It seems almost obvious that Into the Wild, a troubled and majestic on-the-road travelogue about an American graduate looking for transcendence in Alaska, should be made by Sean Penn.
The story appeals to all his passions and pathologies: his brooding sense of being a Hollywood outsider; his suspicion of eloquence and the pained way in which he allows words to leak from his lips; his taste for the rugged and dangerous (solo recces to war-troubled Iraq, for instance); his fondness for male company and enclaves.
It’s a minor miracle, then, that the film, the screenplay of which he also wrote, doesn’t descend into private reverie or self-parody.
Into the Wild is based on Jon Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller, which recounted an idealistic and, to some tastes, naïve quest by a recent Emory University student Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes, Henry Thoreau and Jack London, and embrace the aching expanses and freedoms of the American outback.
To do this, and to do it in sufficiently heroic fashion, he junks his plans to study law at Harvard, abandons his warring parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and his younger sister (Jena Malone), and donates more than $24,000 in savings to Oxfam.
Idealism is the key word here. Other disaffected young men and women his age might have decamped abroad, spurned their parents’ striving and suburban values by getting into drugs, or just slacked off and worked in a video store.
But McCandless, like the hippy travellers he meets on his journeys, the beatniks of the 1950s, or indeed countless gleaming-eyed dreamers throughout American history, is consumed by a guiding principle: “I don’t want things.” Ditching his old self and adopting the name “Alexander Supertramp”, he lusts after what he calls “ultimate freedom”, an alternative to “false security and material excess”.
Some would argue that the people who most scorn “things” are those who have grown up with lots of them. Others would also take issue with the idea that “freedom” can be found only by renouncing all human ties, a strategy that teeters on the brink of maniacal solipsism. Hirsch, though, invests his character with a nervous, reticent grace so that he never appears arrogant.
His McCandless is a young man, shown in frequent flashbacks to be still bruised from discovering that he’s a bastard, but able none the less to respond to the rawness and possibility of the landscapes he encounters with the whoops and hollering of schoolchildren who have learned that their teacher is off sick.
The film begins with a quotation from Lord Byron, and one would have to have a cold heart not to be at least a little seduced by the romance of McCandless’s wanderings. Across the Mexican border, along rapids near the Grand Canyon, labouring and drinking hard in the grain fields of South Dakota, hiking up cliff tops in the Californian desert, even being battered by a guard who calls him a “railroad freeloader”: Into the Wild, exquisitely shot by Eric Gautier, is a love song to the ancient, endless variety of greater America, one whose savage beauty and joyous ferocity should give all those who would tamper with its ecosystems pause for thought.
Penn, for the most part, strikes a balance between celebrating McCandless as a South African Apartheid-hating refusenik who sticks two fingers up to “The Man” and pointing to the callowness of some of McCandless’s rhetoric.
One especially telling scene features him boozing with a rambunctious grain dealer (Vince Vaughn) and laying into the laziness and inertia of “people”. “What people are we talking about?” asks Vaughn. “Parents, politicians,” retorts McCandless, with the sincerity and immaturity of a Seattle grunge band, a parallel occasioned by the liberal number of songs Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder sings on the soundtrack.
At its weakest, the film topples into out-and-out adoration, portraying the young man as a Christ-like figure, one who casts a spell over and dispenses profundities to all those he meets.
Guitar-strumming teenage girls, a sad-eyed hippy couple (Catherine Keener and the excellent Brian Dierker), and a lonely war-veteran widower (Hal Holbrook, in a tear-inducingly moving performance): all are emotionally taut or bruised figures healed and ennobled by his company. At one point, he’s even shown floating down a stream, his arms outstretched in crucifix pose.
Penn tries his best to recreate in visual form the moments of reverie and wonderment that McCandless experienced; some, such as the shot of him shaking his wet hair against a sun-saturated backdrop, look like the kind of ersatz ecstasy peddled by shampoo advertisers.
Other sections of the film, when he daubs the screen with handwritten text, or labels parts of the story “chapters” to remind us that his hero had literary leanings, are fussy and misjudged.
Yet considering that some of us will go to see the film knowing its outcome in advance, it is impressive that Penn manages to sustain the drama and fascination of McCandless’s quest. Into the Wild is by some distance the best film he has directed to date.