Jon Krakauer’s 1996 novel Into the Wild about the late Christopher McCandless and his exploration into the Alaskan wilderness. The story of a young man who came from a wealthy suburb in West Virginia and to rebel against his upbringing by taking a life-changing journey proved to be inspirational. One of those readers was actor Sean Penn whose work as a director such films as The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, and The Pledge has given him critical acclaim for his unique take on films. For his fourth feature in the directing front, Penn tells the inspirational tale of late, young life of Christopher McCandless.
Adapted into a script by Penn and the book’s novelist Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild is a film about Christopher McCandless who leaves his tumultuous family life in West Virginia to take a road trip of sorts towards his destination in Alaska. During his trip, he encounters various people and such while dealing with his troubled family life that included his bickering parents and his loving sister.
In the role of Christopher McCandless is Emile Hirsch, who is known for his unique performances from mainstream films like The Girl Next Door and The Lords of Dogtown to more independent fare like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Imaginary Heroes. Also starring William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener, Kristen Stewart, Zach Galifianakis, Hal Holbrook, Vince Vaughn, and Hirsch’s Dangerous Lives co-star Jena Malone as his sister Carine. Into the Wild is a poignant, complex, and eerie film from Sean Penn.
After graduating from Emory College in Georgia in 1990, Christopher Johnson McCandless meets his parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) and his younger sister Carine for dinner as they offer to buy him a new car to replace his old one. Though he politely declines, he bids them farewell as he decides to disappear for two years to go on a trip to the Alaskan wilderness under his new alias Alexander Supertramp. Getting rid of his ID card and giving his grant money to charity, Christopher goes on his journey where he later rids of his car and finances. After meeting a hippie couple in Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan Burres (Catherine Keener), he finds common ground over his disdain towards the material world that he felt trapped by from his life with his parents.
Continuing on his journey towards north, he stops at South Dakota where he works for a harvester named Wayne (Vince Vaughn) who gives him advice on what to do before arriving into Alaska. After a stop in Washington as he leaves his books under the bridge, he goes kayak rafting on the Colorado River without a permit as he meets a Danish couple (Thure Lindhardt and Signe Egholm Olsen) on the way to Mexico. Sneaking back to the U.S. via train, he arrives at Los Angeles only wanting to go further away as he returns to Washington to meet up with Jan and Rainey where he meets a young teenage girl named Tracy. After some time with Tracy, Jan, and Rainey, Christopher goes on another trip before arriving into Alaska where he meets an old man named Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook).
Ron befriends Christopher as he gives him some wisdom about what to do before going to Alaska as Christopher finally arrives in mid-1992 for a life of adventure. Living in an abandoned bus that he calls the “Magic Bus”, he finds himself confronting his own past as well as the harsh world of nature itself.
While the story of Christopher McCandless is a tragic one, that doesn’t mean his story is one that is both inspiration and cautious. It’s really about a young man who tries to find himself in a world that he doesn’t know only to reflect on the things he fears from. While a few changes were made in the adaptation, Penn’s script that includes narration written by Susan Olds along with contribution from the real-life Carine McCandless and Jena Malone. The narrative style is more straight forward as it moves back-and-forth into McCandless’ experience in the Alaskan wilderness and his journey. A third narrative is also told, this is from the perspective of Carine McCandless about the family’s struggles and how Christopher had been angry at them that included some harsh, family secrets.
Penn’s approach to the script and its multi-layered narrative is definitely wonderful as it doesn’t lag or feel rushed. Rather in making a film that’s conventional and in a Hollywood style. Penn definitely draws from the inspiration of Terrence Malick in terms of its voice-over narration as well as his naturalistic-imagery that often includes wonderful shots of nature. While a lot of the visual and storytelling ideas are definitely Malick-esque, by the time McCandless struggles with nature’s harsh realities, the film becomes darker in a way that would be from the viewpoint of Werner Herzog.
Still, Penn chooses to focus on Christopher McCandless. Despite some of his ideas and excitement for adventure, here’s a man that’s also very flawed. Penn doesn’t portray him as a hero nor as a tragic figure but rather a human being who doesn’t truly understand the world and how he ends up struggling with nature’s harsh realities. While Penn’s direction is solid throughout the entire film. Shooting on location in Alaska as well as all of the places McCandless went where the camera is in the river and kayaking through the rapids. It does have a few flaws, notably the ending. It’s not the content or what is shown. Rather the approach to what happens yet, some might like it, some won’t. Still, the enchanting approach to the film and all of its imagery shows that Sean Penn is getting better as a director.
