Into the Wild
2007Director: Sean Penn
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn
nto the Wild is a deceptively complex story because, well, it tries to capture the essence of a young man. The book (written by Jon Krakauer), and the new film adaptation, carry through them an implied sense of why Chris McCandless is such a fascinating figure: he lived, and died according to his own intensely held beliefs. Everything he does in the movie, even things as inane as flipping burgers, has the triumphant air of purpose about it. Krakauer and Sean Penn, the director of the new film adaptation, both try to understand Chris, as I imagine we all do in aligning ourselves with his frustration with the more despicable aspects of our culture, by contextualizing his adventures around a specific cause. Krakauer spent more time in his book examining the wanderlust that has captivated particular young men, including himself, through their early adulthood. Penn spends less time with this intellectual investigation, and delves more deeply in the film into the spiritual and ideological struggle present in the final years of Chris' life. An ardent independent spirit, Chris spent much of his time absorbing the theories of Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy, and his premature death seems to ask how one can really effectively live by these beliefs.
It's to Penn's credit that he stays grounded in the individual story of Chris. The ubiquitous presence of these books he loves (the movie uses several Tolstoy passages and an incredible poem by Sharon Olds), however, still show us the strain from which Chris derives his immediate angst. This, coupled with the stunning cinematography, serves to show Chris as a man who is almost too in touch with the world—being pushed and pulled by intellectual strains and the natural beauty around him so often that he's not quite sure what to make of life. You begin to understand visually Chris's urge for a transient life, and his eventual resolution to pack up and let himself be carried along by his natural impulses. “What are you doing, there, in the wild?” his boss Wayne Westerberg asks him pragmatically at one moment. “Just living,” he replies.
Into the Wild's greatest strength, then, is its neutral look at Chris McCandless. The movie tries to placate him in his surroundings, leaving the viewer to decide what to make of him. Emile Hirsch gives a powerful, sensitive performance as Chris, successfully juggling his gregariousness with his anti-social tendencies, his tenderness with his self-righteous contempt towards his family and modern western culture. In his most moving sequences, you see him carry all these things at once. Late into his “great Alaskan journey” (the final trip he would make, during which he would starve to death), for example, he finally manages to shoot a moose during one of his hunting sessions. His excitement over killing something larger than a squirrel changes erratically to empathy for the life he just took. As he's trying to smoke the meat in a makeshift fire, he recalls in a disdainful and puerile tone one hurtful episode in his turbulent childhood when his dad (played here by William Hurt) snapped at him arbitrarily during a family barbecue.
A minute later, when he realizes a lot of the moose meat is going to waste, he is nearly moved to tears, and writes in his journal “one of the greatest tragedies of my life.” Hirsch gives a great view of what must have made Chris so captivating: he switched so suddenly and so passionately between absolute, loving tenderness, frightening self-loathing, and an inaccessible idealism. In the final moments of his life, when he finally realizes he is alone and vulnerable, there's a profound sense of lost opportunity in his life. Perhaps only by realizing how weak he was to the natural forces he revered around him, he was able to see the strength of human relationships. One of his last lines he writes in Doctor Zhivago, “happiness is only real when shared,” may sound a little sappy, but you get the sense of a real meaningful transformation in his character, which makes his death all the more tragic.
The movie only lags when it's investigative elements towards Chris become a little too apparent. The sister's narration, while for the most part is interesting, comes off as a cerebral attempt to explain away Chris' angst-ridden past that drove him into the wilderness. The music, which was written by Eddie Vedder for the film, lyrically features several blunt parallels with Chris, and occasionally sounds more lighthearted than the gravity of his situation would suggest.
These flaws seem pretty minor when put in the context of the greater film, however. In the end, Into the Wild managed to capture the spirit of Chris that is also present in John Krakauer's book, which is always the most important part of a film adaptation. Penn made a strong choice turning the book's essay format into a deeply personal narrative. If nothing else, this way he was able to communicate on a more solid visual level Chris's incredible lust for life. For a movie that delves so deeply into one man's experience, it leaves a powerful residual effect of self-reflection. You'll wonder about your own desires to escape from inane and complicated obligations and, one day, to escape into your own vision of “the wild,” whatever that may be.
By: Yannick LeJacq
Published on: 2007-09-25