spiritual searchers, it sometimes flirts with New Ageism, and it has to sneak in a heavy-handed reference or two to Jesus. It also hops around in time, a successful way to flash forward to (and back from) the bus in Alaska, but a much less satisfying (if necessary) method of learning about Chris’ life before he disappeared. The most grating weakness is the occasional voice-over by Chris’ sister, Carine (Jena Malone), who provides background about the McCandless family that might have proven too difficult or time-consuming to fully dramatize. The voice-overs are no better, though, mostly over-written and whispered in a tone that’s out of step with the movie’s otherwise naturalistic, generous
In Krakauer’s book, Jan Burres says of Chris, “He needed his solitude at times, but he wasn’t a hermit. He did a lot of socializing. Sometimes I think it was like he was storing up company for the times when he knew nobody would be around.” This observation makes the simple note that McCandless scrawled in his paperback copy of Doctor Zhivago toward the very end (which I wouldn’t dare spoil, though others have) even more poignant. It’s a moment that Krakauer saw as ambiguous, but that Penn and Hirsch convincingly present as a heart-rending epiphany for McCandless. It’s the most deeply moving moment in a movie full of them — a movie that, blemishes and all, is in the running for the best of the year.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
Into the Wild / John Williams
Film Reviews | September 28, 2007 | Comments ()