September 2022

Into the Wild (2007)


CAST: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook


The life of Christopher McCandless provokes some of the same emotions as that of Timothy Treadwell, chronicled in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, both romantic, naive—some would say foolish—idealists who died as they lived, in the wilderness, and who depending on who you ask are either admirable figures or recklessly committing inadvertent suicide (or a little of both).  Adapting from Jon Krakauer’s book, itself a combination of first-hand written fragments from McCandless’ own diary and a compilation of second-hand accounts from those whose lives he drifted in and out of along the way, actor-director Sean Penn in his fourth outing behind the camera has brought McCandless’ story to the screen in docudrama fashion interweaving two genres: the road trip, and man versus nature.

We start out in the “present” in fall of 1992, with Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) already making his way into the remote Alaskan wilderness and happening across a derelict bus in the middle of nowhere which he dubs “the magic bus” and makes his base of operations.  With this as the jumping off point, and periodically returning to it along the way, Penn jumps back through a non-linear film structure to sketch out how he got to this point.  Years earlier, Chris is a newly minted graduate of Emory University and has a shot at Harvard, but driven by a combination of resentment of his dysfunctional parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), a rejection of materialistic society, and a romanticization of living off the land, he abruptly donates all of his money to charity, chops up his credit cards, burns his ID, and without a word to his parents or sister (Jena Malone) strikes out hitchhiking across the country under the alias “Alexander Supertramp” intending to ultimately travel to Alaska.  Along the way—which takes him to, among other places, Mexico, Arizona, and Los Angeles—he meets an assortment of characters and situations, including a middle-aged hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a pair of Danish tourists (Thure Lindhardt and Signe Egholm Olsen), brief employment with a grain harvester (Vince Vaughn) who gets arrested for his illegal side businesses, a gypsy camp where his path crosses with the hippies again and he has a fleeting would-be romance with a teenage singer (Kristen Stewart), and finally striking up a friendship with a lonely old man (Hal Holbrook).

Into the Wild acknowledges both Chris’ romantic view of his escapades and the running narration of his sister as a reminder of how his disappearance and lack of communication is hurting his family, for which he seems to have little concern.  Chris is a romantic idealist, brimming with notions of living off the land and communing with the purity of nature and rejecting the corruption of materialistic society; he reads Thoreau and Jack London, frequently quotes poetry, and pontificates pretentiously.  Chris’ adventure is both brave and foolhardy, doubtlessly found romantic and admirable by some but also a cautionary tale.  By the time Chris realizes his final life lesson, that true happiness is only possible when it is shared with others, it comes too late.

In this kind of road trip, the journey is often more important than the destination, and that’s the case here—although there’s a certain grim inevitability hanging over the proceedings, especially as things go downhill later on.  The narrative is primarily a series of vignettes, episodes with an alternating cast of supporting characters, as Chris meets a variety of people, good, bad, and indifferent.  The movie makes a couple pointed comments about modern society where materialism and the rat race have become so all-important that the true meaning of living is lost, but also Chris’ “go it alone” philosophy is ultimately repudiated.  Along the way, Penn captures various striking picturesque images of the varied locales Chris’ odyssey takes him through; Into the Wild could serve as part travelogue, though apart from a brief stop in Los Angeles, Chris avoids mainstream society and cavorts with the fringes, the hippies and gypsy camps.

There are times when Into the Wild is as pretentious as its central character.  Jena Malone’s running narration waxes philosophical with lines like “material things cut Chris off from the truth of his existence” that get tiresome when incessantly solemnly intoned over the course of the 150 minute runtime.  The sluggish pacing, non-linear narrative structure, and episodic nature also conspire to make Into the Wild a commitment of time and attention.

In the lead role, Emile Hirsch’s low profile helps us see him as a blank slate with no baggage or preconceptions and see him simply as Chris McCandless, to an effect that might not have been found with a bigger “name” (Penn had first considered Leonardo DiCaprio before deciding on Hirsch).  Also, his striking resemblance to McCandless, exhibited in the uncanny recreation of his last photograph, doesn’t hurt anything.  Toward the end, as McCandless reaches his inevitable downward spiral, Hirsch also drops forty pounds to become painfully emaciated.  There’s various recognizable faces scattered around in the supporting cast, including Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Stewart, and Hal Holbrook, but apart from Hirsch no one gets much screentime.  Other actors come and go, but Hirsch is the only constant, and only Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker pop up in two separate episodes.  Of his assorted acquaintances, the most memorable is Hal Holbrook, whose moving portrayal of the lonely elderly man who offers to “adopt” Chris is probably one of the most limited roles, screentime-wise, to receive an Oscar nomination.

Into the World is not perfect—chief among its flaws is that it too often indulges in the same pretentious pontificating as the lead character—but it serves effectively as both a road trip and a man versus nature docudrama, as well as a statement about the human condition.  It can be hard to settle one’s feelings about Chris McCandless, but Penn seems to view his tale as both inspiring and cautionary, and in the end that seems as worthy a summation as any.

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