What a beautiful and perplexing movie this is. I’d call it an uplifting tragedy, or a movie of inspirational sadness. It did not take long for me to decide it was made with incredible artistry and sensitivity, it took me longer to decide whether or not I liked it.
I think, in just about all the ways that matter, Into the Wild reflects the conundrum of its subject, which is a credit to writer/director Sean Penn. Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was the brilliant son of wealthy parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, their faces pinned into the heartbreaking masks of upper-society denial) who, having graduated from Emory University with straight “A”’s and law school on the horizon, suddenly donated his life savings, destroyed his identifying papers, and set out to wander America with a backpack and a water jug. His travels, culminating in an exile in the Alaskan wilderness and pieced together from his journals and interviews with people he encountered by adventurer/author Jon Krakauer, certainly have the beguiling romance of that drop-out impulse in so many of us.
But the keenness of Penn’s observation stops this from being a trite cinematic folk song about anti-societal hoofing. “Freedom” is a tantalizing chimera in this film, because dependence has many forms, and so does happiness; and McCandless, for all his wit and willpower, for all his commitment to his vision and his ability to drop high-minded literary quotations into any circumstance, carries a doom about him because of a lesson he refuses to learn. That is what elevates this film from pastoral preachiness to a profound mix of frustrating and mesmerizing.
Hirsch’s performance is a wonder, not just because of the physical transformation he must undergo as the journey wears on him, but because he is playing a person who defies nearly all our normal standards, and I didn’t doubt him for a moment. His McCandless, who abandons his name for the cheeky nom de hitchhike “Alexander Supertramp”, is a young man with a ravening appetite for “truth”. He loves books and nature (biting into a freshly-picked apple, he launches into a giddy recitation about its flavor), and despises his parents for their anger and lies. And yet as far as he wanders, we see what he cannot – that there is still part of him that is prisoner to this anger.
And as he meets people along the road, many of whom clearly want to pour love into him, we see that he doesn’t know how to let them. Behind his dark eyes and charmingly total enthusiasm, does he have contempt for them, the ones who fall even one inch short of his ruthlessly self-imposed standards for freedom? Watch the way he deflects every effort to reach deeper within him – after awhile you realize it’s not them he’s protecting.
This film is a spectacle of people and places. Spanning dozens of locations, captured with impeccable grace by French cinematographer Eric Gautier, it is an ode to the vastness and variety of America, its fields and woods and deserts and canyons. Enhancing the effect is a moody collection of original songs by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, that never reach the grunge howl that made his fame but strum along in a meditative ache. To watch the film is to remember that there is still space out there for wanderers, and more of them than we often realize – a happy interlude is spent at “Slab City”, a desert refuge in California where hippies and squatters live off the grid on the remains of an abandoned Marine base.
Some of the people McCandless encounters are their real-life equivalents, while others are actors dropping in for brief essays of performance under Penn’s deft directorial care. The ever-excellent Catherine Keener and non-actor Brian Dierker (earthy and authentic, he was the movie’s kayaking supervisor before he got drafted in front of the camera) play a couple of “rubber tramps” who share their Winnebago with the Supertramp for awhile, and project him into a long-denied hole in their family unit. Vince Vaughn plays a grain harvester with a side business in unauthorized cable boxes, who relishes his life of beers, friends, and hard work, and tries earnestly to convince McCandless that he can’t spend his life “juggling blood and fire”. And in perhaps the sweetest and most devastating of these roving cameos, Hal Halbrook plays a lonely retiree who becomes, in a way, McCandless’s last chance to accept a life in the world of man.
I think people will bring a lot into Into the Wild, and that is largely what they will take out of it. Some will see McCandless as a hero, others an icon, others a naïve squanderer of potential. I personally found him bedeviling, a disappointment of great ideas. He doesn’t seem to see just how much he is surviving off of providence and the charity of others. I think there are more people than we realize who set off on these quixotic walkabouts and we just never hear about them because they wind up starved in a ditch. People selflessly provide McCandless money, food, shelter, affection, work, entertainment, they give him advice on how to use certain tools, and hunt and preserve meat; this is knowledge they attained from hard experience, and he scribbles it down in his notebook as if that’s all the substitute he needs, just more literature to live by.
And what does he give them in return but to swoop through like a self-made prophet, taking and then abandoning, leaving behind only their fantasies of what his appearance in their lives must have meant? I think this defiance of love and contact – his sister (Jena Malone) suffers at home, wondering what she did to deserve being as cut off from knowledge of him as their parents – is as destructive as anything he does. By the end, when his once-athletic physique is almost skeletal, I think it’s that without love, his body had to eat itself. But then there is the end, and a transcendent change that stirred even my skeptical analysis.
What are we to take from all this? Into the Wild is not going to presume to spell it out to you, but if you see this movie, you’re going to feel something big. That the feeling is likely to be different in color but equally strong for so many, makes this a film to note for this year.