Into the Wild (2007)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Brian Dierker, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook
Directed by: Sean Penn
For many viewers, their enjoyment of Sean Penn‘s adaptation of the book by the same name by Jon Krakauer will depend on their feelings toward the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, as portrayed by Emile Hirsch. Some will relate to him as an adventurous spirit to be admired for his conviction and wanderlust. Others will see him as an insufferable brat who recklessly put himself in danger by going off half-cocked into situations he didn’t fully understand.
Personally, I saw him as a bit of both. I admire his ability to go after what he wanted without paralysing himself with fear, but, he was a tremendous douche who needed to be a little more concerned with how his actions affected others, and needed to prepare himself better for the challenges he faced. Regardless of my deep ambivalence toward both McCandless the man and McCandless the character, I found Into the Wild to be an expertly-made movie that draws you into his life, even if you’re not sure how you feel about the guy himself.
Into the Wild is the account of Christopher McCandless’ real life journey across America, in pursuit of some meaning he finds lacking in his life of privilege. Upon graduating in 1990 from Emory University, McCandless ceased communicating with his family, gave away his savings to OXFAM and began travelling, later abandoning his car and burning all the money in his wallet. His ultimate goal was to test himself against the unforgiving wilderness of Alaska, where he would survive for a few months until eventually dying due to his lack of preparation.
Penn assured direction of McCandless’ travels and eventual demise, along with cinematographer Eric Gautier‘s brilliant work, is reminiscent of Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog in the way that it elegantly captures nature. It’s particularly reminiscent of Herzog’s Grizzly Man in the way it presents its idealistic but flawed protagonist and his failed attempt to commune with the wild, without definitively pinning down its protagonist as hero or madman.
It’s an easy movie to get lost in, part road movie, part man vs nature epic, presenting a variety of little adventures and characters to keep the 140 minute film moving fairly well. Hal Holbrook in particular is memorable, serving as the final symbol for those who McCandless left behind and how Chris’ decision to sever contact with those who care about him only served to hurt them. Penn’s portrayal of Chris’ parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) was probably the biggest misstep of the film, choosing to side with McCandless’ conflicted ideas of them without fairly treating their position.
Otherwise, he does a good job in showing how McCandless lived his life without condemning or lionizing him too much. At times, the movie might be overly sympathetic with McCandless, but it never sugarcoats the fact that he was an overly zealous young man as responsible for his fate as he was for the suffering he inadvertently caused to those he encountered. It’s a poetic movie, perfect for anyone who has ever romanticized the idea of escaping to nature and leaving their lives behind for the open road, both because it will appeal to their nature and reveal the hazards of the lifestyle.