Into the Wild
Director: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener
Into the Wild is a really good movie. It’s fueled by a standout cast doing standout work, under the assured and creative direction of Sean Penn. Based on a true story, it has the feeling of real life, despite a main character whose nature and journey are far out of the ordinary.
Fresh Emory grad Chris McCandless, motivated by love of Byron, Kerouac and Thoreau and hatred of his parents, disappears onto a hobo odyssey that lasts two country-crossing years before he ends up alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Always upbeat and optimistic, the kid wants to reject materialistic society, clear away all the clutter and really get to know his true self and the true world. Anyone who made it to their mid-twenties without having felt that impulse is probably not someone I’d like to know, but very, very few of us act on it in any significant way. This guy, renaming himself “Alexander Supertramp,” did. The result is a well-made, thought-provoking film that balances depth, pure storytelling and style.
The movie jumps around in time, starting in the desolate winter of Alaska, the climax of Chris’ (or Alex’s) two-year travels, and moving around the two-year timeline in an apparently random order that, in fact, weaves together very well. The time jumps were a smart choice, because much of the journey leaves our young tramp in complete solitude, just walking or hanging out, and despite some very lovely nature cinematography, that does not make for compelling cinema. By cleverly layering periods of solitude and socialization, we get a nice flow and a comfortable rhythm that prevents the audience from getting antsy at any point in the two-hour, 20-minute movie.
Excerpts from letters and journals, and voiceover narration from Chris’ sister, keep the story moving and offer insight. Chris is motivated by his parents’ apparently tempestuous marriage, based on lies, strife and hypocrisy. It is a sign of good filmmaking that while Chris’ case against his parents is presented, as portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, the parents seem like your usual Stepford-style suburban zombies, not the monsters Chris so resents he won’t speak of them. We watch the parents fall apart as his disappearance—with never a word—continues. A viewer could make a strong argument that his parents aren’t that bad, and that Chris is incredibly selfish, self-indulgent and shortsighted to set off on his crazy journey without a care (or with “characteristic immoderation, as his forgiving sister puts it). Penn seems to present the facts more than he tries to shape them, though certainly Emile Hirsch’s infectious spirit and engaging performance tilt us toward Chris’ side.
For all the solitude and nature-loving, the interactions are more interesting, particularly when he falls in with a couple of aging hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and meets a young potential love interest (Kristen Stewart). Chris explicitly rejects relationships. While he bonds with a number of people, including the aforementioned hippies, and a farmworker played by Vince Vaughn, he specifically tells Hal Holbrook, playing an aging widower, that human relationships are not the primary basis of happiness. That’s not what the viewer of this movie is going to be thinking.
That’s not an accident. The story of Chris’s travels turned into a book, which Penn adapted into the screenplay, and if we’re to understand that the film is a faithful adaptation of Chris’ emotional journey, as well as the physical one, Penn does a great job of involving the viewer in the process of thought bubbling beneath Hirsch’s open, boyish smile.
I am rambling now. It’s a movie that will make you do that—a fascinating piece of work that seems to really have inspired Penn. Is Chris’ dramatic two-year journey a metaphor of the growing up that many of us do more slowly and without such vivid adventuring? Where’s the line between independence and immaturity? What are the values of love and solitude, and can you appreciate one without having known the other? Is so much of America really that beautiful? Is so much of Los Angeles really that ugly? If you throw yourself to the world like this, will you really encounter this many genuinely sincere and good people? Just how much misbehavior do our parents’ bad marriages entitle us to? Where does Penn find some of these amazing bit actors?
It’s a film about love, about life, about youth, about dreams, about art, about beauty. You really ought to see it.