By Elbert Ventura
Into the Wild
Dir. Sean Penn, U.S., Paramount Vantage
Chris McCandless, the inscrutable subject of Sean Pennâ€™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.
McCandlessâ€™s adventure and death became the subject of Jon Krakauerâ€™s 1998 bestseller, â€śInto the Wild.â€ť Chrisâ€™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 â€śfuck you,â€ť an adventure taken too far: all of those storylines have been read into Chrisâ€™s vagabond years.
The prime achievement of Pennâ€™s movie is that it accommodates those readings and others, even as it evinces its auteurâ€™s admiration for Chrisâ€™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 filmâ€™s richness and maturity is that oneâ€™s appreciation of it isnâ€™t predicated on whether McCandless is perceived as a holy naif or a callow backpacker.
Released on the fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouacâ€™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 landscapeâ€”both geographic and culturalâ€”can make your heart swell. Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier (who is, in a word, awesome) see the environment through Chrisâ€™s awed eyes, weaving a tapestry of fields, rivers, deserts, and mountains that make tangible Chrisâ€™s conviction that the â€śfreedom and simple beautyâ€ť of the road are too good to pass up. The soulful landscape shots recall those of Terrence Malick, but even more reminiscent of Pennâ€™s onetime director (on The Thin Red Line) are the transcendentalist perspective and the poetic montage.
The movie opens with scenes from Chrisâ€™s first few days in Alaska, a winter wonderland that seems promising ground for what he calls his â€śgreatest adventure.â€ť Played with Method dedication by Emile Hirsch, Chris is immediately engagingâ€”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 voyagerâ€™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 movieâ€™s core.
Divided into chapters that impose order on Chrisâ€™s peripatetic lifeâ€”a decision that seems in keeping with his propensity to see his adventures through the prism of narrativeâ€”Into the Wild takes a nonlinear approach to its preordained destination. Penn cuts back and forth between Chrisâ€™s time in the Alaskan wilderness and the two years leading up to it. A voiceover narration uses not only snippets from Chrisâ€™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 siblingsâ€™ shared trauma in flashbacksâ€”the anxiety of affluence, an unhappy and sometimes violent marriage, the discovery of their fatherâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 grandsonâ€”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. â€śHappiness isnâ€™t found in human relationships,â€ť he tells Ron after the lonely widower tries to talk Chris out of his Alaska trip. â€śGod placed the source of happiness all around us.â€ť The earnest invocation of nature as the well of all meaning is beatifically renderedâ€”a bright desert day, the top of a mountain, a resplendent sun beating down on both men. But when Chris rejects Ronâ€™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 Ronâ€™s tear-stained face as Chris walks away without so much a glance back strips off Chrisâ€™s faĂ§ade of idealism and independence and reveals a layer of self-absorption and detachment.
Chrisâ€™s myopia comes through even more starkly in his stay with Rainey and Jana. Meeting up with them at Slab City, a community of â€śrubber trampsâ€ť 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 hasnâ€™t been heard from since. Asking the tight-lipped Chris about his own parents, Jana wistfully notes, â€śChildren can be pretty harsh with their parents.â€ť But such a worldly sentiment doesnâ€™t dent the sanctimonious rebelâ€™s impregnable conscience. Oblivious to othersâ€™ 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 Janaâ€™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 Chrisâ€™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 Janaâ€™s story deepens both her and the movie; despair and dysfunction, the movie recognizes, reside in all kinds of households, not just privileged ones. Itâ€™s not for nothing that Tolstoy is a touchstone for both Chris and the movieâ€”his dictum that â€śevery happy family is happy in the same way; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own wayâ€ť remains unspoken but hangs over the movie.
It is a measure of Pennâ€™s intelligence and moral imagination that he can swallow Chrisâ€™s idealism whole without canonizing him as a faultless mystic. Enamored as it is with Chrisâ€™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 careerâ€”classes on the plight of the Third World and the depredations of the First dotted his transcriptâ€”Chrisâ€™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. â€śHappiness only real when shared,â€ť 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 Americaâ€”not just the landscapes but the eccentric people who roam itâ€”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 Chrisâ€™s final epiphany, which Penn has the grace and decency to allow him before his untimely passing.