Into the Wild takes a well-known story that was turned into a best-selling book and finds something new to bring to it. This is not just an adaptation of the book or a dramatic recreation of the real event. Instead, writer/director Sean Penn finds the psychological truth behind the story and cinematically makes us experience it for ourselves. Somehow, I didn’t feel like I was sitting in a theater watching a movie; Into the Wild is, in some ways, like virtual reality in that it surrounds you with enough authentic details that you walk away feeling as though you’ve just returned from somewhere else.
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer, this is the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a 22-year old college graduate who rejects the materialistic lifestyle of his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden). Armed with an abundance of idealism and the inspiration of writers like Henry David Thoreau, he donates his $24,000 savings to charity, leaves his family home, and decides to live “off the grid.” Chris adopts the name “Alexander Supertramp” and begins a nearly two-year walkabout that ends deep in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. Since this story is so well known, I assume it’s not a spoiler to mention that Chris eventually died, alone in the middle of nowhere, after eating some unsafe berries that messed up his insides and caused him to starve to death.
Some of you may be thinking, too depressing, not for me. That would be an unfortunate thought. Into the Wild is not a two-and-a-half hour movie about a young man dying in the wilderness. Instead, it’s quite the opposite – an affirmation of the joy that comes from following one’s heart and living a life that feels right to you.
The movie’s time frame jumps around, but most frequently we see McCandless meeting up with different people, all of whom teach him something or affect him in some way. There is a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) who share his rejection of materialism, a wheat farmer (Vince Vaughn) who shares his rejection of authority, and an aspiring young musician (Kristen Stewart) who shares his passion for roaming. In the most touching section, Chris meets an elderly retiree (Hal Holbrook, in a performance I predict will snag him an Oscar) who becomes a surrogate father figure.
A lot of the film is narrated by Carine McCandless (Jena Malone), Chris’s sister, who understands why her brother never again contacts their parents but doesn’t understand why he ignores her. Flashbacks show us some of the tension in the home and explain how Chris came to view his father (in particular) as a hypocrite. These moments are powerful without ever veering into melodrama, and they go a long way in depicting what Chris was running from.
Less frequently, but just as potently, we see this young man’s final days. Perched in the middle of the wilderness, he finds a dilapidated old bus, which he dubs the “magic bus.” It becomes his home and also his final resting place.
Into the Wild shows both the good and the bad of what happened to this kid. There are long stretches of the film that contain little dialogue and which show Chris in communication with nature. He canoes down a river, hunts for food, learns which berries and leaves are safe to eat, and so on. During these segments, we feel the character come alive. Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) conveys the joy Chris McCandless surely felt, far away from telephones and automobiles and designer clothes. He is (and was) a person in love with the outdoors. It’s the only place where he finds the kind of serenity that he needs.
On his way to Alaska (his ultimate destination), Chris travels through South Dakota, Colorado, California, and even Mexico. He works minimum wage jobs when he has to, then buys enough supplies to continue his journey. Sean Penn has filmed and/or edited each segment of the movie in a different style to reflect the fact that Chris is ending up in all these different places. This technique makes you feel as though you are taking the journey with him. Each new area feels as unique to us as it does to him.
Here’s perhaps the highest praise I can convey upon Into the Wild: It would have been easy for the film to condescend to Chris McCandless or make him look like a kook, but Penn never allows that to happen. He takes this young man’s life seriously. Even though you and I might never do what McCandless did, the movie makes you understand why he did it. And, just as importantly, we understand why this decision was right for him. I was left with the impression that, had he not died, Chris would have been perfectly happy to continue living in that bus, far removed from society.
As a filmmaker, Sean Penn has shown a kind of muted promise. I liked one of his earlier films, The Pledge, but it wasn’t the kind of picture that rocked your world. In fact, I remember little of it now. With Into the Wild, he has a triumphant breakthrough, making a movie that burrows into your subconscious and won’t leave. In some ways, I think Penn may be the only person who could have adapted this story for the screen. I’ve always had the sense that Penn was somewhat restless himself. In interviews, it often feels like he shares Chris McCandless’s suspicion of authority figures and desire to have new experiences in new places. That identification with his subject allows Penn to capture the range of emotions involved in Chris’s journey: the excitement, the fear, the danger, the contentment, the loneliness, the isolation, and the almost religious connection with the beauty of the world.
This is a great, great film. What happened to Chris McCandless is well known, but I won’t spoil the movie’s final minutes for you. What counts is that Chris learns something in his last days. For whatever else happens to him, he has a moment of clarity and awakening. It’s what he went into the wild for in the first place. That he never made his way back out is, of course, tragic, but there’s something oddly reaffirming about the idea that he perhaps found exactly what he was looking for out there.
( out of four)
Into the Wild is rated R for language and some nudity. The running time is 2 hour and 20 minutes.
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