Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) walks away
from the world and Into the Wild (2007)
Based upon the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild tells the true story of Christopher McCandless who, after graduating from Emory University in 1990, donated his life savings to Oxfam International and then set off on a two year odyssey, hitchhiking throughout the United States on his way to Alaska to live alone in nature. To anyone who is content to simply make it through life without getting their feet wet, McCandless will probably come across as a fool. However, to anyone who hopes that there is a deeper truth to life than simple materialism, McCandless might be some kind of an inspirational mad genius. Your take on this matter will go a long way to deciding your reaction to this, the latest directorial effort from Sean Penn.
Personally, I’m torn. I was conflicted throughout the movie and continue to be. At their core, McCandless’ actions are born of equal measures foolishness and selfishness. He’s foolish because he doesn’t have the kind of survivor skills a person would need to live off the land. He doesn’t even have a topographic map of the area. All he has are his wits, a reverence for Thoreau and some gear he’s managed to collect along the way including a handbook of edible plants and wildlife. It’s one thing to live without a safety net in the relative comfort of civilization, but it’s another to do the same in the wild where a simple mistake can equal death.
McCandless is also selfish because he leaves his parents and sister without even telling them what he is setting off to do. They don’t know he’s missing until they turn up for a visit one day only to find that he’d moved out of his apartment two months before. Revelations about the family make Chris’ treatment of his parents potentially justifiable, but what about the sister he claims to love and what about all the people he meets and abandons along the way?
While I’m ambivalent about this character, it’s hard not to admire, and to be inspired by, a young man who is trying to confront the bigger questions of life head on in a way that seemingly only a young person can do. He’s on a journey, literally and figuratively, and you can’t travel from one place to another without leaving something or someone behind. The question becomes what does he lose in an effort to find himself and what does he find?
Though it’s clear Penn looks on McCandless as a hero, he doesn’t try to make him a saint. He doesn’t shy away from the folly and heartbreak of his adventure. The film opens with McCandless’ mother (Marsha Gay Harden) waking from a nightmare, convinced something horrible has happened to her son. It’s a trauma perhaps that only a parent could understand and it’s a point driven home later in the film when McCandless meets up with Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as two hippies wandering California in a battered RV. Keener and Dierker obviously embrace the freedom of the road, but Keener is also a mother who lost a son and at one point practically begs Chris to contact his parents and tell them he’s ok. Penn is fully aware of the sacrifices McCandless is making and the impact his actions have on those around him. He never says McCandless is completely justified, but leaves it up to the viewer.
If there is a flaw in Penn’s style, it’s a certain lack of subtlety. He’s a little too anxious at times to ram home what it is McCandless is running from and what his thought process is. There is a scene in Hollywood where McCandless sees some young and upwardly mobile types drinking and shmoozing at a bar and he imagines himself as one of them. It’s especially heavy handed and regrettable, though it wasn’t enough to sink the movie.
Fans of Eddie Vedder will be thrilled with the soundtrack to Into the Wild. The soulful and somewhat sad singing is the perfect compliment to this thoughtful, contemplative film.
Emile Hirsch does a great job as McCandless. It’s a tough role because it’s a difficult character to embrace, but Hirsch allows him to be an idealist and somewhat naive without usually stooping to arrogance, or pretension.
The supporting cast is terrific as well. Kristin Stewart as the girl who falls in love with McCandless, Vince Vaughn as a farmer who provides him with temporary work, Jena Malone as his sister plus William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his parents all leave you wishing they had more screen time.
The best scenes however were the ones with Catherine Keener. It’s another slightly off-the-wall character, but this one is shaded much differently. It seems deeper somehow; richer and more real. Equally good are scenes with Hal Holbrook, an elderly man McCandless meets just before finally making his way into Alaska. Holbrook’s character is retired both literally and figuratively. He’s a man who has been dealt enough blows in life that he’s in retreat, biding his time until the end. Something about the fire in McCandless inspires him however, and though their parting is a sad one, you feel that these two men have each impacted the other in positive ways. With Holbrook, you begin to realize that McCandless’ journey has a larger meaning. It’s an inspiration to other people as well; not just the many people he meets along his way, but also all the people who would encounter his story after the fact.
Even several days later, I’m not quite sure what to make of Mr. McCandless, but he’s a reminder that I wish I had a little more of his spirit inside of me. Some people are the kind that don’t do anything in half measures. It’s all or nothing for them, for better or for worse. Most of the rest of us are more cautious, however. We wouldn’t think of abandoning everything we know to go live alone in the wild, but maybe it’s up to the geniuses and madmen of the world to make that sacrifice for us so we can learn from them and remind ourselves that, though life is short, it’s infinitely better when lived rather than merely endured.
Into the Wild. USA 2007. Directed by Sean Penn. Screenplay by Sean Penn from a book by Jon Krakauer. Cinematography by Éric Gautier. Music composed by Michael Brook, Kaki King and Eddie Vedder. Edited by Jay Cassidy. Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart and Hal Holbrook. 2 hours 27 minutes. Rated R for language and some nudity. 3 1/2 stars out of 5.