Title: Into the Wild
Year: 2007
Genre: Adventure, Biography, Drama
Play time: 
Director: Sean Penn
Screenwriters: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener – source

I have not read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and was not even aware that it purported to tell a true story. I approached Sean Penn’s adaptation at Telluride expecting a wilderness adventure, the sort of uplifting prestige picture that audiences here so readily embrace. I was not remotely prepared for this stunning, deeply troubling film — a road movie, a heartbreaking character study, a sincere and thoughtful meditation on happiness and truth. It shook and upset me; I walked from the screening, surrounded by the sort of spectacular natural vista the protagonist would have relished, in glum silence, not wanting to talk to anyone. Days later, I am grateful for the film.

One could lodge a number of legitimate-seeming complaints against Christopher J. McCandless (Emile Hirsch), the hero of the story. If nothing else, he is rather pretentious — it’s not enough that he renounces all his possessions, donates his life savings to charity, and sets off on a life of a penniless traveler (he names himself “Alexander Supertramp”); he has to quote Thoreau and Pasternak while he does it. He resents his parents, though perhaps for good reason, and goes to some lengths to make sure they won’t find him; he loves his sister Carine (Jena Malone) but won’t call her on his adventure to tell her everything is okay. He despises the phony, hollow, materialist trappings of civilization, convinced that truth is found on the open road, or perhaps in the Alaskan wilderness. In his conscious, aggressive rejection of human contact (mostly) and ordinary societal values (entirely), he bears some relation, I think, to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, who also raged against — and held himself above — the “phonies” in his path while dreaming of a purer, more connected existence.

The difference between Christopher, with whom I empathized absolutely, and Holden, whom I’ve disliked since reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school, is simple: McCandless is a good guy. Even aside from his spontaneous acts of charity, which can admittedly be viewed as self-aggrandizing (“This is my life savings; feed someone with it,” he writes on a post-it note, which goes on a cashier’s check, which goes in an envelope addressed to Oxfam), he is nice to people, and, in the best road movie tradition, genuinely connects with those he meets on his journey. Indeed, for someone who wants so desperately to leave the world we know behind and live a life of transient solitude, Christopher has a remarkable capacity for understanding others. His bonds with a lonely widower (Hal Holbrook) and a pair of aging hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) are genuine and deep — he gets them, and we think they might be starting to understand him, too.

For all that, Into the Wild doesn’t glorify McCandless — in fact, the brunt of its force comes from our (and his) realization, in the film’s final minutes, that he has made a tragic, irreversible mistake, and I don’t just mean his misguided wilderness adventure. McCandless may have been foolish to undertake his Alaskan trek without adequate planning — some have pointed out that he could have walked out of his predicament had he a decent map — but the film convincingly argues that his real misstep lay in his conception of happiness and fulfillment. This is conveyed by way of Chris’s written inscription in the margins of a book, which sounds uncinematic, but works well with the feverish, intense tone Penn sets for the movie’s last “chapter.” (The occasional “chapter” titles, which carry names like “Adolescence” and “The Gaining of Wisdom” are the only aspect of the film I found problematic.) The final shots, which continue to chill me to the bone, combine triumph and tragedy in an unforgettable way.

Penn cuts between Chris’s days living in an abandoned bus (the “Magic Bus”) he found in a national park near Fairbanks, Alaska and the hitchhiking road trip that precedes it, tying the two together with Carine’s moving, uncommonly emotional voiceover. The screenplay contains episodes without becoming episodic, if that makes sense — discrete sections of the film are dedicated to Chris’s relationship with the Hal Holbrook character, for example, or his fleeting friendship with a 16 year-old singer-songwriter (Kristen Stewart), but his journey remains intact. It’s an entrancing 140 minutes.

Emile Hirsch is a good actor who was born to play this difficult role. One of the most intensely physical actors I’ve ever seen, with extraordinary control over his body language (contrast to, say, Laura Linney, who acts with her face), he is perfect for the part of a man who finds his bliss in the great outdoors, and he gives a towering, completely unsentimental performance. Portraying this character without hysterics is an achievement on the part of both Hirsch and Penn.

I mentioned that the ending of Into the Wild contains an element of triumph, and it’s true — the film allows for a dose of forgiveness, of sunshine peeking through Alaskan clouds. But though Penn is clearly sympathetic, and works with Hirsch to make Chris McCandless likable despite his arrogant folly, he doesn’t let the guy off the hook. The reason Into the Wild is so troubling, even disturbing, is that notwithstanding the protagonist’s profound goodness, it insists on consequences for his narcissism, his na�vete, his — yes — stupidity. What he learns on his journey, and scribbles in his book shortly before the credits roll, is one of the deepest truths I know (or believe in, anyhow). If only his epiphany had come sooner.


Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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