Directed by Sean Penn; screenplay by Penn, based on the book by Jon Krakauer.
Actor-director Sean Penn opens his latest movie, Into the Wild, with lines from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold: “There is pleasure in the pathless woods, / There is rapture on the lonely shore, / There is society where none intrudes, / By the deep sea and the music in its roar; / I love not man the less, but Nature more.”
Byron’s haunting verse, written in 1814, seems strangely out of place as an epigraph for a project that attempts to turn the real-life and tragic account of Christopher McCandless into the tale of a fearless adventurer and social renegade. McCandless’s short life before he perished in the wilds of Alaska in 1992 at age 24 did not allow sufficient time for the young man “To mingle with the Universe, and feel / What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”
In the film, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is a 22-year-old college graduate with a future marked for success. Disturbed by the materialism and hypocrisy of his wealthy parents, (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt), Chris donates his education fund to charity, and takes off without a word to his family, including his beloved younger sister Carine (Jena Malone). They will never see him again.
Chris literally burns his bridges when he abandons his car and sets fire to his money and identification. Based on the book of the same title by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild follows Chris’s two-year adventure through various parts of the United States and Mexico, ending with the fatal 113 days in a remote Alaskan region.
On his way north, Chris bonds with a collection of off-beat and non-conformist personalities. Now a “foot tramp” (traveler of the road by foot), he hooks up with the hippy “rubber tramps” (travelers of the road on wheels) Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), who fill something of the parental void. Chris then works for the farmer and quasi-outlaw, Wayne (Vince Vaughn). Afterward, he settles long enough in a drop-out encampment in California, again with Jan and Rainey, called Slab City, to establish a brief romantic connection with the soulful, but under-age, Tracy (Kristen Stewart).
During his last stop before heading to Alaska, Chris gets close to Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), an aging widower who sees in the young man a reminder of his own unfulfilled ambitions. Without heirs, Ron wants to adopt Chris. While this never formally takes place, there is a spiritual covenant between them.
Chris’s guides are his tattered volumes of Tolstoy and Thoreau. Precious to him are Thoreau’s words: “Rather than Love, than Money, than Fame, give me Truth,” which he interprets to mean eschewing civilization for untouched nature. He is on a quest to “kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution.” He has conspicuously renamed himself Alexander Supertramp.
Chris is pure and Christ-like and leaves an indelible mark on everyone he encounters, although the film does not convincingly make clear why and how. He is always aloof. Even in the case of his parents, it is the grief caused by his absence that mends their troubled marriage. Whatever Carine feels about her brother’s flight from her life, she instinctively senses that in some way he is repairing the universe. Carine’s thoughts on this score are articulated in the movie’s voiceovers.
As a rule, the plausible elements of the movie (with music and songs by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and scenes filmed in many of the locations to which Christopher McCandless journeyed) don’t occur during the central figure’s interactions with other people but in his primal struggle in the wild.
Chris is not terribly evolved despite his status in the film as an idealist and moral focal point. He is prone to spout banalities like “it is in life not necessary to be strong, but to feel strong” and “the core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences.” And why should we be sympathetic to this kind of irrationalist argument, that “if we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility is destroyed”?
Penn clearly has poured himself into the scenes where Chris handles isolation in his Alaskan “magic bus,”—a rusted-out shell of a vehicle with a few rudimentary implements it was his good fortune to find during his first days in the harsh terrain. Could this be Penn’s vision of utopia—a world where nature, not man, is master?
Such was his attraction to Christopher McCandless’s story that Penn spent nearly a decade getting the rights to Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction bestseller. In an interview with MoviesOnline, the director speaks about Into the Wild: “It’s about somebody who had a will that is so uncommon today, a lack of addiction to comfort, that is so uncommon and is so necessary to become common, or mankind won’t survive the next century.” The belief that consumerist human beings, not profit-driven class society, are responsible for the destruction of the environment is the film’s underlying subtext.
Interestingly, the MoviesOnline interviewer quoted a park ranger who had described the real Chris McCandless as being not “particularly daring but just stupid, tragic and inconsiderate.” She went on to reveal that “there was a hand operated tram a mile away from where he tried to cross the river [his inability to do so led to his death by starvation] that any decent map that most hikers would carry in a National Park would have shown.”
Penn replied that “the point of this thing is the heroism of this will and this courage that this young man had. All the rest of it is somebody else’s folly for me.”
But “heroism of will” and “courage” have to be associated with substantial and socially advanced aims. If not, history shows that extreme voluntarism and action for its own sake can find quite right-wing channels. That Penn is oblivious to all this is Into the Wild’s greatest “folly.”
The qualities he genuinely and legitimately admires, self-sacrifice and integrity, are relatively rare in America today not because the population has degenerated, but for definite historical and political reasons, including a stagnant and reactionary social climate, which deliberately encourages the opposite: selfishness and callousness. One feels that Penn is driven “into the wild” because of a certain political discouragement. This is simply impressionistic and wrongheaded.
About Penn’s last film, The Pledge, this reviewer wrote: “One needs to be obsessive about something important, one needs to pursue a worthwhile and progressive cause. For the American filmmaker today this means, first and foremost, the need to cut through the lies and myths about American class society. The absence of this sort of criticism, which Penn is fully capable of making, is a fatal flaw.”
Since this was written in March 2001, Penn has proven to be one of Hollywood’s most consistent opponents of the Iraq war. He was also physically involved in rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In March of this year, he publicly criticized George W. Bush’s handling of the war and in April appeared on the television show, “The Colbert Report”, a contestant in Stephen Colbert’s “Meta-Free-Phor-All.” To strong applause, Penn commented: “We cower as you point your fingers telling us to support our troops. You and the smarmy pundits in your pocket—those who bathe in the moisture of your soiled and blood-soaked underwear—can take that noise and shove it.”
However, Into the Wild testifies to the fact that in many ways Penn mistakenly sees himself as a lone flare launched into the darkness.