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Into the Wild May Be Penn's Best Yet

  • Annabelle Robertson Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2008 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
<i>Into the Wild</i> May Be Penn's Best Yet

DVD Release Date:  March 4, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  September 21, 2007
Rating:  R (for language and some nudity)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  148 min.
Director:  Sean Penn
Actors:  Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook

Sean Penn is one of the most talented screenwriters and directors in Hollywood, and Into the Wild, which is based on the best-selling 1996 nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, may be his best yet.  It’s long-winded and a bit rambling, and he romanticizes what most will consider a reckless, self-indulgent quest.  But it’s a very worthy film nonetheless.

High on the ideals of Tolstoy and Thoreau, athlete/scholar Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) graduated from Emory University in the early ’90s, donated his life savings ($24,000) to Oxfam, burned his remaining money and all his I.D. cards, abandoned his car and began trekking around the country.  For two years, he lived a nomadic life, befriending an older hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, in heartwarming performances), a grain farmer on the run from the law (Vince Vaughn—a stretch), and a teenage girl (Kristen Stewart) who falls hard and fast for the handsome young man consumed with wanderlust.  He eventually lands in the wilds of Alaska, his dream, where he survives for four months in an abandoned bus, eating animals and berries to stay alive.  He documented his journey in a diary.

The talented Hirsch portrays all the arrogance of McCandless’ quest with such happy-go-lucky naiveté and gentleness that you can’t help but warm to him.  He’s definitely a star on the rise.  As Alex’s well-meaning but incredibly wounded parents, William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden are astonishing.  Sean portrays them without much sympathy, but their performances—especially that of Hurt, in a final scene—outweigh the judgment we are inclined to feel.

There are many lessons to be gleaned from this tale—although most must be coaxed from the narrative, which Penn embellishes with little self-examination.  His message is that freedom is the ultimate prize of life.  All the civilization-bound characters in the film are dysfunctional and sad, whereas McCandless and everyone else he meets on the open road are happy, well-adjusted and at peace with themselves.  The paradox of this illusion, of course, is the tragic end. 

Other messages remain.  One is the beauty of God’s creation, which we so often forget.  Eric Gautier’s cinematography is positively stunning.  Even the most reluctant outdoorsman will be tempted to venture if not into the wild, at least into the woods.

The second is about simplicity.  McCandless’ motivation was to escape his pain, but he also knew that living without possessions brings freedom.  “You’re wrong if you think that the joy of life come principally from human relationships,” he says.  “God’s placed it all around us.  It’s in everything and anything we can experience.  People just need to change the way they look at those things.”

He is both right and wrong.  “It is not good for man to be alone,” God says, in the early chapters of Genesis.  Our greatest fulfillment does come from relationships, with God and with others.  But so often, we forget that joy is often easier to find amidst the simple things.

The film urges us to ponder the force and power of nature as well.  Ultimately, it begs the question of whether McCandless was a reckless fool or a noble hero.  Penn clearly believes it’s the latter, yet those who knows this story will likely disagree.  Certainly, this romanticized view eschews McCandless’ recklessness (which Alaskans reportedly do not) as well as his thoughtlessness toward his family, with whom he severed all contact.  Nature is replete with beauty and goodness, but it is also a powerful and dangerous force.  If we don’t respect it, we will ultimately be forced to reckon with it.

Another important message is about the lingering effects of conjugal strife on children.  It is very clear that the source of McCandless’ pain is his parents’ marital conflict, which he and his sister (Jena Malone, narrating the film) endured.  Despite the film’s splendor and its fascination with McCandless’ journey, he is a desperate young man.  He reaches his geographic goals, but he has no emotional, spiritual or moral compass.

Into the Wild is also a film about forgiveness.  In response to McCandless’ statement about joy coming from nature rather than relationships, an elderly man (Hal Holbrook, in a disarming performance), replies, “I know about your parents … and I know you’ve got your problems with the church.  But one thing I’ve learned is that when you forgive, you love.  And when you love, God’s light shines on you.”

Perhaps McCandless did find forgiveness, high above the world in his lonely little bus.  And perhaps, in the end, God’s light did shine upon him.  If nothing else, certainly he found wisdom about the deadly dangers of isolation.  But what a price to pay.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Characters appear to smoke marijuana in one or two scenes; wine and beer briefly appear in another two or three scenes.
  • Language/Profanity:  Obscenities and profanities, some strong, throughout film.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Several scenes with brief, full-frontal nudity (male and female); two scenes in which lovemaking is implied; a teenage girl beckons a young man to bed wearing a T-shirt and underwear (he declines because she is underage).
  • Violence:  Character is harshly beaten by a railroad conductor for jumping on and off trains; character is threatened by the presence of a bear in the wild.