- Sean Penn
- Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt
- 140 min.
- Release Date
Knowing from the outset that Into the Wild’s existential, tragic hero Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) reaches his ultimate Alaskan destination instills in us an ever-present sense of foreboding. Since the bulk of the movie depicts his trip there and the cache of personalities he meets along the way, all of whom worry for his wellbeing, Chris’ eventual arrival seems like a victory solely for himself. Based on the acclaimed novel by John Krakauer, Into the Wild grew from the writer’s article published in Outside magazine entitled “Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds”. Sean Penn adapted and directed the screenplay, telling the true story of McCandless’ rejection of “society” as he searches for a more pure way of life, away from injustice and cruelty and civilization (whatever form they may take).
After graduating from college, the idealistic McCandless donates his $24,000 life savings/law school nest-egg to OXFAM—the organization dedicated to ending famine and poverty around the world. Ditching his car, Chris sets out on the road, hitchhiking with a purpose and yet with no purpose at all. Guided by Jack London novels and survival guides, Chris’ naïve desire to escape is vindicating, even inspiring. He even creates a new name: Alexander Supertramp, placing himself onto a modern hero pedestal. He rebels against his obtuse parents, who are played by William Hurt and Marica Gay Harden (and are perfectly cast in their roles as out-of-touch narcissists). Chris leaves all that behind for the road, a devout symbol reminding him to remain mobile, which in turn allows him to never question his own actions. He finds brief comforts in friends along the way. Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, respectively) are two aged hippies that see Chris as destined for death. These are not outspoken concerns, but we see them in Jan’s eyes when she acts like a resistant, short-lived surrogate mother to him. Or there’s the elderly Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), who reminds Chris with his old age and wasted life why the getaway to Alaska is so important. Meanwhile, everyone but Chris himself knows he isn’t coming back.
Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder wrote original songs for the film, accompanied by moody, ethereal music by Michael Brook and Kaki King. Vedder’s songs are simple ballads, sung with his earthy voice, that flow with the film as they should. We see a troubled boy, lost and alone. His sister Carine (Jena Malone) narrates on what she suspects were his motivations, primarily that his parents purported lies and built their family on falsehoods. She feels abandoned, but understanding of his quest—to her Chris’ actions are both catastrophic and necessary. Chris remains angry, always running and desperate to escape something. Getting away from lies and the order that represents them, Chris relies solely on his own sense of survival and on what Nature provides, perhaps not realizing that Nature is just as cruel as humanity. Nature, however, remains innocent, despite its unrelenting brutality, whereas humanity is anything but.
Shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries), Penn’s film is beautifully realized, with full attention to the nature and road that Chris so loves and respects. Penn is a director that finds beauty in terrible things; his picture The Pledge was one of the most haunting, yet attractive movies of 2001. Playing like a dramatized episode of Planet Earth, Chris’ journey places him among deer and on rough rapids and atop high mountains. We understand his desire to see these things, to live, as opposed to enduring what he believes is a decisive preparation for death: a normal life. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s frightening documentary about a man so misplaced in the world, he can only feel at home when alone with Alaskan grizzly bears. His demise is just as tragic and yet self-effaced as Chris’. The destinies and disenchantment of both men lead to their deaths, perhaps the result of realizing what made them happy.
The only absolute statement I can make about Chris is that I respect his determination, although his reasons may have been skewed. I sympathized more with Vince Vaughn’s character Wayne, a farmer Chris meets on his trek, who gives Chris the best advice he can get: to live his life and not think so much. Perhaps when people think too much, they go mad, as it’s what I suspect happened to the real Christopher McCandless. Surely there was an attraction to this story for Penn, whose own Hollywood persona placed him on the outskirts, giving way for him to claim his own industry-wide independence and respect. I’m secure in believing that the once hostile and rebellious Penn saw pieces of himself in Krakauer’s 224-page non-fiction account of McCandless’ journey. Whether Chris found himself I cannot say, and I don’t believe we can ever really know. So perhaps this is a cautionary tale, a spiritual warning for those who might try to find themselves, to really live. It’s a treacherous world, but escaping from it can be even more dangerous.