Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s novel Into the Wild, tells the real life story of a young idealist called Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) who, upon finishing college, hands his life savings to a charity and treks out alone into the great wilderness of North America. His journey is a genuine self-imposed exile from what he calls “sick society”, and he authenticates it by renaming himself “Alex Supertramp”, abandoning his car, burning his remaining money and severing all contact with his family. It’s not your usual gap year.
Alex’s journey takes him from the top to the bottom of the continent, and we’re treated to sumptuous scenery from Mexico to the Yukon. It is amazing on the big screen and if you’ve a fondness for America’s national parks, you might watch it simply for that. The vast freedom of the wilderness will remind many of us that we also harbour feelings of wanderlust. But Alex’s is a notch higher in ascetic intensity than anything most of us would entertain. What drives his unabating need for separation?
The caring travellers that Alex meets along his way, including parent-like hippies Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker), and Grandfather-like Ron (Hal Holbrook), inevitably ask Alex the same question. “The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences” Alex gushes, or some other heartfelt quote about freedom or truth said by his idols Tolstoy, London or Thoreau. Touching relationships begin and break as Alex drifts on.
But is there more to it? Deep in Alex’s intelligent mind, what is the real mixture of motivations guiding him to such extremes? The genius of Sean Penn’s screenplay and direction is that it creates an intricate and non-judgmental portrait of Alex with subtlety and sincerity. It gives us freedom to decide whether Alex is a prophet or a fool. But these judgments aren’t made easily. The more you probe, the more you see that Into the Wild has painted the most thoughtful psychological picture of its protagonist.
Sean Penn is a director with rare insight into the depth of the human character and its complexities and contradictions. He knows how to show this to us in film language and he has a remarkable understanding of how an audience will read it. In some ways Into the Wild echoes of Sean Penn’s last film, The Pledge, which also encouraged us to scrutinize a character’s conflicting motivations. Into the Wild brushes these issues with an even gentler touch, and it feels much more poetic, meditative – and better – than The Pledge.
Everything falls in the right place. Hirsch’s performance is genuine and human, as are those of all the minor characters. Alex’s relationships with them are revealing; they are so tender and hurtful at the same time. The natural scenery is both majestic and frightening. If you’re like me, not all of this will grab you at once. At its conclusion, you might even feel underwhelmed at the plot: disaffected young man tramps across scenic America looking for discovery and meets a range of characters.
Its two and a half hours might seem long. But Into the Wild is not one of those films where you “switch off” and let it blast you with entertainment. In fact, you probably won’t be able to switch off. Something will hold onto you. Whether it’s Alex’s words, his interactions, the enormity of the story – something will snag your mind and the deep intelligence inherent in this picture will soak in. There’s so much here to think about: courage and arrogance, freedom and conformity, relationships and isolation, what brings us happiness… For me, this meaning was evoked with beauty and skill, and after the film had finished it just kept on soaking deeper, all the way to five stars.