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Christopher McCandless and his journey into the wild

Sean Penn’s latest from the director’s chair is long and occasionally bumpy, but in the end, stands as one of the most striking portraits of self-delusion in years. It’s not a perfect film, nor is it necessarily the one I envision, for it is quite clear that Penn admires Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), the self-righteous young man who deserted his privileged background in order to live a more “authentic” dream among raw, unspoiled nature.

Penn’s sympathies are understandable, of course, given his own rambunctious public life, but despite Chris’ obnoxious manner, he does not saddle the film with a naïve romanticism. Clearly, this kid — who later refashioned himself as “Alexander Supertramp” — is taking a hissy fit against his hypocritical parents to the next level (I never once believed he was that fond of the outdoors) and in the final analysis, he was willing to die rather than admit that his life was hardly the hopeless tragedy he had imagined (or sold as a bill of goods to himself and anyone who cared to listen).

Penn recreates some of Chris’ past, but are official lies and evasions enough to push a young man over the edge? Like so many, Chris failed to recognize any truth in his surroundings until it was too late (he quotes the poets again and again on this front), and when word and deed failed to meet in the middle, he became disillusioned.

Christopher johnson mccandless

Christopher johnson mccandless

It’s a common affliction, this fall from that lofty perch of youthful idealism, but only possible for one untainted by the leveling effect of cynicism. Keep your parents in perspective, grant them the right to fail, and perhaps you won’t despise them so much when they inevitably let you down.

Penn’s film is, in many ways, a prototypical road movie, though it’s not hampered by the genre’s familiarity, largely because the result is so relentlessly grim. Chris meets all kinds of people along the way, including well-meaning hippies, fellow travelers, and yes, even the Wise Old Man (Hal Holbrook, who deserves, and will likely get, an Oscar nomination).

Into the wild - Christopher McCandless

Into the wild – Christopher McCandless

Chris even has the expected romance, though it’s more a one-sided crush, as he exhibits restraint when he learns the girl’s age. Throughout, Chris is largely unknowable, as those he encounters project their own longings onto the boy and his quest. Most people seem to have this unquenchable thirst that would lead them to uncharted waters, but once you’ve “escaped,” what’s left to prove? It’s all in the desire — the wishing, the hoping, the longing — and the realization is at best an anticlimax.

There’s a bit of that with Chris’ adventure, especially when he arrives in Alaska, the destination to which everything else has been leading. Once he reaches that abandoned bus, starts gathering plants and firewood, and is forced to fend for himself at last, we see the romance ebb from the young man’s eyes, even if he won’t fully come to terms with the bitter truth.

If he was, in fact, living as he proclaimed, he would do more than reveal fear in his diary; he would empty his heart at last and admit his point has been made. Rebellion, even if undertaken with nobility and a fighting spirit, can never remain a permanent state of affairs. When attempted, it’s rarely inspiring and, as this film’s conclusion proves, always sad.

Into the wild – An Alaskan odyssey

Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a passionate and faithful evocation of Jon Krakauer’s book about Chris McCandless. It’s the troubling and complex story of a young idealist and seeker who was also a rebellious child and beloved brother who gave away his $24,000 savings to Oxfam after college, went off in an old Datsun and left his family behind, and disappeared for two years wandering the country, only to be found by hunters dead of poisoning and starvation in an abandoned bus in the wilds of Alaska.

It’s been said as a criticism of Penn’s movie that it isn’t as neutral about MCcndless as Krakauers’s book. It is true that Emile Hirsch as Chris, who called himself Alexander Supertramp on the road, is such a joyous and appealing character it’s hard to focus on the arbitrariness and foolhardiness of the young man. Hirsch gives his all. He has shown his knack for playing bad good boys—particularly in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Lords of Dogtown—and for playing wild misfits—in the little seen The Mudge Boy. This is the first great role he’s had, and he deserves it.

His work is a wonderful melding of “negative capability” and generosity. It comes naturally to him to embody exuberance, boldness, and joy. If there was something off-putting or stern in the real-life McCandless, it’s not very noticeable in Hirsch. But Hirsch’s enthusiasm makes sense of the great adventure and self-discovery this story recounts.

(Sadly, McCandless never seemed more ready to embrace life, and to overcome all his doubts about people and family, than right near his end.) All the faults and mistakes McCandless made are there in the story as Penn tells it; if he has altered facts (and necessarily left some out), he hasn’t done so to make the young man’s plans seem clearer or his choices wiser, and the movie is replete with specific detail.

Christopher johnson mccandless

Christopher johnson mccandless

Into the Wild, true, is itself a little on the wild and loud side, with its occasionally obtrusive Eddie Vedder soundtrack, it’s insanely vivid characters—like the young Danish couple on the banks of the Colorado, Vince Vaughan’s intense, grinning grain farmer, Hal Holbrook’s fabulously sad, shut-down old widower.

There is another kind of overload in the occasional use of split screens. But it all unfolds very much as Jon Krakauer’s book does, with interludes at the “magic bus” where Chris met his doom constantly intercut with episodes from his travels earlier during his two wander-years. And incredible episodes they are: roaming with a warm hippie couple; illegally and hair-raisingly running the Colorado rapids in a kayak; working in the big grain elevator and loving it; riding the rails and loving that too, till he’s caught and beaten; escaping a flophouse in L.A.; staying with old Mr. Franz (Holbrook), learning from him how to engrave leather belts and persuading him to climb a mountain; and then off into the hostile snow country with a big back pack and sheer will.

Many voiceovers from Chris’s sister add more about the sibling relationship than was in the book; the family “fearlessly” cooperated in the film-making. McAndless’s stern NASA honcho dad (William Hurt) and uptight mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are as unappealing as he saw them, but are not overdrawn—or underrepresented. Among other things Sean Penn’s film is a remarkable balancing act.

It’s obvious this story had to be made into a movie, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have done it better than Penn and his fine cast. All Penn’s directorial efforts have been heartfelt and earnest, but this of his films thus far is his greatest artistic success and has the widest appeal. Into the Wild is a good balance of the emotionally wrenching and the thought-provoking.

It contains so many themes and poses so many questions—about youth, about time, about responsibility. Chris isn’t to be confused with Herzog’s Grizzly Man. He’s aware of the danger of nature. It’s just that he has the hubris of daring to approach it with too little knowledge and experience, knowing the risk, and taking it. And indeed he might have made it and gotten back out, but for two or three terrible mistakes. Nature is unforgiving.

The magic bus

The magic bus

Chris McAndless was unforgiving too. But if he read the romantic Bible of his own life lived in those intense two years and lived to tell of them, the film suggests, he would have learned to love and forgive. He was bright, talented, passionate about life, a seeker or rare moral fervor who read and thought and recorded all that happened in those last days.

His death was sadly premature. But there are signs—they’re clear in Krakauer’s book—that he made an impact on the world he inhabited and the people he met. Vince Vaughan’s character shouts, “You’re one hell of a young man. You’re one hell of a young man!” He died terribly alone. But maybe the tree that falls in the forest is heard after all. “Quant’e’ bella giovanezza,” goes an Italian renaissance verse, “Che si fugge tuttavia.” How beautiful is youth, which flees straightaway. McCandless’ story embodies those lines.

Into the Wild seems more moving and thought-provoking than any other recent film, and may be destined to become some kind of classic—an Easy Rider, as Scott Foundas of the Voice and others have said, for our times. It’s about society and nature, about family, about idealism and aloneness; most of all it’s about the dangerous, heartbreakingly brief and beautiful romanticism of youth. In those two years, Chris McCandless lived a whole, remarkable, life. And Sean Penn has captured those two years for us.