Cinematographer Eric Gautier brings some wonderful camera work to the film and most of all, it’s exterior sequences that includes wonderful evening, nighttime shots of the outside world. Including some amazing shots of the city from afar. Gautier also uses some grainy camera work to convey the emotions of Christopher’s mind in relating to his parents in the flashback sequences. Longtime Penn collaborator in editor Jay Cassidy brings some wonderful cuts to convey the sense of emotion as well as humor of Christopher McCandless that works in every level to give the film some relief from its heavy-drama. Sound designer Martin Hernandez does some wonderful work in the sound to convey the atmosphere and location of where Christopher is that includes the noise of winds, animals, and cars as Hernandez’ work is amazing.
Production designer Derek Hill and art director Domenic Silvestri do some wonderful work in re-creating the beaten bus as well as the hippie-commune that Jan and Rainey live in. Costume designer Mary Claire Hannan also does great work with the hippie clothing in those scenes along with the realistic clothing of Christopher McCandless. The film’s music and score by Michael Brook is mostly acoustic tracks with contributions from Khaki King. The music plays to the sense of poignancy and adventure while the rest of the soundtrack includes songs by Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder. Vedder’s songs are wonderful with its mix of acoustic and rock-like ballads that are almost reminiscent of work of Cat Stevens. Vedder’s music is also poignant for its emotion and how it captures the mind of Christopher McCandless.
The film’s cast is very unique with notable small appearances from Zach Galifianakis, Steven Wiig, Thure Lindhardt, Signe Egholm Olsen, Cheryl Francis Harrington as a social worker, and Bryce Walters and Haley Ramm in their respective roles as the young Christopher and Carine McCandless. Hal Holbrook’s appearance is very memorable as a grandfather-like figure who bonds with Christopher while telling him about ideas of the world and the opportunities he’s wasting. The last shot of Holbrook in the film is really one of the most emotional. Brian Dieker and Catherine Keener are wonderful as this old hippie couple who, like Christopher, try to live without society’s rules with Keener giving the stronger performance as a woman dealing with the past life she’s left behind.
Kristen Stewart is wonderful as the charming young girl who falls for Christopher while proving her talents as a singer where she has this wonderfully sexy yet ragged look. Vince Vaughn strays from his typical, comedic persona for a very memorable, wild performance as Wayne. A man who gives Christopher a job while giving him more pointers on adventure and the world as Vaughn is just amazing. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden are wonderfully portrayed as Christopher’s parents whose life takes a turn after his appearance. The despair as well as the fact that despite their problems, they’re not portrayed as bad people but rather loving parents despite Christopher’s point-of-view early in the film.
While Jena Malone’s appearance is minimal, her contribution in her performance as Carine is just brilliant in being the film’s lone observant. With little dialogue Malone gives in her performance, it’s her voice-over narration that is really striking as she plays the observer and how she is the one trying to deal with his disappearance and being the only one to understand why. Her voice-over work and contributions is more reason into why she remains overlooked among her 20-something acting peers.
The film’s real star is Emile Hirsch in what is definitely a career performance for the young actor. Hirsch brings the kind of innocence, humor, energy, and excitement into the character that is a joy to watch. The scene where he talks to an apple he’s eating is fun to watch while he brings a lot of life to the film and character. When he is forced to engage into more darker territory, Hirsch really shows his depth as an actor as the scenes where he’s really struggling shows his complexity. This is no doubt a performance that will be very memorable and hopefully, Emile Hirsch won’t be overlooked come Oscar time.
While not a perfect film, Into the Wild is still an enchanting yet harrowing film from Sean Penn and probably his best work to date as a director. With a great cast that is led by Emile Hirsch in a superb performance. Fans of films about nature will no doubt love the inspiring world that is Alaska while seeing the wonders of the American wilderness in all of beauty and ugliness. While it’s a long film with a running time of almost two-and-a-half hours, it’s one that is worth seeing on the big screen. In the end, Into the Wild is an amazingly, sprawling film from Sean Penn.