By Elbert Ventura
Into the Wild
Dir. Sean Penn, U.S., Paramount Vantage
Chris McCandless, the inscrutable subject of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, is a familiar American archetype. Born in the age of abundance, repulsed by middle-class comfort and complacency, the 22-year-old Emory graduate staged a personal revolt. In the summer of 1990, he donated his life savings to Oxfam, left town without telling anyone, and set out on the road. For two years he bummed around the country, making his way north to Alaska, without sending so much a postcard to his parents or his sister. He relied mainly on the kindness of strangers and the plenitude of nature to get by. But if people were giving, nature proved less so. In September 1992, 113 days after he ventured out into the Alaskan wilderness, McCandless was found in an abandoned bus, dead of starvation.
McCandless’s adventure and death became the subject of Jon Krakauer’s 1998 bestseller, “Into the Wild.” Chris’s fate has since become the site of contested meanings, as both devotees and skeptics have tried to appropriate his experience and its import. A spiritual cleansing, an act of rebellion, a spiteful “fuck you,” an adventure taken too far: all of those storylines have been read into Chris’s vagabond years.
The prime achievement of Penn’s movie is that it accommodates those readings and others, even as it evinces its auteur’s admiration for Chris’s romanticism. The perspectives that course through the movie give it a moral suppleness and philosophical sophistication that, one could argue, escaped the protagonist to whom it now gives tribute. Perhaps the best indication of the film’s richness and maturity is that one’s appreciation of it isn’t predicated on whether McCandless is perceived as a holy naif or a callow backpacker.
Released on the fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Into the Wild is of a proud tradition. Like its hero, the movie is uniquely American, and its palpable affection for the landscape—both geographic and cultural—can make your heart swell. Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier (who is, in a word, awesome) see the environment through Chris’s awed eyes, weaving a tapestry of fields, rivers, deserts, and mountains that make tangible Chris’s conviction that the “freedom and simple beauty” of the road are too good to pass up. The soulful landscape shots recall those of Terrence Malick, but even more reminiscent of Penn’s onetime director (on The Thin Red Line) are the transcendentalist perspective and the poetic montage.
The movie opens with scenes from Chris’s first few days in Alaska, a winter wonderland that seems promising ground for what he calls his “greatest adventure.” Played with Method dedication by Emile Hirsch, Chris is immediately engaging—an innocent seeking complete immersion in the vast untamed. From those early scenes of exhilarating freedom Penn cuts to a dim bedroom, where the doomed voyager’s mother wakes from a bad dream, and weeps as her husband tries to comfort her. The juxtaposed scenes hint at the moral quandary at the movie’s core.
Divided into chapters that impose order on Chris’s peripatetic life—a decision that seems in keeping with his propensity to see his adventures through the prism of narrative—Into the Wild takes a nonlinear approach to its preordained destination. Penn cuts back and forth between Chris’s time in the Alaskan wilderness and the two years leading up to it. A voiceover narration uses not only snippets from Chris’s postcards, his journal, novels and poems he loved, but also the words of his sister Carine (Jena Malone), the person to whom Chris was closest. The movie also dramatizes the siblings’ shared trauma in flashbacks—the anxiety of affluence, an unhappy and sometimes violent marriage, the discovery of their father’s previous marriage and children. Throughout it all, Chris remains an opaque presence; the movie circles him, peeks in from different angles, and leaves interpretation to us.
If Chris vehemently rejected his family, he wasn’t above forming new ones, albeit temporarily. On the road he meets Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jana (Catherine Keener), a married hippie couple driving around the country in a brightly painted RV. At a farm in South Dakota he befriends Wayne (Vince Vaughn), who ends up being his last correspondent before his death. A sojourn out west leads to a friendship with Ron (Hal Holbrook), a retired Army vet who lost his wife and child years ago and offers to adopt Chris as a grandson—both a gift and a plea that the single-mindedly itinerant Chris turns down.
It is with Ron that Chris comes closest to telling anyone something resembling his manifesto. “Happiness isn’t found in human relationships,” he tells Ron after the lonely widower tries to talk Chris out of his Alaska trip. “God placed the source of happiness all around us.” The earnest invocation of nature as the well of all meaning is beatifically rendered—a bright desert day, the top of a mountain, a resplendent sun beating down on both men. But when Chris rejects Ron’s request to stay and be his grandson, the flipside of his desire to be free of human bonds is revealed. The heartbreaking shot of Ron’s tear-stained face as Chris walks away without so much a glance back strips off Chris’s façade of idealism and independence and reveals a layer of self-absorption and detachment.
Chris’s myopia comes through even more starkly in his stay with Rainey and Jana. Meeting up with them at Slab City, a community of “rubber tramps” in the California desert, Chris completes their unusual family orbit. Before dinner one night, Jana tells Chris about her own son who ran away two years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Asking the tight-lipped Chris about his own parents, Jana wistfully notes, “Children can be pretty harsh with their parents.” But such a worldly sentiment doesn’t dent the sanctimonious rebel’s impregnable conscience. Oblivious to others’ pain (a quality that he disdains in his father), Chris will flee the nest anew and Jana will lose her son all over again.
Rainey and Jana’s presence also injects welcome balance to a story that occasionally threatens to devolve into a banal critique of American suburbia. Walt and Billie McCandless (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) are caricatures of WASP-y pettiness, fussing about Chris’s car, or his law school prospects, or his lateness to dinner. At first the contrast between the uptight McCandlesses and the laidback hippies seems almost too convenient, the reproach of the American bourgeoisie too jejune. But Jana’s story deepens both her and the movie; despair and dysfunction, the movie recognizes, reside in all kinds of households, not just privileged ones. It’s not for nothing that Tolstoy is a touchstone for both Chris and the movie—his dictum that “every happy family is happy in the same way; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” remains unspoken but hangs over the movie.
It is a measure of Penn’s intelligence and moral imagination that he can swallow Chris’s idealism whole without canonizing him as a faultless mystic. Enamored as it is with Chris’s worldview, Into the Wild does not shrink from its consequences. Penn recognizes the thin line between Emersonian self-reliance and community-killing solipsism. For someone who seemed so politically engaged in his college career—classes on the plight of the Third World and the depredations of the First dotted his transcript—Chris’s abandonment of society smacks of moral abdication. It is the tragedy of post-1960s liberalism writ small, the mistaking of narcissistic self-actualization for political progressivism. By the time he realizes his mistake, it is too late. “Happiness only real when shared,” he scribbles in one of his paperbacks shortly before his death.
Overlong and at times overheated, Into the Wild has its ragged patches (a segment on Skid Row and a protracted death scene are particularly mishandled). But its missteps are of a piece with its outsized ambition. A heartfelt tribute to an underseen America—not just the landscapes but the eccentric people who roam it—Into the Wild emerges as both an apt memorial to its hero and a graceful rebuke of his extremism. In its curiosity about people, families, and communities, it affirms the unassailable truth of Chris’s final epiphany, which Penn has the grace and decency to allow him before his untimely passing.