Two diametrically opposed schools of thought have emerged regarding Christopher McCandless, the young Emory grad who donated his life savings to Oxfam International, broke off all contact with his family and spent two years as a wandering nomad, eventually starving to death alone in an abandoned bus outside Alaska’s Denali National Park. Admirers consider him a principled, deeply Romantic (in the Wordsworth sense) adventurer who followed his bliss and gave a well-deserved finger to bourgeois, capitalist strictures. Detractors, on the other hand, see only a spoiled, selfish fool who abandoned his loved ones—including the sister he doted on—and who died because he was too arrogant and/or stupid to even procure a map of the region he intended to make his personal Walden. Jon Krakauer, whose book Into the Wild brought McCandless to national attention, clearly belongs (with some minor reservations) to the young man’s fan club; so too does Sean Penn, who’s adapted Krakauer’s account into a new film starring Emile Hirsch. I should tell you right up front that I’m in the whatta-maroon camp, but it’s a testament to Penn’s achievement that I enjoyed the movie anyway, carpe diem and all.
In part, that’s because McCandless—or Alexander Supertramp, as he soon begins to call himself, with what can only be termed delusions of squalor—spends relatively little time alone. Penn opens Into the Wild with Chris’ trek into the Alaskan wilderness, holding a magnificent shot in which the pickup truck that’s just dropped him off occupies one small corner of a frame that’s otherwise an immense frozen white sea. After a quick flashback to his college graduation, meant primarily to show us the horrors he’s running from—overbearing dad (William Hurt), stifling mom (Marcia Gay Harden)—the film alternates between his final, fatal weeks in Alaska and the various pit stops he made during the nearly two years it took him to get there.
However insufferable one may find—okay, I may find—Chris/Alex’s general attitude, it’s impossible not to be charmed by the open, welcoming relationships he forms with practically everyone he encounters, from a married hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) to a jovial wheat farmer (Vince Vaughn) to a lonely, elderly widower (Hal Holbrook). The film isn’t so much a character study as it is a genial portrait of self-marginalized America as seen through the eyes of its newest and most eager member.
I never saw Penn’s first two films as a director, The Indian Runner (1991) and The Crossing Guard (1995), both of which looked from a distance like overwrought exercises in actorly anguish. The Pledge (2001), however, was a marvel of doomy atmosphere, and while Into the Wild could hardly be less similar tonally, it confirms Penn’s considerable gift for visual storytelling, In particular, he knows his way around a montage sequence, finding a different compelling rhythm and tempo for each leg in McCandless’ journey. Less effective are his experiments with onscreen text—phrases from letters and postcards Chris sent appear onscreen in giant yellow hand-printing, to no particular end—and his use of voice-over narration by Chris’ sister Carine, played here by Jena Malone. The latter seems expressly designed to exculpate Chris from charges of insensitivity and cruelty toward his family—hardly surprising, since the family had to sign off on the movie rights and hence had to be mollified.
In the end, I would have preferred a film that took a sharper, more critical stance toward its protagonist, who spends way too much screen time standing atop some gorgeous vista with arms outstretched toward the sky in that clichéd I-embrace-life pose. And while Penn shows the starving McCandless’ failed attempt to cross an impassable river (which had been frozen over when he first arrived), he doesn’t mention, as Krakauer does, that both a tram and a cache of emergency supplies were within easy walking distance, had Chris only bothered to learn of their existence. Even the death scene is treated as something akin to rapture. But the more you gaze at the splendor of the landscape, and get to know the eccentric folks who inhabit it, the more you’re inclined to forgive a little romanticization.
Into the Wild
Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook
Directed by Sean Penn