[18 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
INTO THE WILD (dir. Sean Penn)
Wanderlust. For some, it’s an innate human attribute. The desire to explore. The need to put distance between your ‘here’ and your soon to be ‘there’. It’s a concept so tied up in what supposedly made America great and won the West for the rest of us (cue visions of Conestoga wagons rambling across a purple mountains majesty) that it seems practically unpatriotic to question its aimless designs. Like Jack Kerouac uncovering the counterculture beat within a surreal conservative post-War world, to hippie hitchhikers who made the nation one big truck stop, we’ve always given the vagabond some metaphysical leeway. Even as their label has switched from hobo to bum to social eyesore, one’s ability to roam free of responsibility has inspired and divined. It’s so formidable that it’s become the basis for songs, literature, and even personal philosophies.
In his brilliant new film, Into the Wild, actor (re)turned writer/director Sean Penn focuses on such a modern day example of the fanciful free spirit. After graduating from Emory University, real life drifter Christopher McCandless cashed in his savings, sent it to charity, dispossessed himself of all other worldly excesses, and headed out to find America. Much to his miserable parents’ chagrin (and his baby sister’s accepting empathy), he trekked across the nation undetected, picking up odd jobs along the way to fund his adventures. After stop overs in South Dakota, where he worked at a grain mill, a West Coast jaunt with a pair of aging hippies, and a meet up with a widower ex-military man, he finally reached his goal—the deepest regions of Alaska’s wilderness. There, inspired by authors like Thoreau, he intended to live off the land. But survival proved problematic, especially for someone who only saw the freedom (and none of the responsibilities) of such a lifestyle.
Based on a book by Jon Krakauer and McCandless’ own diaries and writings, Into the Wild stands as the best movie in Penn’s limited career behind the camera. After the arch dramatics of The Indian Runner, the considered tone poetry of The Crossing Guard, and the anti-thriller excellence of The Pledge, the Oscar winning actor pools all his talents to take on one of those too good to be true storylines. In the McCandless saga, you’ve got familial dysfunction, interpersonal pipe dreams, psychosocial subjectivity, the call of nature, and the undeniable allure of the open road to transform a simple act of individual wish fulfillment into something far more meaningful. Laced with amazing visual stunts, standout performances, and a perspective of our nation that’s nearly incomprehensible, we wind up tramping right along with our wide-eyed hero. We experience his dizzying highs…and everything that countermands such living in exile delights.
Penn can’t do this alone, mind you. He needs an actor that expertly supplements the sumptuous visuals passing before the screen without getting lost—or worse, overpowering them. There needs to be a balance between fool and Renaissance man, master of one’s destiny and disturbingly unprepared plebe. The startling Emile Hirsch is that shape-shifting star, and his turn here is award worthy. Switching between wildly incongruent modes and balancing his inner perseverance with his outer obstacles, we get a performance so deep and dimensional that, even after two hours, we feel like we’ve barely gotten to know this intriguing individual. Hirsch has to hold us this way, since we no longer live in a society that validates the eccentric actions of someone like McCandless. One slip, and we too would join the harangue that questions his sanity, considers him spoiled, and wonders what his parents did to ever warrant such conspicuous rejection.
One of the great things about Into the Wild is that Penn leaves motives open for interpretation. The character’s actions are not fathomless—a voiceover narration gives us lots of juicy details regarding abuse, marital strife, and unrealistic parental goals—and whenever McCandless interacts with others, we sense a closed off antisocial stance that tends to explain his micromanaged decisions. Indeed, when he finally finds the Alaskan sanctuary he so desperately wants, our hero appears reborn. Gone are the expectations of the world. Stripped back to the very essence of existence, McCandless is forced to face up to the frontier. The fact that he then immediately commandeers an abandoned school bus (and all the camper friendly accommodations and comforts in it) begins Penn’s sly dissection of the character’s true intent. Indeed, Into the Wild isn’t so much about a need for isolation as a call for understanding and acceptance.
It is clear that McCandless did not get along with his parents. As played brilliantly by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, we see a nuclear family falling apart for reasons that are very specific and rather surreal. As with most suburban squabbles, it is buried beneath a veneer of high balls and a series of shattering behind the scenes breakdowns. These fuzzy flashbacks, meant to act as support for our lead’s longing, do a magnificent job of underwriting his angst. We are supposed to feel the same sense of disassociation that McCandless experiences, and Penn uses the sequences as fuel to push us, and his characters, along. When these moments appear, we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of information, and experience an unusual sort of calm when their purpose fades from view.
Also offering their own sense of motivation is the odd selection of individuals we meet. In typical road movie style, Into the Wild celebrates the breadth of human diversity by giving us several clear examples of it. In Vince Vaughn’s agricultural con man (he sells bootleg satellite TV set ups on the side) we see freedom as an illustration of minor lawlessness. In the Danish tourists camping along the Rio Grande, we see liberty as an expression of travel and open friendliness. For aging deadheads Jan and Rainey, it’s autonomy connecting to a fading vision of the ‘60s dream of peace and love. Catherine Keener and former rafting guide Brian Dierker are amazing as the bickering, somewhat settled couple. They inadvertently remind McCandless of all he left behind, frequently becoming indirect antagonists to his progress.
For retired Army man (and lonely father figure) Ron Franz, family is all there is to live for. He becomes our hero’s greatest test, a giving human being who has nothing but support and nonjudgmental warmth to give. Played by Hal Holbrook in a manner that belies his 82 years on the planet, we sense a real connection between the two, a grandfather/grandson dynamic that appears to heal the wounds McCandless is suffering from. But our focus is also a bone-headed young man, convinced that if he lets anyone in, he’ll have to face the self-produced demons he’s been suppressing all these years. One of Into the Wild’s clearest themes is that of escape. Everyone involved in this narrative is looking to get away—from their life, their past, their current situation. Only McCandless has the gumption to take said longing literally.
While we see his outdoorsy resilience throughout the film, Penn makes the wonderful decision to make the last act all about McCandless’ confrontation with the realities of the wilderness. It’s not so much a sequence about dreams shattering as it is about their initially deceptive impact on people. In his case, the desire to runaway to Alaska is the direct result of a more overreaching need to disappear into himself. For this character, it’s the only person that hasn’t let him down. Of course, fate is funny when toyed with. McCandless soon discovers how poorly prepared he is for a life all alone, and the finale is as heart wrenching as it is humble. While you can argue that it’s all a question of taking on nature and realizing who’s really boss, Into the Wild offers a more intriguing conclusion. Perhaps it’s possible to actually run away from it all. Maybe Christopher McCandless was not the proper candidate to try it.
With a final frame that’s devastating in what it says about the movie we’ve seen and the person whose story we’ve shared, Into the Wild suggests that film can actually survive the new digital explosion to remain a wholly artful medium. Penn’s proclivity for dramatic slow motion and epic environs never grows indulgent, and the performances celebrate the people being portrayed without dismissing their importance or place. Standing as a monumental achievement in the career’s of all involved, this is a film that will stand as a terrific entertainment, an intriguing character study, and a clever cautionary example. The next time you feel like getting away from it all, remember Christopher McCandless and his tireless dedication to such an ideal. Apparently, absolute freedom has a cost few of us ever consider. Such a price can place things in perspective quite nicely