Director: Sean Penn
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian H. Dierker, Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart, Vince Vaughn
All of the promotion and buzz about “Into the Wild” speaks of a true story – involving a free spirit, living that romanticized life on the road, not worrying about gaining material wealth but concerned with enriching the spirit and finding peace of mind in the natural world around him.
However, the flip side of Christopher McCandless’ tale is that he was a smart young man, angry at his parents and looking for a way to channel that anger. So he donates his college savings to charity, burns his money and disappears – telling no one of his plans. For years, he lives off the land, with odd jobs and through new acquaintances.
Sure, there’s something liberating about this life. But to completely drop off the face of the planet is a bit much. I can even cut him some slack in not wanting to speak to his parents, from whom all of his frustration seems to sprout. His sister is another story, considering he was essentially abandoning and relegating her to deal with the family neither felt would win any parents of the year awards.
That’s where the film completely fails. Emile Hirsch’s portrayal of Christopher McCandless is unsympathetic. I couldn’t care less what happened to him. Combine that with his fascination with a great Alaskan adventure and the first thing that comes to my mind is Timothy Treadwell from the documentary, “Grizzly Man“.
In both cases, each person was capable of changing their lives and coping in more constructive ways. Heck, Treadwell’s far more sympathetic because he appeared to be bi-polar and therefore in less control of his faculties. There doesn’t appear to be any psychological or medical reason why Christopher McCandless would be quite so selfish and reckless.
We’re all prone to bouts of those destructive emotions but spending months on the road with nothing but the clothes on your back should allow enough time to come to your senses. We’re not talking about a weekend bender.
Now, on the plus side for the film, the supporting cast paint the kind of glamorous picture of hitching across America that many of us have daydreamed about here or there. While Hirsch does a good job, it is these other characters, floating in and out of his life that create an enjoyable framework for the story.
Hal Holbrook especially is amazing. I now see why he earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and while I’d still have given the award to Javier Bardem, Holbrook comes close to catching him.
The much-ballyhooed Eddie Vedder soundtrack meshes well with the tone and subject material of the film. The picturesque locations all speak to the beauty of this great nation many of us pay taxes to (including myself, don’t get any ideas IRS). And I can’t say that a part of me doesn’t envy McCandless for having the stones to disappear into a new existence, exploring the little known byways and crevices between the cement Interstate freeways.
However, while I can on one hand admire some of his spirit, I can’t ignore the carelessness he used in regards to the feelings of the people who knew and loved him. Furthermore, I think part of the charm people find in his tale is one of anti-establishment. A person who went the other way and channeled his anger into making money and cutting deals would be branded a greedy bastard. A bit of a double standard, I would say.
So, while Penn maneuvered the time line of events very well and gleaned good performances from his actors, it’s just too hard for me to feel any of the sympathy that the script and film are looking for. I’m giving “Into the Wild” a 3 out of 5. The events that befall Christopher McCandless are sad but he led his life in a manner that involved risks. One can’t be too surprised at how things turn out when caution isn’t heeded.