Into the Wild
Directed by Sean Penn
Starring Emil Hirsch, Hal Holbrook and Jena Malone.


Into the Wild is precisely the movie that Christopher McCandless, the film’s real-life subject, would have wanted made about his life.

In the early ’90s, McCandless–the colleg-educated son of a well-off family–divested himself of his worldy possessions marched off into American wilderness, intent on living a life close to the land. His ultimate goal was to trek to the Alaskan frontier, but he worked up to that by first bumming around the other 48 states, sleeping in the great outdoors, mingling with other travellers and, whenever his meager funds ran short, taking a few short-term jobs to get him to his next location. Two years after he started his personal odyssey, he arrived in Alaska and made camp in a decrepit bus that had been left abandoned in the wild years ago. Some weeks later he was dead, the victim of malnutrition and exposure. When news stories about McCandless, who went by the name Alexander Supertramp when he was on the road, hit the airwaves and papers, they captured the attention of author Jon Krakauer, who retraced McCandless’/Supertramp’s steps in his best-seller Into the Wild. The book is a fascinating read, not just because it tells a great story but also because of the way Krakauer idolizes his subject and condemns him at the same time.

It’s easy to understand why some would view McCandless as a hero. Who amongst us hasn’t dreamed of lighting out for uncharted territory when the pressures of work and home get to be too much? For most of us of course, that remains a fantasy so to read about a guy who actually does it can’t help but seem inspiring. At the same time, Krakauer is too good a writer to only present a starry-eyed view of his “hero.” Through extensive interviews with actual outdoorsman, some of whom encountered McCandless on his travels and others who just read about his exploits after his death, Krakauer paints a portrait of a man who was in love with the idea of living in the wild, but had not real practical idea about how to go about doing it. The list of his faults goes on and on–he was missing key items of gear, he arrived in Alaska at the wrong time, he learned how to hunt on the fly–to the point where you can’t help but wonder how he managed to last a single week out there, let alone more than ten. Far from being a Jack London type, McCandless sounds more like another would-be naturalist who lost the eternal man vs. nature struggle, Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s acclaimed documentary Grizzly Man.

It isn’t a spoiler to confirm that McCandless still dies at the end of the movie version of Into the Wild, but the nature of his death–to say nothing of his entire persona–is depicted in a very different manner than it is in the book. Written and directed by that famous recluse Sean Penn, the film is an unabashed celebration of the life and death of Alex Supertramp, embodied here by the young actor Emile Hirsch. While a handful of passing references are made to his youthful naivete, overall McCandless is heroicized to somewhat uncomfortable degrees. It’s not enough that he’s bravely cast off the shakcles of civilization, he also regularly quotes Thoreau and turns out to be the best marriage counselor this side of Dr. Phil. Strangely enough though, all this hero worship is one of the reasons the movie casts its spell so effectively. In fact, I fully expect Into The Wild to become the On The Road for a new generation of restless, movie-savvy adolescents. That credit can be shared equally by Hirsch’s stirring performance and the exceptional nature photography, shot by Penn and his crew of cameramen led by cinematographer Eric Gautier. Largely eschewing stock footage and filming much of the movie outdoors (the closing credits list at least 15 different locations where the production set up shop), the cameras capture the beauty of the American wilderness in all its sun-dappled glory. Taking a page from Terrence Malick (who Penn worked with on The Thin Red Line) composes each frame so that the charactrs are positioned against a seemingly endless horizon. But he’s also careful to show us that McCandless is rarely dwarfed by nature–instead, he’s an extension of it. The only time our hero seems overwhelmed and discombobulated by his environment is during his brief sojourn in downtown L.A., which he escapes from quickly enough. This is also one of the few sections of the movie where that endless horizon ends, courtesey of those man-made monstrosities known as skyscrapers.

While Hirsch carries the bulk of the movie, he’s backed up by a great supporting cast that includes Vince Vaughn (who is so good here, you actually wish his part were larger), the great Catherine Keener and the equally great Hal Holbrook as the wizened old man who comes the closest to smacking some sense into our idealistic, self-absorbed young hero. Less effective–mostly because they are so underused–are Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt as Chris’ estranged parents and Jena Malone, who, as his sister, is given the thankless task of intoning some cringe-inducing voiceover narration. Holbrook appears in the film’s final chapter (Penn divides the 150 minute movie into three amorphous chapters, a device that’s as awkward as it sounds), which also happens to be the reel where Penn more overtly calls attention McCandless’ failings as an outdoorsmen. But all of those mistakes are forgiven in the final scene, when Chris’ spirit soars up to the heavens, taking one last look back at the beautiful world he’s leaving behind. Penn would have us believe that this isn’t the passing of some well-meaning, if ill-prepared thrill-seeker, but rather the death of some kind of young prophet, whose good works will live on even after his body dies. It’s a testament to his skill as a director that I almost bought what he was selling…but not completely.