A film review by Craig J. Koban


2007, R, 150 mins.

Chris McCandless: Emile Hirsch / Wayne: Vince Vaughn / Jan: Catherine Keener / Rainey: Brian Dierker / Ron Franz: Hal Holbrook / Billie McCandless: Marcia Gay Harden / Walt McCandless: William Hurt / Tracy: Kristen Stewart / Carine McCandless: Jena Malone

Written and directed by Sean Penn /  Based on the book by Jon Krakauer.

"I love not man the less, but nature more."

- Lord Byron


There is small reflection into the life of Chris McCandless that sums up his character perfectly in Sean Pennís INTO THE WILD.  When Chris was six-years- old he left the confines of his cozy bedroom, exited his house, walked several blocks away, entered a strangerís house, and proceeded to raid their candy drawer.

It was Chrisí insatiable lust for exploration that would come to the forefront of his even larger physical and spiritual trek.  In the early 1990's, after graduating from Emory University, he decided that he had all that he could take out of his materialistic and snobby parents and the society that nurtured and harbored them.  He decided to severe all ties with the world that he hated.  He stopped all communication with his family, donated all of his $24,000 life savings to charity, cut up and burned all of his identification, and abruptly left.  At one point, he even abandoned his car.

He then disappeared off of the map and made every effort to ensure that he was never, ever found.  Chris even went as far as changing his family name (he amusingly renamed himself "Alexander Supertramp").  He embarked on a spiritual journey that will saw him hitchhike across most of the western United States, down into Mexico, back into the States and eventually into Alaska, the latter being his main destination.

Disillusioned and jaded with the trappings of the modern world, Chris hoped to redefine himself in the Alaskan territory and become one with nature.  He took very little with him as he made his way to the state.  For the most part, he had a .22 caliber rifle, a camera, several rounds of ammunition, water, and most importantly, a small selection of books, some of which included special field guides to surviving in the wild and what plants are edible.  He had no map or compass with him, amazing in hindsight.  Perhaps his most cherished possession was his journal, which he would frequently write in, accounting his daily life on the road.  During his travels he met an odd and eclectic group of people that changed his life before he braced all of the harshness that wilderness survival had to offer.

The central question that I kept asking myself while watching Pennís oftentimes moving, beautifully photographed, and wonderfully acted account of Chrisís life was...why?  Why would a bright young kid that was a solid A student in University turn down an opportunity to go to law school and make something of himself in order to develop an affinity with nature? Seriously...why?  Granted, there is something kind of awe-inspiring and transcending about a twenty something man with a highly promising career ahead of him drop everything and say good-bye to civilization as we know it.  The fact that he essentially erased himself off of the planet, renounced his family life, and gave up all of possessions and money to walk to Alaska is the epitome of tenacity and nerve.  As he says at one point in the film, "Careers are a 20th Century invention...and I donít want one."  There is something kind of indescribably courageous about the choice Chris made.

Then again, his choice could also be aptly described as selfish, arrogant, and, letís face it, kind of insane.  Pennís INTO THE WILD is based on the 1996 best seller non-fiction book about Chris McCandless, which in turn was an expansion on a 9000 word article, DEATH OF AN INNOCENT.  The book has seen both subtle and large alterations to the real life story of Chris (in the film, Chrisí sister is the narrator instead of the bookís author, not to mention that Chrisís own musings and writings are often used to accentuate the story in voice over form).  Plot points have also been modified and truncated, and personal details of Chrisí life have been exaggerated (as is the case with his parents, shown as abusive figures to one another in the film).  No matter the differences and changes made from the book, Pennís INTO THE WILD works fairly well by providing a fascinating - if not sometimes overwrought, self-important, and pretentiously serious - portrait of this troubled man.

The film does a decent job of telling Chris' story: It is told largely in a fractured and time shifting narrative, which at first is somewhat jarring, but eventually gels together smoothly as to develop the arc of Chrisís tale.  We see him (played in an extraordinary performance by Emile Hirsch) as a smart and idealistic college graduate that has nothing but contempt for his mother and father (both small parts, but played well by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) both of whom seem more attracted to bickering with one another than with focusing love towards him.  Chris does find momentary solace with his sister (Jena Malone), who too feels isolated from her mother and father.

