Into the Wild

October, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Sean Penn

Starring:Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook, and Kristen Stewart

Was the short life of Chris McCandless tragic, (author Jon Krakauer surely thought so) or an all-too-familiar saga of youthful exuberance and hubris made luridly interesting by its particularly grim demise? Your answer to that question will determine your reaction to this filmed version of Krakauer’s biography of the same name. Hollywood iconoclast Sean Penn optioned the book shortly after it was published, then wrote and directed this examination of a bright but troubled upper-middle class Jack Kerouac wannabe, who went straight from graduation at Emory University to life as an itinerant wanderer, drifting across the U.S. from the corn fields of the Midwest to the arid desert bordering Southern California’s Salton Sea before achieving his declared goal of living “free” and totally on his own in the wilds of Alaska. There his lack of survival skills and common sense caught up with him; at age 24, alone and bereft of adequate supplies, he starved to death in an abandoned bus that had become his makeshift home. Given the harrowing circumstances of this promising young man’s fatal collapse, it’s to Penn’s credit that his film manages to be surprisingly upbeat.

That happy circumstance can largely be attributed to the director’s inspired choice of cameraman and score; working with Eric Gautier, the award-winning cinematographer of Motorcycle Diaries, Penn and his crew provide audiences with a panoramic tour of America’s contemporary wide open spaces, accompanied by a sound track of Eddie Vader songs that would make Pete Seeger proud. Emile Hirsch, a 22 year-old actor emerging from a decade of television and bit movie parts into full fledged leading man status, plays McCandless with a mixture of vulnerability and guilelessness that nearly compensates for the often pretentious dialogue Penn puts in his mouth; (i.e.”Rather than love, money, faith, fame or fairness, give me truth.” “The core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences.” “Some people feel like they don’t deserve love. They walk away quietly into empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past.”)

In Penn’s view, McCandless’ odyssey sprang from a desire to completely separate himself from a family life the director paints as disastrous. Chris and younger sister Carnie, (Jena Malone) were terrorized by their constantly warring parents, (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) who tried to mold their son into a younger version of themselves. As narrated by Carnie in an annoyingly unctuous voiceover, Chris rejects the offer of a new car as graduation present, slips out of school immediately thereafter, shedding his bank account and all his earthly possessions save for those he can carry in his backpack. When a flash flood buries his beat-up car axle deep in mud, he abandons it and continues his peripatetic existence, harvesting corn atop a mechanical behemoth in South Dakota, illegally kayaking down the Colorado River and violating local health regulations by flipping burgers in fast food restaurants without benefit of socks. Along the way, he meets, befriends and then abandons a menagerie of Americans who share a common desire to remain off society’s grid; an assortment of drifters, ex-cons, aging hippies and military burn-outs who treat this wandering poet/philosopher with the kind of speechless awe usually reserved for a prophet, which is exactly how Penn views his subject. 

Among the marginalized folks McCandless encounters, two try to gain in loco parentis status; with quiet, knowing dignity, Catherine Keener plays a middle-aged flower child grieving over her own runaway son, seeing in Chris the young man she’d like to think her own flesh and blood has become. Hal Holbrook’s wistful retiree, a widower who slipped into dipsomania after the death of his wife and son in an auto accident, tries to prevent Chris’ departure for Alaska by literally adopting him. Both performances hint at the results Penn may be capable of delivering when he’s had even more time behind the camera than in front of it.

But it’s Gautier’s cinematography that really captures the sense of limitless possibility the writer/director’s after. Whether it’s the terrifying claustrophobia of a flash flood in an Arizona dry wash, the haze kicked into a cobalt blue sky in South Dakota at harvest time, the arid beauty of California’s Colorado River Basin, the sculptured walls of The Grand Canyon or the endless, perpetually snow-capped mountains of Alaska, it’s hard to sit in the theater and not hum Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” as Chris exuberantly wanders off to his untimely death. 

Penn makes much of McCandless’ estrangement from his family, excusing the young man’s decision to cut himself off from any contact with them; even his beloved younger sister is pictured as content to accept his rejection of her along with their parents as the price to be paid for discovering, in his death, the meaning of Chris’ life. If Penn’s take on this intelligent but hopelessly romantic young man strikes you as too precious, just sit back and enjoy the visual presentation of a life richly, if not wisely, lived.        

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