INTO THE WILD
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Into the Wild is Sean Penn's capably directed version of a true story that was originally popularized over ten years ago in Jon Krakauer's book of the same name. It celebrates the brief life of Christopher McCandless (1968-1992), a relatively well-off college graduate who abandoned his dysfunctional family in exchange for the wisdom and solitude of the road. As Chris (who later christens himself “Alexander Supertramp” when he is essentially reborn) sagely points out, for restless spirits such as his all roads seem to lead west. Unfortunately, the compass of his heart then leads him north into the unforgiving wilderness of Alaska.
If you don't want to know more, by all means stop reading now and avoid all formats of popular media for a while. Much like the movie and/or book The Perfect Storm, this film is an explanation of a well-publicized tragedy. The tragedy in this case being the fact that young Christopher never made it out of the woods alive. It attempts to fill in some of the gaps, but is primarily concerned with meditating on why this particular deceased twenty-three year old is so interesting to so many. The Alaskans don't seem to revere him – they largely consider him a random dumbass. Yet countless other likeminded people have found a kindred spirit in Chris, seeing a young man who was wise beyond his years. I saw both.
Fittingly, this dichotomy is dividing public opinion on the film (as it did with the bestselling book before it). While one may argue the merits (or lack thereof) of McCandless, it's hard to deny the infectiously fascinating nature of his story, especially considering the rich characters he encounters in his travels. Director Penn (The Pledge, The Crossing Guard) does a fantastic job, and toes that precarious line bordering the pretentious art film without ever falling over it.
One of the earliest shots is an example of how good his eye is – as a local man pulls his beaten truck to a stop at the end of an Alaskan road, this piece of the action takes place on the extreme left of the frame. As Chris (played by Emile Hirsch of The Girl Next Door and Alpha Dog) retrieves his belongings and prepares for his journey, we are left to focus on and contemplate the vast snowy wasteland silently occupying the remainder of the image. It's a simple, poetic moment that presages the fact that McCandless is much smaller than he thinks, and will soon be swallowed whole by the harsh Alaskan countryside.
The film then establishes his ill-prepared journey through the wild until he finally discovers the incongruous sight of an abandoned transit bus complete with amenities such as a mattress and a pipe stove. What is known about the events that follow have been gleaned from the sparse notes left behind by Chris, so Penn wisely aborts a Cast Away retelling of a man stuck in the middle of nowhere in favor of a series of illuminating flashbacks.
These are broken into segments, from “Adolescence” through “Manhood” all the way up to “The Getting of Wisdom”, though one may argue that McCandless is still far from a man during the section proclaiming him to be one. We are introduced to him as an Emory University graduate, smugly self-confident and brimming with memorized passages from the likes of Tolstoy, London and Thoreau. Chris is no good at connecting with people, and his communication skills consist of the maddeningly self-indulgent recitation of his favorite poems. He has issues with his parents (they're a volatile pair of well-to-do space antennae moguls with plenty of secrets, played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) but can't express his anger in his own words.
I grew plenty itchy during this segment, wherein Chris turns down each and every favor thrown at him by his parents (such as a new car) as he plans on chucking it all and tramping across America. I was once again struck by the notion that it's always the rich kids who feel resentful toward the trappings of money, material possessions and housing, and find it so easy to disconnect themselves from things they have the luxury to take for granted. You don't find many poor kids turning down bimmers from their folks and salivating at the notion of becoming homeless.
I did the starving artist shtick once, and can tell you that there's nothing romantic about lying awake in the freezing cold hoping you can fall asleep long enough to briefly escape relentless hunger pangs. I also dumped all of my collections (CDs, books, laserdiscs) in my parents' basement and roamed the countryside with no money and a pile of belongings. Okay, I admit that was pretty fun, but after a while I came to learn that while material possessions can indeed bring you down if you let them – I actually liked my stuff. I enjoyed it. So forgive me if I can only empathize with Chris McCandless to a point.
He employs his poor sister Carine (Jena Malone) in his ruse, establishing a residence down south before heading out for big sky country. While at times you can understand why he leaves his parents in such pain (they are pretty flawed after all), his sister is just one of many good people left desolate and devastated in the wake of his abandonment. These are the people who really elevate the film and give it heart. Catherine Keener (playing Jan) and a sublime Brian Dierker (Rainey) appear as two “rubber tramps” (aka vagabonds who drive instead of walk) who take young Chris under their wing for a brief stint. They're out to help a fellow transient, but there are other reasons at work as well.
Thank God for Rainey and Jan, for they are the first people in the film to question Chris' thought processes, wondering aloud why he would do something stupid like burn all of his money (at least he donated the rest of his savings to Oxfam). This is where Chris' Jesus-like status first comes into play, as he clears the troubled air between the two hippies and shuffles off mysteriously before dawn.
From there he finds his way into the Dakotas and becomes employed as a farm hand by Vince Vaughn's kindly harvester Wayne Westerberg (who sidelines in dealing illegal cable descramblers). Chris continually follows his fancy, sneaking onto the Colorado River after balking at the thought of “the man's” waiting lists and obnoxious kayaking permits. He somehow tames the tumultuous rapids and befriends a pair of Danish weirdos (Thure Lindhardt and Signe Egholm Olsen) before heading south and sneaking into Mexico through a spillway.
When not kayaking he often employs the tried and true transportation technique of tramping it on railroad boxcars. Eventually, he suffers a beating before the clenched fist of a railroad authority, but other than this one setback he leads a mostly charmed life. Even during his stint into Los Angeles, where the stark distinction between restless nomad and homeless man comes into clear focus. Looking scruffy and scraggly in the dusty wastelands of the American Midwest and Mexico lends Chris a unique look, but once in the big city it quickly becomes clear that he is merely one of thousands.
