Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)

Into the Wild is a romantic film about a romantic. It starts with a quote from a Romantic poet, and is awash with romantic imagery. Herein lies the problem: a beautiful, ambitious and emotionally resonant film also happens to be a hagiography of the admirable but flawed 23-year-old Christopher Johnson McCandless (self-bestowed moniker: Alexander Supertramp), single-minded and set in his mind, popular at school but reluctant to establish emotional connections with others. An interesting protagonist, therefore, but not a fully sympathetic one, sadly rendered less sympathetic by Sean Penn’s competent but biased screenplay.

The film is nothing to do with these guys.
The film is nothing to do with these guys.

One would do well to remember that Penn is, though it seems like he’s trying to be, neither Terrence Malick nor Werner Herzog. Then again, being Sean Penn is no bad thing: his pessimistic side, rather like Malick’s, tends to be conveyed through (or perhaps despite) stunning imagery. I suppose it’s reductive – false, even – to call this film ‘pessimistic’: McCandless reaches a cathartic epiphany by the end, and one of the main messages of the film regards the importance of human emotional connection. I use the word ‘messages’ advisedly: didacticism is one of Into the Wild’s weaknesses. Nevertheless, the ending, with its retrospective and counter-factual montages, is very moving, and the naïveté of McCandless’ mission – to reach Alaska pretty much on foot, with little foreknowledge of the area and rejecting the established ‘living in the wild’ rules – is brutally real.

More than once, Herzog’s superb Grizzly Man sprang to mind: the 2005 documentary featured a similarly quixotic and ambitious young protagonist, bear-watcher Timothy Treadwell, who, just like Mr. ‘Supertramp’, was obsessed and undone by the thing he loved most. Both characters were well-meaning but essentially selfish; both were unable to connect with human beings and forced into bonding with the hostile and indifferent natural world. Tragically, both were real people. There is, however, one key difference between the two films: Herzog lovingly and respectfully probes and questions his late subject, while Penn canonises his.

There are many things to like about Into the Wild. The minor characters McCandless encounters are fondly drawn: Hal Holbrook’s Ron (brilliantly acted) lingers in the mind long after the darkness disappears, his relationship with the protagonist eloquently, poignantly encapsulating the theme of human connection more strongly than elsewhere. The hippie couple (well played by Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker) enlightened by McCandless’ appearance are also worthy additions to the handful of characters. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden are typically good, as is Vince Vaughn, who plays the protagonist’s fraternal figure, the only person with whom McCandless maintains contact (by mail). Even Kristen Stewart’s character is sympathetic despite being irritatingly sultry. The main man, Emile Hirsch, sure ain’t Jack Nicholson: his performance is promisingly believable, but doesn’t quite fire on the ‘all-consuming passion’ cylinder. Nonetheless, Hirsh imbues McCandless with a rugged beauty that mirrors the landscape he loves.

Emile Hirsch is not Jack Nicholson. Only Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson.
Emile Hirsch is not Jack Nicholson. Only Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson.

The landscape is also an important character in the film: not quite as philosophically magnificent as Malick’s, but still full of character, with roaring rapids, golden fields and majestic snowy peaks. Cinematographer Eric Gautier evokes the variety of a wild, untamed America, and accompanied by Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam fame)’s finger-picked ballads, we are treated to a gratifyingly lush aesthetic experience.

This is not to say the film is an exercise in style over substance. The film is thematically rich, touching on unrequited love (and the painful ironies it can entail), obsession, rebellion and the natural world. And even if McCandless is one-dimensionally written, his rejection of money, sex and power are at least believable; we support him in his quest for “total freedom” and liberation from his overbearing parents. I was reminded of the Beatles’ masterpiece “She’s Leaving Home”: materialistic yet well-meaning parents are bewildered by their quietly rebellious offspring, the characters of the McCandless parents treading a fine line between caricature and realism.

Being killed by the subject of one’s obsession is a fascinating concept, and although movingly done here, has been done better elsewhere. I wasn’t expecting Citizen Kane, but a bit more subtlety would not have gone amiss, not in the realisation of his poisoning (which was nicely done) but in the climactic moments before the still of the real McCandless. The film is subtle in many places and overall isn’t too heavy-handed, but despite being emotionally resonant it could have scaled higher peaks with a little more subtlety and, more importantly, humour: in such a tragic tale, humour heightens the sadness and adds variety and watchability. Case in point: the tragedies of Mr. Shakespeare.

"Damn straight."
“Damn straight.”

Ultimately, this is a beautiful evocation of the importance of human connection, a theme particularly relevant in this age of social networking and the Internet. Penn is capable of essaying multi-dimensional characters (The Assassination of Richard Nixon); he would do well to raise his already high standard of film-making by delineating an alternative American Dream more realistically by exploring his characters in more depth.

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