Into the Wild (2007)Rated R for language and some nudity.
Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Paramount Vantage. All rights reserved.
The Road to Somewhere
In 1990, recent college grad Christopher McCandless decided to buck civilized life as he knew it and live his days on the road. His trip was the subject of Jon Krakauer's book, Into the Wild, which now has been adapted into a movie of the same name, directed by Sean Penn. The story is intriguing because the idea is not uncommon -- how many of us have thought at one point in our lives what it might be like simply to disappear and go live on our own, traveling where the wind takes us?
But Into the Wild isn't a generalized imagining of such an idea. The movie immediately shows us just how specific the experience of McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is. What drove him to actually do it? What was his personality like? What about his background, his parents? His journey feels almost predestined, given his particular circumstances. Intelligent, well-read, and cocksure, he revolts against his upbringing as an expression of disgust at his parents' way of living and looking at the world. But surely there's also more to it than that, right?
That may be a matter of interpretation, and make no mistake, Penn is here to offer his take. He doesn't condemn the young man, but neither does he totally endorse what he did, either. However, he does go along with his force of personality, and Hirsch is allowed to give the character an energy and recognizable assuredness. We see right away that he's not exactly prepared for what he's doing, and that he carries a bitter rebelliousness to go along with his joy. He is in every sense the young idealist who has not gained the wisdom of age to dampen his sense of invincibility. Penn even goes so far as to speculate on the depth of his moral character on occasions. In some ways, McCandless appears almost sanctified.
But Penn doesn't leave it at that; he also feels the young man had lessons to learn. He splits the movie into chapters, correlating them to stages of growth -- childhood, adolescence, etc. In the course of the story, McCandless, who renames himself "Alexander Supertramp," runs into several people that will form a bond with him in some way. These include a hippie couple (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener) who become parental figures to him, and an older gentleman (Hal Holbrook, in an amazing turn) who has lived alone and isolated ever since he lost his wife and child. We learn that McCandless has rejected the notion of human relationships as necessary for fulfillment, so despite the friendships he makes, he decides to forsake them. As it turns out, his ultimate goal is to hike up to the Alaskan wilderness and live off of the land there. The movie actually intersplices scenes of his Alaskan stay with the linear narrative of the odyssey that takes him there. The director is not above giving the protagonist a hint of foolishness about his business.
The ultimate destination creates the opportunity for Penn to draw up a summation for his protagonist's journey, and it's a moral that should satisfy those viewers looking for meaning and order, but for me it seemed a bit conventional. I personally like to explore the idea that our free will is fairly constrained, mainly by forces we don't really consider, such as social and familial obligations; and I'm fascinated with the notion that all it would take is a conscious act, like McCandless's, to upend everything and actually exhibit true free will. The chaotic possibilities of such a scenario tests the bounds of what we might consider human nature; it would examine the very nature of what limits us.
Yet it might be too cold to see McCandless's act as a trip to a random outcome, too callous to think that his travels might not have taught him anything. His experiences and his eventual isolation surely lead him to truths that were unique to him, and Penn uses the evidence of the notes the real McCandless left behind as a cue to emphasize the values of life with access to community and love. It's a humane conclusion to a free-flowing, organic film which seems to embrace its tale, and its main character, like an open road.
©Jeffrey Chen, Sep. 17, 2007