There’s something seductive about the idea of turning one’s back on civilization and all its trappings. Many of us entertain this thought during a daydream or in those gentle minutes between wakefulness and sleep, but we don’t view it as the act of practical, responsible human being. From time-to-time, we hear stories about those who make this courageous, irrational leap, although many of those tales have unhappy endings. Consider Timothy Treadwell, whose video diary of life among the Alaskan grizzlies was chronicled in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Treadwell died as he lived – with the bears, mauled and devoured alongside his girlfriend. Then there’s Chris McCandless, a disillusioned young man who discarded his entire existence so he could make his way to Alaska and survive in a society of untamed solitude for a season. McCandless’ story was told through first-hand written fragments and second-hand accounts in Jon Krakauer’s book, and this is the material filmmaker Sean Penn has used as the skeleton of his latest movie, Into the Wild.
Into the Wild combines two popular genres: the road trip and the struggle of man versus nature. Both are handled well by Penn and their interweaving is effective. As the movie begins, Chris (Emile Hirsch) has already reached his goal: the unspoiled Alaskan wilderness. He finds an abandoned, non-functional bus in the middle of nowhere that provides shelter. Flashbacks are employed to show how he got there. Meanwhile, interspersed with these lengthy glimpses of the past, the narrative in the present moves forward, gradually straying into darker territory. Chris’ story is both heroic and cautionary; brave and foolish. Penn gets this. He does not lionize the character or his actions. He shows admiration for a man who would go to these lengths in pursuit of a dream and a cause. In the end, however, there is a simple lesson to be learned: happiness is meaningless unless you have someone to share it with. The movie ends on a poignant note.
Into the Wild is narrated by Chris’ sister, Carine (Jena Malone); Chris’ perspective is too narrow to allow him to present the “bigger picture” that Carine sees. We meet him as a child, trapped between his warring parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), then as a newly minted graduate of Emory University. Even as he earns his degree, he is turning his back on the materialistic life his parents have mapped out for him. He donates all his money to OXFAM, torches his ID, then goes walkabout. Now known by the moniker of “Alexander Supertramp,” he heads west. The year is 1990 and the era of the hippie is long past, but that doesn’t stop him from encountering a couple of them (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker). He stays with them for a time, learning from them and sharing with them before moving on. His next stop has him working for a grain harvester (Vince Vaughn) whose “extracurricular” activities get him in trouble with the law. Then, by rail and river, Chris heads west, his sights now firmly set on Alaska as his eventual destination. He re-encounters the hippies and has a brief romance with a teenage singer (Kristen Stewart) in a gypsy camp. At his last stop, he is “adopted” by a lonely, aging man (Hal Holbrook).
It is said that in road movies, the journey is what matters, not the destination, and that’s the case in Into the Wild. For Chris, the trip to Alaska is what gives him joy. The people he meets along the way – whether the nomadic hippies, the underage singer whose sexual overtures he spurns (making us wonder about his sexuality), or the grandfather-figure – enrich his existence. When he reaches the North and goes into the wilderness by himself, he ultimately finds the experience to be hollow. It takes him a while to recognize that his spiritual journey reaches its conclusion long before the physical one does.
Into the Wild is a beautifully made motion picture and some of the segments (especially those with Hal Holbrook and those that transpire around “the magic bus” in Alaska) are powerful. Chris initially comes across as an idealistic jerk – the kind of guy who will thoughtlessly hurt others if they stand in the way of his achieving a goal. Gradually, he is revealed as being more complex. By the end of the movie, I don’t know that I liked Chris, but I understood him and sympathized with him, and sometimes that’s more important.
Emile Hirsch has a difficult job – that of taking a character whose base motivations are selfish and transforming him into someone in whose presence we can endure two and one-half hours. To do this, Hirsch represents Chris not as an anti-hero but as someone who has been betrayed and wounded by his parents and society at every corner. The eclectic supporting cast provides Hirsch with effective backing. Catherine Keener is as delightful as ever, Vince Vaughn plays it straight without a hint of goofiness, and Hal Holbrook may be better here than at any time in his long career. (If there’s an acting nomination to be found in this movie, it’s Holbrook.)
During the course of Into the Wild, Penn dances with pretentiousness and self-importance. He never slips over the brink but lines like “material things cut [Chris] off from the truth of [his] existence” make this kid’s odyssey sound more important than it is. There are moments like this in Into the Wild but they are thankfully isolated. Eddie Vedder’s songs also smack of being too preachy, but they are as easily forgotten as they are forgettable.
Into the Wild is a long motion picture, clocking in at nearly 150 minutes. But the strength and breadth of its material earns it the extended running time. It’s about many things, and makes pointed comments about the ridiculousness of a society where bureaucracy and the rat race have become so cumbersome that they crush the pleasure out of living. The final truth it distills reveals something crucial about what it means to be human – something that Chris doesn’t realize until it’s too late.