“If you want something in life, reach out and grab it.”
Rated R. Released on DVD March 4th. Written and Directed by Sean Penn. Based on the book by Jon Krakauer. Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, Brian Dierker, Jena Malone, Vince Vaughn & Kristen Stewart.
After graduating from college, I spent a large part of the next couple of years on the road — taking long cross-country road-trips, mostly solo, sleeping in my car, staying with friends and friends of friends with no real plans. While on one of these trips, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the gripping, tragic, true-life story of Chris McCandless. When McCandless graduated from Emory in 1990, he took it a couple of large steps further than I did — he donated his life savings to Oxfam, cut off contact with his family and invented a new persona for himself, Alexander Supertramp. He then bummed around for nearly two years, making connections with various other drifters along the way, before making his way to Alaska, where he planned to live off the land in the wilderness for a summer.
McCandless has become a very polarizing figure — many see him as a heroic, idealistic, larger-than-life figure and have been inspired to make journeys of their own. Others see him as a spoiled, selfish, arrogant child who deserved everything that happened to him. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between, and Krakauer did a fine job presenting both sides of the story. At the time I read Into the Wild, I was more in the first camp, as I was off having my own Sal Paradise-esque adventure. While I do not have much in common with McCandless — I’m not outdoorsy, I don’t hate my parents, and as a finance major/future lawyer, I’m hardly anti-capitalist — my trips sprang from a feeling of wanderlust just as his did. I understand what it’s like to not have a post-graduation plan, not want to start a career, and to have some sense that spending long stretches traveling alone would help discover a true sense of self.
Somewhat ironically, like his supporters and detractors, McCandless saw the world in black-and-white, with very few shades of gray. Everything was either a huge success or a huge tragedy; everyone was either wonderful or horrible. I now see Chris as a selfish, confused, immature (look at the name he gave himself), naive kid who was as often a charming drifter as he was an insufferable prick.
Writer/Director Sean Penn spent a decade adapting Krakauer’s book, and while there are glimpses of the darker sides of Chris’ personality, they are few and far between. Penn mostly presents McCandless (as played by Emile Hirsch) as a affable dreamer, wise beyond his years, with a sense of adventure, who touches everyone on his travels. The only moments where Penn seems to take Chris to task are where his abandoned parents (Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt) and sister (Jena Malone) show up. However, this is mitigated by an occasional voiceover from Malone’s character where she idealizes Chris without blaming him for leaving her. While this portrayal makes for a more likable protagonist, it doesn’t stay true to the story.
Penn does succeed in creating a pretty coherent narrative, splitting the story into distinct vignettes that focus on Chris’ relationship with different characters he meets on the way — his boss in South Dakota (Vince Vaughn), a hippie couple with an RV (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and a retired Army widower (Hal Holbrook). Vaughn’s segment is sort of pointless outside of exposition, but the segments with Keener/Dierker and Holbrook provide some truly touching moments. There’s also a totally unnecessary subplot with a love interest who barely warranted a mention in the book, and a completely inexplicable scene, also not in the book (as far as I can remember, at least) with a crazy Swedish couple.
Penn’s direction is also an issue here, and I suspect a lot of the problems from the story and direction stem from having no one around to tell him that some of his ideas were bad. Penn seems to pull off every amateurish directorial trick in the book, with weird jump cuts and montages to unorthodox camera angles and framing. These almost uniformly do not work, with a particularly startling scene where Chris talks to an apple and looks directly into the camera. The movie would have been much better served if he had kept it simple.
Oftentimes, when an actor has to work really hard, they get extra credit (De Niro gaining weight for Raging Bull, Christian Bale losing it for The Machinist) and that is the case here, with Hirsch getting far too much praise for his work here, because it is such a physically demanding role. He is a likable actor, which worked in The Girl Next Door, and works here when he is called upon to be charming. But when the role calls for a darker edge, or some emotional depth, he cannot deliver, as was the case where he was absolutely atrocious in the disaster than was Alpha Dog. Hirsch has to carry this film, but Chris doesn’t end up being particularly well-defined as a character — we never get a true understanding of what is motivating him. For a person to abandon their possessions and family there has to be more to him than what Hirsch and Penn show — after the first 15 minutes, we don’t see any anger from Chris, or really any development.
Keener and Holbrook are both outstanding, and Dierker, a first-time actor, brings a lot of heart to his role. Despite its flaws, I did like Into the Wild, but a lot of that is based on the strength of the true story and Krakauer’s adaptation (which I highly recommend if the movie interests you). There is a great movie somewhere in here, but aside from flashes of brilliance, Into the Wild is not it.