Into the Wild

| October 1, 2007

At a critical emotional juncture of Into the Wild, directed and adapted by Sean Penn from Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book of the same name, Christopher McCandless, a.k.a Alexander Supertramp (Emile Hirsch), defends his actions to Jan (Catherine Keener), a fellow wanderer and his sometimes surrogate mom, with the Thoreau quote above. In a sentence it provides a clear thrust for Penn’s adaptation of McCandless’ story. It’s spoken defensively in response to Jan’s strong concerns over McCandless’ complete break from his real family, which provides the central conflict of the film and a more personal take on McCandless’ life than Krakauer’s book.
Christopher McCandless graduated from college in 1990. He was a bright kid from an affluent suburb of Washington D.C. with a wide-open future in front of him. After graduation, unbeknownst to his family, he donated his life savings of $24,000 dollars to OXFAM and struck out across America in a battered old car with a backpack’s worth of possessions and the money in his wallet. He soon abandoned the car, burned the money in his wallet, and changed his name to Alexander Supertramp. He would never speak to his family again. What ensued was a two-year journey along the fringes of society and into the great outdoors. A rugged search for the truth in his existence inspired by his favorite writers Tolstoy and London, among others. He would keep journals and touch lives on his way to an unfortunate death at 24 in the wilds of Alaska.
Noted nonfiction writer and adventurer, Jon Krakauer took up McCandless’s story in an article for Outdoor Magazine in 1993. He was taken with the story, and the deeper themes of the wilderness’ place in the collective American imagination, the complex dynamic between fathers and sons and the allure of high-risk adventure to certain types of people. From those elements he crafted the bestseller Into The Wild. Intrigued by the stark image of the “Magic Bus” (the abandoned bus McCandless would live and die in) on the cover, Penn bought the book, was captivated by the story and spent ten years working to secure the rights and adapt it.
The film is fueled by Penn’s devotion to telling the story. It’s a startling departure from Penn’s previous work as a director. The fractured darkness that runs through his more celebrated work as an actor and was expounded upon in his first three films (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge) still exists. But with that darkness came a certain kind of cynicism that lent his work an opaque rawness that was an acquired taste. Into the Wild is far more populist than Penn’s previous work. Though it’s laced with the same darkness, Penn reaches for something different through it–a quiet sense of tragic hope.
Penn achieves this by breaking from formal structure in the film’s construction. Given the difficult task of adapting a young man’s mostly solitary journey into his soul; Penn turns to counterpoint voice over, impressionistic panoramic vistas, diary entries scrawled over those vistas and, most of all, music to illuminate the emotional register of the story. It’s a film that feels open with collaboration and scope, yet personal in drive and intent for better or worse. It’s more ambitious than anything the director has done previously.
For the record, the film shines most in the cinematography and the music. Eric Gautier’s camerawork strives through the panoramic to achieve the personal. The characters are not overwhelmed by the scenery, but woven into it tonally; and often we find ourselves close on their eyes glimpsing the wilderness within. Just as strong and important is the music, especially the original songs by Eddie Vedder. I’ll confess to not being a huge Pearl Jam fan, or even much of a casual one. Vedder’s work here is similar in impact on the narrative to Cat Stevens’ music in Harold and Maude. It’s a crucial element to the film. I can’t imagine the story without it. The undercurrent of hope in Into the Wild comes mostly from the beautiful collision of image and song.
Though it’s a strong film overall, it’s not without its flaws and problems. Chief among those is the performance of Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, and the choices Sean Penn, the writer, makes in condensing the story for film. It’s hard to separate the two, in fact. In all fairness to Hirsch, on some levels he’s given a very limited character to play. He just doesn’t posses the range to overcome this hurdle. In all honesty, his performance grates after awhile and impedes the flow of the story.
Penn’s choice as screenwriter to strip away McCandless’ story to the bare bones and focus almost solely on his troubled relationship with his parents as the engine for his actions is at the root of static Hirsch’s performance. Penn’s choice works in the final climax of the picture, but falters often along the way to that moment. There are hints of more complex issues in the story–family, urbanization–but Penn falters at bringing them into the greater thrust of the narrative. Most of these moments are contained in some fabulous supporting performances. Most notably Catherine Keener as Jan, the hippie mother-figure to McCandless, and Hal Holbrook as Ron, a retiree who McCandless befriends and enlivens during his travels. Both give electric, subtle work to the narrative and provide crucial counterpoint to the story, unfortunately it’s counterpoint that’s squandered.
Into the Wild, directed and adapted by Sean Penn, is a messy, ambitious look at the more personal side of Christopher McCandless’ haunting life and story. It seeks to capture McCandless’ struggle to find the truth in his existence. Yet falls short by focusing almost solely on the fractured family life that served as just one motivation for McCandless adventure. In the end, though, the film fascinates with its use of image and music to capture the deeper emotion of McCandless’s journey into the great unknown.

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