Millions of people use their vacation time to go camping every year. Outdoors recreation is almost a national pastime, one I’ve never understood. The comedian Alonzo Bodden pretty well summed up my opinion of the activity when he said “Why the hell would I work hard all year to go out and pretend I’m homeless?” Interestingly though, Sean Penn’s new movie Into the Wild, manages to make me completely understand why someone with the exact opposite view of outdoors recreation went on a journey I would have thought insane.
Based on the Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction account of the same name, Into the Wild documents the journeys of Christopher McCandless AKA Alex SuperTramp (Emile Hirsch). McCandless, a rebellious and slightly bitter youth, set out on a cross country adventure in the mid-90s that ultimately lead him to the Alaskan wilderness. McCandless came from a troubled, yet privileged, home. Before his trip McCandless had graduated from Emory University with twenty thousand dollars in the bank and a promising law career in his future. McCandless however had developed a strong negative view of society as materialistic and shallow. Inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Jack London, McCandless ventured out through the back roads of America.
Penn’s Into the Wild is in many ways an episodic journey, the bulk of the movie shows McCandless Odyssey which brought him to places like Carthage, South Dakota and Slab City, California. McCandless would hitchhike across the country and go on adventures like an unlicensed kayak trip through the Grand Canyon into Mexico. Along the way he met all sorts of kooky people who helped him like a Jan and Rainey Burns (and Catherine Keener Brian Dieker), relics of the Hippie era who see a lot of themselves in Alex Supertramp. He also runs across a farmhand/conspiracy theorist named Wayne (Vince Vaughn), and an old man named Ron (Hal Holbrook) who possibly wishes he had spent his life adventuring as McCandless has.
All the people he meets try to impart some advice to him and perhaps would have convinced him to return to a life of normalcy, but they, like the audience, are eventually won over by McCandless’ persistence of vision, his striving for a pure life along the lines of Thoreau. This striving and persistence of vision unfortunately is also McCandless’ tragic flaw. Had McCandless’ stuck to a Jack Kerouac style road adventure he may have moved on in life and, like the young Che Guevara of 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, gone on to greatness. Unfortunately McCandless was too successful in his journeys, too well supported and too over-confident, he eventually found himself in the Alaskan wilderness and over his head.
The film is not all about McCandless’ pre-Alaska journeys, the film jumps between those journeys and his climactic stay in Alaska. The film uses the voiceover of McCandless’ sister Carine (Jena Malone) who gives insights into the childhood that influenced McCandless’ while also exploring the dark side of his journey. These segments show the trauma McCandless did to his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) by running off without telling them his plans or so much as calling them.
Into the Wild is one of the best character studies I’ve seen in quite a while. Many will not like McCandless as a person and the movie doesn’t demand you to. This is a complex person that would be hard to understand for someone like me who doesn’t like to go outside to so much as water my lawn. On paper the guy seems like a complete dipshit, yet this movie makes me wish I had such experiences. You have no idea what kind of talent it takes to make me want to be someone like this.
The story here may remind many of the 2005 Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man. This is an understandable as both films feature passionate, idealistic, young men in the Alaskan wilderness heading for disaster. However, there are major differences between Chris McCandless and Timothy Treadwell. While Treadwell had a similar passion and held a similar distain for modern society, he also suffered from delusions of grandeur and ultimately seemed borderline insane. McCandless had no such delusions, he was more of an adventurer than a naturalist. McCandless saw the Alaskan wilderness more as a challenge than as a home and he had no intention of staying there.
While Treadwell descend into misanthropic anger, McCandless’ anger was aim squarely at society rather than those who live in it. McCandless maintained a definite respect for those he met along the way, he was not trying to escape from people but from institutions. It is a mistake to view McCandless strictly as a rebel; he’s more of a tourist than an iconoclast. McCandless truly enjoyed the way he was living. There are shades of Quixote in McCandless, he may seems insane to some, but he’s just living the way he wants to live.
I haven’t had the privilege of seeing any of the other movies Emile Hirsh has acted in, so this was the first time I’ve seen him act. As this movie centers squarely around a single character it is important that he be played by just the right actor. Hirsh definitely delivers here and Penn was wise to cast someone like Hirsh who was experienced but also a little off the radar of the average cinema attendee. Hirsh is not chewing scenery or showing off here, he giving simple naturalistic acting, it’s the type of invisible acting many might not notice. If anything Hirsh should be congratulated for pulling off some of McCandless’ more pretentious character traits and keeping them from hurting the perceptions people have of him. The rest of the cast is great too, especially William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden who, along with a smart script, keep McCandless’ parents from seeming like stereotypes.
The real star here however is Sean Penn as a director. Penn is of course an Oscar winning actor known for his roles in everything from Mystic River to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I had missed Penn’s prior outings as a director, and was shocked at just how talented he was behind the camera. This is clearly a labor of love for Penn, and there is an obvious respect for the source material. Penn quotes directly from Krakaur’s non-fiction book; going so far as to divide the movie into chapter titles and putting handwritten diary entries onto the screen John Madden style. These non-digetic elements give the story a well needed reminder of its authenticity, as this is most definitely one of those stories you wouldn’t believe if it wasn’t all true.
The scenery here is breathtaking; from the tundra of Alaska to the rapids of the Colorado River, to the deserts of California and the beaches of the Pacific Northwest, McCandless manages to see so many beautiful things. The film doesn’t use or need showy cinematography; it simply films beautiful images and lets nature impress you. The viewer completely understands why McCandless continues on his trek despite some less than pleasant setbacks.
These wonderful images are accompanied by a perfect soundtrack featuring original music by Eddie Vedder, the famous lead singer of the Seattle grunge band Pearl Jam. This solo work by Vedder does not sound like the heavy rock of the band he’s famous for, which I love incidentally. Rather, Vedder delivers a number of folksy down to earth tunes. I don’t know if this music would stand up when listened to on an album, but it fits perfectly within the movie. I would be very surprised if one of these songs didn’t end up with an Oscar nomination.
I had no idea Sean Penn would emerge as such a good filmmaker. It’s likely that author and co-screenwriter Jon Krakaur deserves a large part of the credit as well. This is a wonderful film that inspires and touches the viewer at the same time. It is a character study on one level, an adventure story on another level and ultimately a tragedy by the end. It is a great true story told in perfect cinematic language. I certainly hope Penn doesn’t give up acting, as he’s one of our best thespians, but with Into the Wild as evidence I can safely say I want to see anything Penn decides to do as a filmmaker after this.
**** out of four