True to his style, he suffers no blows to his ego and sidles up to his free bed with a permagrin fastened on his face. He's the happiest hobo on the planet – if only he could convince all of the other people at the shelter how lucky they really are! Still, he learns that money is of some importance (though only to accomplish certain necessary tasks), and he takes a job at Burger King to help finance his ever-growing desire to conquer Alaska. Apparently, he does a great job despite his aversion to proper footwear.
There's also a wonderful segment in which he rejoins Jan and Rainey at the location of Slab City, a Winnebago festooned commune smack in the middle of the Colorado Desert. Chris is welcomed back with open arms, and also meets their neighboring teenage songstress Tracy (played by Kristen Stewart). She has eyes for him (or as Rainey so eloquently puts it, she's ready to “mount him like a fencepost”), but Chris would rather sing songs together and bond during a visit to a local folk artist obsessed with the notion of love.
As divine a being as Chris is often portrayed, love is something he cannot commit to. He forges connections with people who see in him what they desire (a boyfriend, a brother, a lost son), but he will not allow these binds to last. He turns down a romantic liaison with Tracy under the pretense of her illegal age, but we know that he's just plain scared. He finds substitute parents in the form of Jan and Rainey, but his undying anger towards his real family forces him to break everyone's hearts.
The saddest instance being his departure from Hal Holbrook's crusty, bereaved leather worker Ron Franz. He's yet another character who's suffered a tremendous loss and sees something in Chris that rekindles his dwindling fire for life. Chris is bound and determined to convince Ron that personal connections are ultimately meaningless, and that all a man needs to prosper is the ability to roam and enjoy being fetterless out in the elements. Ron knows that there's a heap of self-delusion in there, but still allows Chris to teach him a thing or two about living.
Interspersed throughout all of these adventures are the present tense scenes of the young man attempting to make a go of it in his “magic bus”. He successfully kills and eats a number of small animals, but things take a turn for the worse following a disastrous attempt at preserving the meat of a felled moose. He's continually forced to create new notches in his hand-made leather belt as he withers away to nothing. Hersch is yet another in the long line of actors (Christian Bale, Donnie Wahlberg etc.) who lost an unhealthy amount of weight for a role.
He spends his days reading and patiently awaiting the ultimate revelations that are bound to come out of such an arduous period of self induced exile. The ultimate irony is that once those revelations come, he finds him trapped when he's finally ready to reenter society and make peace with the world. The nature of his eventual demise (give the guy some credit for making it over 100 days!) is still being debated today. While Penn utilizes one of Krakauer's multiple hypotheses (all of which have been essentially debunked scientifically), the locals have a few of their own suggestions as well.
They also wonder why such a smart young fellow decided to enter into such an area so ill prepared. He had a rifle, a fifty dollar tent, some rice, a book of plant life and no map of the area. Had it not been for the dumb luck of discovering a relatively equipped shelter, he might not have lasted as long as he did. And if he was denying the luxury of a map to experience the land just like the explorers of old, why did he choose to hole up in a bus of all things? It's odd that someone who claimed to abhor the uselessness of a manmade environment would cling so to the sole vestige of that world. Over mountains, fields and caves he chose a rusty bus.
Likewise, his pearls of deep wisdom ultimately prove to be nothing particularly new or special. Any angst-ridden young adult (or even Tyler Durden) could tell you the same stuff. What is so fascinating about the Chris McCandless of the screen is his spark, and the way in which he bounces off of other people. I ultimately had no problem collating these examples of Chris as being both enlightened and emotionally immature. Unlike some of his subsequent critics and acolytes, I didn't feel the need for him to be one or the other. Instead he's the perfect embodiment of the term sophomore, or wise fool.
Hirsch is fantastic, as is the entire cast. Holbrook gives a remarkable performance of a man plagued by crippling sorrow. On the other end of the age spectrum is Stewart's laudable acting, as she perfectly captures the stinging pain of youthful desire left unfulfilled. Keener, Hurt and Gay Harden are likewise all wonderful at exhibiting their own particular brand of loss and heartache. I think I was most surprised by the performance of Dierker, whose uncomplicated insight and personification of sheer benevolence single-handedly wrests the honor of the term ‘hippie' back from the clutches of South Park's Eric Cartman. Rainey, like most of these people, has been there, done that and knows that much of what Chris clings to is bullshit. The fact that they can't (or perhaps don't want to) convince the boy of this makes the film that much more engrossing.
Sean Penn has proven his mettle as a director, and has crafted a timeless work of art that would find itself at home among the better films of the seventies. Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder also donates a helping of stirring music (along with the much under-recognized Canadian guitar virtuoso Michael Brook) that fits this film like a glove. While I admit that I take certain elements of McCandless' personality to task, I must reaffirm that I enjoyed these frustrations. These dualities made the film a better product. Penn may very well see McCandless as the ultimate American folk hero, but at least he doesn't rob the material of its nuances for those of us who see it as something a bit more complex.
I was probably so profoundly moved by the piece less so because I saw something of myself in Chris, but that I saw something of myself in his friends. Chris in turn reminded me of one of my own childhood friends, another brilliant young man who wandered into the arms of the great American West only to never return. It cemented my feelings that there are certain people who are born incredibly smart yet wholly incapable of feeling at ease amongst our world. They burn twice as bright, attracting us all in the process, and subsequently leave us stunned in the shadow of their absence. Into The Wild is a great film that both laments and celebrates this condition.
- Dedicated to the memory of Ryan Bentley.