“Society, you’re a crazy breed. I hope you’re not lonely, without me.”
—Jerry Hannan, sung by Eddie Vedder
That Christopher McCandless would simply up and leave everyone and everything, without warning, without goodbyes, seems to be the sticking point with those who would dare to criticize Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s latest passion project and greatest directorial turn to date. McCandless, also known as Alexander Supertramp to those who would meet him on his hitchhiker’s journey through the continental United States and eventually into Alaska, is either a heroic visionary or a self-centered nitwit, and to Penn’s credit, it’s never entirely decided which side wins out, even as many of his encounters and spoken pearls of wisdom point neon signs at the former.
For every person he supposedly helps with a platitude like “When you want something in life, you just gotta reach out and grab it,” he evades a question from someone else. Befriended hippie Jan’s “Do your parents know where you are?” seems to hit him especially hard.
In hindsight, moments like Jan’s poignantly-timed question are the ones that tear the facade of heroism down from McCandless’ journey and his attitude. More than anything, he’s a naïve, early 20-something college graduate who thinks he knows everything, who just happens to be setting out to prove as much.
What the criticisms that center on McCandless’ naïveté and the insensitivity he shows to those he left behind misses, however, is that despite what some would see as flaws in character, the story being told is still a remarkable one, and the way Penn chooses to portray it actually enhances the story, rending much of it unforgettable. Even though the revelations he makes as his journey comes to an end feels hollow and borne of panic, the way he comes to those revelations and the little, detail-filled ways in which he responds to them, are filled with a sort of beauty and humanity that even the most jaded critics of McCandless’ methods would be prone to identify with.
Rather than lobbing criticism at the character of McCandless/Supertramp, then, it seems that the more deserving recipient of criticism might just be Penn himself, who clearly, every step of the way, loves the idea of his own film. The love he has for the tale and his efforts to try and do it justice too often come off as overdone; rather than letting the characters tell the tale, he introduces a new character: the camera. It’s fuzzy in flashbacks, it’s presented at odd angles for quirky characters, it gazes lovingly over the Alaskan landscape, it uses quick-cuts and split screens to make the “boring” stuff interesting.
Most tellingly, the camera is McCandless’ primary means of communication to the rest of us—when he eats his super apple, he looks directly into the camera as if to ask us if we’ve ever felt that way about an apple. When he gets tossed off a train and beaten, he looks at us again, either begging briefly for help or defiantly facing us down. The camera is both overactive and acknowledged in the film, a choice made by Penn that actually detracts from the story that he is trying to tell by distracting us from the players telling it.
Even so, it’s difficult to be too critical of Penn for loving something too much. The number of things he manages to get right over the course of his film far outweigh the missteps. The languid pace of the film is utterly perfect, reflecting the time investment that McCandless put into his journey, while the beautiful, subtly-played performances he gets from Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook, and especially Emile Hirsch as McCandless are nothing short of phenomenal.
Such a film as this quite obviously has a number of layers, layers that could easily have been traversed via the DVD release; a film like Into the Wild is practically screaming for commentary, so that we, as viewers, could have some idea of the intent of specific shots. Many of the scenes throughout the film contribute little to the overall narrative, but were obviously kept in for a reason, and a commentary or two could well have been a fascinating supplement to the movie proper. Unfortunately, we get no such thing.
For a “two-disc special edition” of a celebrated, very much loved film, it seems a little sparse. One could say that the commentary was withheld for a reason, that every person’s reaction to different points in the film are meant to be personal experiences, but nobody would be forcing us to listen to them. Those of us who enjoy directors’ and actors’ insights as whittled down to specific scenes are seriously missing something, here. The two documentaries included as special features are nice enough in an HBO Special Presentation kind of way (and are worth watching for the skinny Hirsch footage alone), but they’re relatively lightweight and not nearly enough to satiate those for whom this film has become an obsession.
Some of the above-mentioned criticism has evolved of late into accusations directed at Penn and even Jon Krakauer, who wrote the book on which Penn’s film is based, of embellishment of McCandless’ story. The deeper these would-be detectives dig, the more problems appear; so maybe he didn’t really burn his Social Security card. Maybe he simply starved without actually poisoning himself.
What is missed in such attacks on the film’s credibility is that the movie isn’t really about McCandless, or his parents, or the people he meets, or even the beauty in the countryside. It’s about the sort of spirit that drives someone like McCandless to do what he does; it’s a “follow your dreams” narrative in a package that belies the cliché that it expounds upon. This is why Penn made this film, this is why McCandless’ parents, even as they are portrayed in a highly negative light through most of the film, allowed it to happen—the truth is, it’s not every day that a just-graduated college kid simply up and leaves for the sake of an adventure like that of McCandless’ Supertramp. Into the Wild allows us to live that fantasy vicariously through Supertramp, without the fear of McCandless’ ultimate fate.
That alone should be reason enough for people to watch this film.