Then...he leaves...everything and everyone behind.  As he becomes Alexander Supertramp and hits the road and manages to meet up with some really interesting and compelling characters.  Two of them are a middle-age hippie-gypsy couple (played by Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener) and through them he learns how happy they have become by also rejecting society.  Next he comes in contact with a grain farmer (Vince Vaughn, hitting his quintessential Vaughnian, rapid fire delivery in a small part), who likes to drink and party it up, engages in some decidedly criminal activity on the side, but inevitably is a decent, affable, hard working man.  After that he leaves the farmer and reconnects with the gypsy couple and develops a short-lived relationship with a guitar player/singer (Kristen Stewart) and then finally hooks up with an aging, widowed man named Ron (Hal Holbrook, giving the filmís second great performance) who tries to reflect on Chrisí journey and offer him some insight into the realty of his situation.  Interestingly, Ron manages to learn more from the "kid" than he had anticipated.

From here Chris makes his way to the cold and frigid Alaskan wilderness, where he managed to eke out an existence for 112 days, all while bracing the bitter elements, eating wild berries and roots, and shooting and cooking a variety of game (including a rather large moose, which he failed to clean and prepare properly).  He stays in an abandoned school bus, which becomes his base of operations.  At first, Chris is a like a proverbial kid in a candy store, drinking in all of the vistas and sights with a youthful enthusiasm: he is essentially born again.  However, the longer his stay lasts the more lonely and depressed he becomes.  Game meat becomes increasingly scarce and Chris' food supply deceases by the day.  His physical health sharply deteriorates (he loses an alarming amount of weight and becomes nearly skeletal).  As he feebly lives through his final days, Chris grows consumed with the notion that the key to happiness is not solitude with nature, but with the company of other people.

If there are a few things that INTO THE WILD absolutely has going for it then it would be its performances and direction.  Emile Hirsch is an actor that I have admired for some time (he was good in films like THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, LORDS OF DOGTOWN, and this yearís ALPHA DOG), but his work here is a revelation as he has one of the most difficult performances to pull off: he has to command our simultaneous respect, admiration, and contempt all at the same time.  Chrisí spunk and determination are easy to like, but the way he sort of leaves his family without warning is kind of cruel, not to mention egocentric.  Hirsch finds the right balance of hitting all of these emotional marks and is astonishing as he slowly sinks into Chris at his weakest and most dire (he shed 40 pounds to portray him at his worst). The other performances are all well tailored, but the filmís other commanding bit of acting comes from the wise old veteran Holbrook, who provides such an emotional wallop playing up his characterís soft spoken melancholy and inner pain.

Pennís direction is also exemplary, as he manages to keep expeditious pacing of the film despite its long length (it clocks in at 150 minutes), but what really shines here is Pennís absolutely gorgeous and sumptuous portrayal of the landscapes and environments that Chris comes across, which all carry a gravitas of foreboding harshness and tranquility.  Itís not hard to see why Chris is so enamored with the elements, and Penn films them all with a painterly eye to detail.  INTO THE WILD is always enchanting and transfixing as a visual odyssey.

Yet, if the film has one noticeable weakness then I  think it's the way Penn paints Chris in a far too idealized, hero worshipping light.  There are moments where it seems that the director places a level of heavy handed importance and significance to Chrisí journey to the point of it being a pseudo-religious experience.  There is undeniable passion and energy that Penn exudes in making INTO THE WILD a compelling character drama, but I think he really glosses over some of the more obvious faults of this guy.  Chrisí journey is certainly gutsy and vigorous, but there is something unrelentingly self-centered and arrogant about how he intrinsically slaps his family in the face and impetuously leaves them.  I think that Penn plays up the parents too one-sidedly as wicked and vile figures, which cheaply allows Chrisí spiritual trip have meaning and importance.  Far too often than not, INTO THE WILD gets really lost in a sea of its on self-aggrandizing pontificating and is naively idealistic in portraying a truly troubled and disturbed young man.

However, my chief complaint of the film certainly does not take away from the whole, and INTO THE WILD is a courageously ambitious, beautifully filmed, and poignantly acted drama.  Penn, already well respected as one of the finest actors of his generation, is also building a solid directorial career: He has made such well crafted films like THE CROSSING GUARD and THE PLEDGE, the latter containing Jack Nicholsonís best, least seen performance.  At its core, INTO THE WILD is a deeply felt ode to the determination and boundless enthusiasm of one manís desire to leave high society behind and reestablish himself with the rigged splendor of nature.  Perhaps what works best in the film is that it simply and astutely follows one basic principle of storytelling: Itís often not the destination that is important, but the road traveled to get there.

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