Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s sprawling, stumbling, epic biopic adapted from Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, borrows heavily from the kind of American film that defined the idea of the road movie. It features zooms, split screens, jump cuts, and a song score by a growling Eddie Vedder that wouldn’t feel at all out of place on 70s radio. (With backing vocals by Corin Tucker, he revives “Hard Sun,” a 1989 anthem by Indio, a band too obscure to have even a Wikipedia entry or Allmusic biography, to great effect.) Cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries, Clean, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) favors long lenses here, the kind that can isolate one subject twixt foreground and background and then, dramatically changing their plane of focus, seek out another. They emphasizes the distances involved in the open spaces where much of the film takes place, and their voyeuristic qualities echo the book’s theme of observation across a temporal distance. Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was found dead in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. It was Krakauer’s job to figure out how an upper-middle-class kid ended up there; it’s Penn’s to imagine what the journey might have looked like.
The vintage stylistic approach is appropriate because it’s clear Penn considers this kid a throwback — to a more naive time, for sure, but also to a more idealistic one, and a purer one. McCandless is depicted here as a big-hearted kid full of the kind of wisdom that demands protection, as well as the notion of romantic self-aggrandizement that leads to his alias, Alexander Supertramp. Episodically, Into the Wild depicts Christopher’s brief dalliances with a number of surrogate families; all of them loving in their own ways, all of them taken by the charm of this kooky kid, and all of them mere roadside rest areas on the road to Alexander Supertramp’s Alaska.
He finds a couple of latter-day hippies who give him a ride and, later, take him in for a while. The woman (Catherine Keener) is needy; she requires a kind of comfort that her own partner can’t seem to provide, and she finds it in an easy, maternal relationship with Christopher. (In the scene where she sees him for the last time, dropping him off to continue his Alaska-directed journey, Gautier’s long lens frames him first, then racks focus and searches out Keener’s distraught face.) As he works on a farm in South Dakota, his boss Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn) functions as a big brother, or perhaps a father figure.
On the banks of the Colorado River, Christopher finds a couple of Europeans blasting pop music from a portable stereo who immediately and generously offer to share hot dogs (sort of an ultimate processed consumer product!) with Chris. There’s a priceless moment when the woman strips off her wet top without a hint of self-consciousness, and Penn cuts to Chris’s still-wholesome face, his eyes perhaps a tiny bit wider, his smile a little bemused, but also a little bit broader. It’s a first definite signpost on his route away from the trappings of American culture and expected behavior.
And when he meets a singer who’s more idealized girl-next-door than family member, Christopher demonstrates his admiration by performing with her on a makeshift stage. It’s one of the film’s only scenes that feels forced – a distinctly sub-Once duet — but Kristen Stewart is indeed beautiful, and their relation ship culminates in a sexual invitation from which Christopher demurs. I’m not clear on Penn’s meaning in this scene: does he consider it a testament to Christopher’s moral caliber that he resists temptation? Or is he demonstrating that there is no great temptation at all — that whatever attraction Chris feels for other people can’t compare to his sensual interest in the land itself?
Chris has less than no reason to put faith in the concept of romantic love, since part of what sets him off from the world at large is a deep-seated disgust with deceit in his own family, mainly on the part of his womanizing father. His wilderness adventures can be read as an act of ultimate rebellion by an overgrown and even irresponsible adolescent — he cuts up his credit cards, donates his graduate-college fund to Oxfam, and sets the last of his cash afire in the Arizona desert. They’re also, Penn strongly suggests, an expression of Chris’s heartfelt appreciation of writers like Henry David Thoreau and Jack London. And while the film’s performances are generally excellent, and Penn’s skills as a director considerable, all the character-development stuff has to work in concert with the wilderness-adventure stuff which it does, mostly. Penn has chosen to shuffle chronology — the film starts with Chris as a hitchhiker arriving at his final destination in Alaska (the skeptical truck driver who drops him off on the Stampede Trail near Fairbanks insists that the little vagabond at least take his boots to keep his fool feet dry) and then backtracks quickly to cover his graduation from Emory University and establish a strained relationship with Dad (William Hurt).
Into the Wild would be an achievement based on cinematography alone. Stick around for the end credits to read the long list of locations used in South Dakota, Arizona, Alaska and Mexico; a lot of the film’s authenticity comes from the filmmakers’ clear enthusiasm for hitting the road themselves and getting hot, cold and wet. Gautier’s lens catches memorable images aplenty — in one shot early on, Hirsch looks like a hobbit among the huge tree trunks of a thick forest; in another, just visible beyond the roaring, out-of-focus whitewater that dominates the foreground, he considers his kayak attack on the rapids. And of course there are the requisite landscape shots, from beaches to farmland to the Alaska mountains.
As accomplished as the photography is, what’s even more glorious about Into the Wild is its essential messiness. It is frustrating to keep cutting back from the story of Alexander Supertramp to his parents back home, fretting over his whereabouts, although it does increase the stakes and underscore an essential fact: although Chris meant to follow his bliss, he also abandoned his family. The self-consciously poetic monologue of sister Carine (voiced by Jena Malone and written with input from the real Carine McCandless and also Sharon Olds) can feel a little portentous even as it generates a impressively dramatic Terrence Malick vibe. And Chris’s extended dalliance with wise old dude Hal Holbrook plays as a mildly tedious contrivance even as it underscores and amplifies Chris’s status as both visionary and naïf. And as much as Penn’s sporadic deployment of 70s-style stylistic mannerisms like freeze frames or white-flash frames is distracting, it’s also undeniably expressive.
Into the Wild is a personal film in the best sense of the word — movies are often described as “personal” if the subject matter can be said to have special significance for the filmmaker, but the term has a purer meaning that refers more to the filmmaker’s mode of expression, and this one feels like a clever combination of biopic and essay film. It represents something more than its narrative — it communicates a clear thinker’s combination of admiration and sympathy for a protagonist who was almost, but not quite, prepared to survive a back-to-nature experience that he considered to be his life’s culminating accomplishment.
In the film’s final reels, which must confront the facts of McCandless’s death, Penn goes for a kind of spiritual statement, dramatizing a mind/body schism on Christopher’s part. As Chris literally wastes away — in one scene, he’s so emaciated that even a wandering grizzly bear barely gives him a second look — he reaches some conclusions that will redeem him. Single-word writings in his journal (“lonely,” “scared”) suggest a man finally coming to grips with his own hubris. And there’s another, devastating realization: “Happiness only real when shared.” All this time wandering, trying to get as far from the scourge of other people as possible, only to realize their essential contribution to the fullness of self? It’s a painful moment, but, as Penn sees it, also an oddly celebratory one. Having learned that last, elusive lesson about human existence, McCandless finally reaches the end of his journey. Biopics rarely go so far — this is a tremendously satisfying experience. A-
Written and Directed by Sean Penn
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer
Cinematography by Eric Gautier
Edited by Jay Lash Cassidy
Starring Emile Hirsch, Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Jena Malone, William Hurt, and Marcia Gay Harden
Screened 09/04/07 at Paramount Screening Room, New York, NY
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1