You know that book that moved you so intensely, touched something inside you so much that you had to push it fanatically onto everyone you knew? Into the Wild is Sean Penn’s version of that. Adapted from Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book on the life-affirming and tragic story of college grad Christopher McCandless’ withdrawal from civilization and what he saw as the trappings of society, Penn reportedly waited over a decade for the OK from McCandless’ parents to bring this story to the screen and rightly so. The story is indeed very much worth telling and Penn’s idealistic, wide-eyed exploration of the enigmatic, almost messiah-figured McCandless’ motives and reasons for leaving everything behind is just the right touch.
In 1990, after graduating an honours student from Emory University, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch in an award-worthy turn) changed his name, gave away his life savings to Oxfam, cut himself off from his family and began to travel across America with the ultimate goal of going up to Alaska and living in the wild. For how long and for exactly what purpose is unknown, but what is known is that his decomposed body was found in an abandoned bus by moose hunters in Sep. 1992.
McCandless could have easily
been put under the narcissistic, stupid and naive category and the film spun as a cautionary tale. Though presenting this side through flashback scenes showing his disenchantment with his parents and his comfortable though quietly dysfunctional home life, the movie mostly chooses to mourn McCandless’ errors in judgment as well as revels in the journey he chose to take.
Penn sets this tone early on in the film, quoting from Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrammage” before the main credits and set against a backdrop of the wilds of Alaska—one of many exhilaratingly beautiful scenes framed by cinematographer Eric Gauthier:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep Sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less, but Nature more
This breathless enthusiasm is also envisioned in the original music by Eddie Vedder, a character in itself that serves as a sort of narration, capturing McCandless’ pure awe for the grandiose scenes in nature he encounters as he kayaks the impossible rapids of the Colorado River and is dwarfed among the redwoods of coastal California.
The film is also intercut by scenes about the people he meets and inevitably charms in his travels with his youthful enthusiasm, so much so that many of them try to keep him from going out to “Alaska Alaska” to the point of even offering to adopt him. Characters like Jan Burres (Catherine Keener), Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn) and kindly old man Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) give him rides and employment along the way, as well as parental warnings about his crazy plans, keeping the film grounded. Strangely, it also acts as a further propelling device and build-up for this unknowable great adventure he was grasping for in “The Wild.” The fact that their incredibly touching performances (most notably Holbrook) and pleas to stay back sway neither viewers nor McCandless is a testament to Penn’s achievement in his storytelling and ability to help us grasp some small way that McCandless’ journey was worth it, though everyone comes in knowing the horrible end result.
With Into the Wild Sean Penn has crafted, with passion and great care, an unforgettable, thrilling film, the kind that may cause friends to push it fanatically onto others, exclaiming “You have to see this!” And really, you do.